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September 30, 2014

Simon Wheeldon

I had a cousin who really followed the Western Hockey League back when the Cougars were still playing out of his hometown of Victoria. He would tell me all sorts of stories of NHL players who once played in "the dub," either with the Cougars or just passing through town. Some were stories of on ice play. Others were stories of funny off-ice happenings.

For whatever reason, his story of Simon Wheeldon really stuck with me.

Wheeldon was this spindly center who put up big numbers with the Cougars in the mid-1980s. My cousin tells me he was quite the player in his day, though looking back at those rosters not too many Cougars players went on to a NHL career. The Edmonton Oilers drafted Wheeldon really late, 11th round, 229th overall, and then never signed him. He re-entered the NHL draft in 1986 as an overager, but no one drafted him at all that time. 

I remember thinking that was odd, but overagers could be signed as free agents following the draft so why would a team pass on a younger prospect. Besides, for all his offense there was concerns about Wheeldon's size and defensive game at the NHL level.

Regardless, the New York Rangers signed Wheeldon and he starred in the old IHL with a couple of different Rangers affiliates. He put up big numbers there, too. So big that even the Rangers couldn't ignore it. Inevitably the Rangers needed to make some call-ups from the farm and Wheeldon got a couple of stints - five games in 1987-88 and six games in 1988-89. He picked up an assist in each stint.

The Rangers traded him to Winnipeg in 1990. He played four more games in the NHL with the Jets, and continued to light up the minor leagues before seemingly disappearing.

Only he didn't disappear. He headed over to Europe and played for years in Austria. He spent most of the 1990s dominating with VEU Feldkirch. By 1997 he became an Austrian citizen, which is kind of ironic as he soon left to play in Germany with Munich, just across the border. But he began representing Austria in international tournaments including the 2000 and 2001 IIHF World Championships and the 2002 Olympics.

When Wheeldon first disappeared to Europe there was no such thing as the internet. I relied heavily on the NHL Guide And Record Book for stats and to learn the whereabouts of players. I assumed Wheeldon had retired but my cousin was the first to tell me he was in Austria.

My cousin also told me he was doing really well. He was being paid six digits, tax free, with a house and car given to him. European teams desperately tried to attract Canadian talent, especially if they had NHL ties.

"But he only played like 15 games," I vividly remember saying in amazement.

"Don't you wish you could skate better?" he replied.

I sure do.

By the way, the last I heard about Wheeldon was that he had returned to British Columbia and was raising his young family here. He was coaching junior hockey in Nelson, BC. He had not dismissed a return to Europe once his kids were older.

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