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New Trier Grad Reflects On NHL Debut

Hockey player Tommy Wingels, who graduated from New Trier High School, talked to Patch about starting his NHL career and standing up for a cause he believes in: same sex marriage.

With the same determination he brings to the ice rinks, Tommy Wingels is trying to change perceptions and culture. Whether he will be successful in the National Hockey League, social advocacy or in the business world one day, no doubt Wingels is taking his “shot.”

This is the first full NHL season for the Evanston-born, Wilmette raised-Wingels, who plays for the San Jose Sharks in this year's truncated campaign. Wingels is making a contribution to his team by doing what he can to get victories in northern California, yet at the same time he is standing up for a cause that was thrust upon through a combination of friendship and tragedy.

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Tommy Wingels is one of four children born to Bob Wingels, a now retired partner at a major accounting firm and Karen, a homemaker. From the time he was about four or five, Tommy was already on the ice.

“It was fun for him,” his father recalled. “He saw the hockey players and he wanted to try it. He had some coaches that made it fun for him.  He was always very competitive.”

As Tommy was growing up, sports were omnipresent, specifically soccer and hockey. He could often be found at Wilmette's Centennial Ice Rinks, learning his craft and playing for youth teams such as the Wilmette Braves and the Highland Park Falcons. While enrolled at New Trier High School, Wingels started playing for Team Illinois in the Triple A hockey association that now boasts having four players including Wingels graduate to the NHL today.

Even though he was progressing rapidly in hockey and soccer (where his local teams won some youth league championships), his parents didn’t realize a professional sports career was a real possibility and not a far-fetched dream. 

“We never thought that,” the elder Wingels now recalls. “Our goal as parents was the possibility of him playing college hockey one day. That was the primary goal. We knew he was a pretty good player.  (We thought we) could use hockey to get into a Division 1 hockey school.”

That turned out to be the case as Wingels was recruited by Miami University of Ohio, a powerhouse in college hockey. It was a reward for a family who had to sacrifice so Tommy could play throughout the U.S. and Canada.

“A lot of our family vacations were centered around hockey tournaments,” Bob Wingels remembered. (That commitment has not ceased all these years later as the Wingels household watches every San Jose game despite the late starts.)

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As he played for Miami, Wingels became friends with Brendan Burke, the hockey team’s manager. Burke, the son of an NHL executive, revealed in college to family and friends that he was gay and discussed it openly. But there was not a happily ever after aspect to this story, as in February 2010, Burke and a friend were killed in a car accident. Wingels was part of the funeral mass and wanted to do something for his friend.

So Wingels became involved with You Can Play, a group dedicated to change perceptions and biases. Locally he has taken up the cause by marching in the 2012 Chicago’s Gay Pride Parade.

“It was very important to Brendan to rid homophobia in sports and hockey specifically,” Wingels said on the day the Illinois State Senate passed a bill allowing for same sex marriage. “Being players we are able to give another perspective as to how things are in a locker room and the way people talk. The strongest way to get people to catch on is to have players do it. The support throughout the league has been great throughout the league. It’s amazing the progress that has been made in one year.”

On the ice or between the lines, many statements are made and terms used that would not be used in most other areas. Is it realistic to think those days might go away? Wingels thinks so. “Once it is brought to their attention, (players) might think twice about what they say and what they do.”

Also, Wingels does not rule out the possibility that there could be an openly gay athlete. “I think the culture is changing,” he said. “I think hockey guys in general are very open and committed to supporting new teammates. In the locker room it is a family environment. You support your teammates for who they are.”

The Wingels family is thrilled that their son is using his public platform to speak out.

“I’m probably prouder of his efforts in that regard that his accomplishments in hockey,” his father said. “I met Brendan Burke and he was one of the guys hanging out in Tommy’s house. He told me about Brendan coming out and when I asked him he said it was no big deal.”

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While at Miami, Wingels was drawing the attention of professional scouts which led to a sixth round selection in the 2008 NHL draft. An honor for sure, but being the 177th pick overall hardly guaranteed that he would be playing at the highest level one day. But Wingels did enough that he progressed through the minors and made his NHL debut in October 2010 in Stockholm, Sweden, as the NHL brought in that season with games in that part of the world.

“It’s a dream come true,” Tommy Wingels said. “You watch thousands of games growing and the first time you step up on the ice, it is truly special.”

Yet sometimes athletes go through a revolving door between the majors and minors, and Wingels went through it more than once. He shuttled back and forth between San Jose and its top farm team for the next two seasons. Still he was with the big club on January 15, 2012, when he got his first NHL goal. Where was it? Try the arena that he frequented a lot growing up. Yes, the United Center in a game versus the Blackhawks, the team Tommy rooted for as a youth.

“He had already accomplished a tremendous amount but seeing him score his first NHL goal was a real thrill for our whole family and for the entire Chicago hockey community,” Bob Wingels remembered.

Moving forward to the summer of 2012 and Wingels was looking forward to this being his first full season in the NHL. Instead the NHL lockout intervened and like many other NHL players, he decided to cross the Atlantic to keep his skills sharp. He wound up playing for a team in Finland as the negotiations wore on. He worried that like the 2004-05 NHL campaign that was wiped out by labor strife, the situation would repeat itself, but that did not happen. The two sides came to an agreement on January 12 and play resumed shortly thereafter.

As of March 26th, Wingels has two goals and five assists so far, and the 6 foot, 195 lb player is drawing praise from his teammates and coach.

“He brings physicality,” said Sharks captain Joe Thornton. “He has a great shot and brings speed. He’s still young and still learning but he is driven and wants to be a good player in this league and he is off to a good start. He competes so hard and you can’t teach that.”

Former Blackhawk Adam Burish, now in his first season in San Jose adds, “He can do it all. He can shoot a puck as hard as anyone on the team. He is tough on defenseman and he finishes his hits.”

Finally, San Jose’s coach Todd McLellan acknowledges that at 24, Wingels still has a lot to learn, but he generally likes what he is seeing. “He speaks when he needs to be speaking and listens the rest of the time. His work ethic is very good at practice and I think appreciate his intensity in the game and his ability to forecheck and finish. He is a physical player. Those are all really good qualities of his and he can really shoot the puck.”

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Wingels is obviously happy to be playing in the NHL.

“I’ve put a lot of work in through the years and it is something I’ve dreamed of and trained for since I was four or five years old,” he said. “Not many people can say they have worked at what they wanted to do for a career for that many years. It’s a business where you can lose it quickly and there is always someone trying to take your job so the onus is on you to try and get better every day.”

Wingels is trying to get his NHL career started but is cognizant that it won’t last forever. He left Miami after three years to pursue hockey full time but then came back to get his degree and is now studying to become a CPA. He has been interested in a business career and per his father’s suggestion he now speaks Chinese as well as French to prepare for a possible international career one day.

“I would imagine he would be successful in business somewhere,” his father said. “That could be in hockey as I could see him as a general manager, but that is way down the road after hopefully a 10 or 15 year professional career.”

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