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Tommy Wingels on Why He’s Retiring Now, Black Lives Matters & More

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San Jose Sharks, Tommy Wingels
Credit: mark6mauno (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Tommy Wingels is in a good place.

It was a surprise when the 32-year-old San Jose Sharks fan favorite announced his retirement last month, considering his relative youth.

Just two years removed from his last NHL stint, Wingels had completed another solid season with Genève-Servette HC in the Swiss National League. Continuing to star in Europe or trying to return to the NHL appeared to be distinct possibilities.

Instead, Wingels is coming back to North America, specifically Chicago, to start a new chapter in his life.

San Jose Hockey Now caught up with Wingels to find out why he feels good about retiring now. The 2013 King Clancy Trophy nominee for his work with You Can Play also discussed Black Lives Matter and the importance of athletes speaking up on social issues. We also walked through Wingels’s time with the San Jose Sharks, from his breakout campaign to why things didn’t work out under Peter DeBoer to his enduring friendship with Tomas Hertl.

Sheng Peng: You’re just 32 and coming off a strong year in Switzerland. The obvious question is, why retire now?

Tommy Wingels: When I closed the book on the NHL career a couple summers ago, I knew this next phase of hockey was probably going to be a short one. My wife and I looked at it as an opportunity to do something different, to see the world, go over to Switzerland, which which we found to be one of the most beautiful countries in the world. It was an opportunity where we could spend more time as a family, continue playing hockey at a high level, just really using it as an opportunity to travel a little bit.

So we always looked at it as a shorter-term horizon. We never really looked at it as we want to go over there for the next 5 to 10 years. Two years was a great time for us. We had good success, I think individually, and more importantly, as a team. The team finished incredibly well this year and has a bright future.

But this is just the right time for me to to step away and and move on to whatever is going to come next.

SP: Did Joe Thornton have something to do with you choosing Switzerland in the first place? Of course, he played there and his wife is from there.

TW: He was certainly a resource that I reached out to when all this happened.

Two summers ago…you’ve seen it enough. Some contracts are offered on July 1st and some aren’t.

It’s the balance of do you wait for something better, do you wait for an offer, do you take a tryout? And as you can tell, the family aspect of it, it’s important to me, putting my family in a good spot. Like I said, we had a second kid on the way, so it was even more of a pressing matter for me.

This opportunity came up and I knew nothing about it. I never really considered Switzerland. I felt I needed to do my due diligence on it and explore it.

We reached out to the Thorntons with Tabea from Davos. I reached out to Logan [Couture], Logan played in Geneva in the last lockout.

Looking back now, I think we made a great decision

SP: You also have a four-year-old daughter, Greta, who’s about ready to start school. Did that have something to do with the timing of your retirement?

TW: We actually had our second child too, Shaw. He’ll turn two in October, so we got our hands full.

But it’s more of, you look at the trajectory of a hockey career, getting traded from San Jose to Ottawa, coming back to Chicago, going to Boston, coming back in the summer, then going to Switzerland, coming back in the summer, going back to Switzerland. It’s just a lot to put yourself through. And more importantly, it’s a lot to put your family through.

If I could put my family…not that we were in an uncomfortable position before, but just have some more clarity and stability in life. I always said I wanted my kids to grow up at home, around their grandparents, around local friends in the same school. Now was the time for me to to give them that opportunity.

SP: Do you think that you’ll get that jones to play again? Or do you feel like that’s out of you?

TW: I’ll always miss the game. There’s no doubt. I think anybody who’s played at such a high level feels that way. Even one year, two years, or 20 years out, you still have that passion in you and competitiveness.

I might not know what the next step is for me. But I think you need to be 100 percent committed to this is the right move. If you’re teetering on the fence, if you’re unsure, if you’re even five percent unsure, you’re gonna always have that maybe I should go back [feeling].

I’m not in that position. I feel very comfortable with this decision. I’m looking forward to what comes next. I’m looking forward to having some downtime here with my family, be around my parents more, have my kids grow up with grandparents around you.

I don’t think there will be regret. I’ll miss it. I’ll certainly miss it. I think it’s natural. But I don’t think I’m going to have that itch to dive back in a month or two from now.

SP: Let’s go back over your career now and your affinity with You Can Play. That goes all the way back to your college days at Miami of Ohio, when Brendan Burke came out of the closet to the team. One thing I wonder is, who are the people who shaped you, gave you the tolerance and understanding to embrace Brendan like that at that moment?

TW: The credit goes to two different sources. First my parents. My parents always said and taught me to do the right thing, treat others how you want to be treated. I was always raised to say please and thank you, that stuff goes a long way in life.

That was something that made big news. It was an important message that he shared with all of us. At the end of the day, it wasn’t changing anything about him. What he was to me, what he was to the people around us was no different. We just knew him better.

I think my parents raised me in that kind of environment. And the hockey program at Miami was the same sort of thing. It was a brotherhood. It was an environment that said this is our family. We treat everyone how we want to be treated and we take care of each other. We all know that we all come from different ways of life. We come from different backgrounds, different upbringings. But this is our family. You do anything you can to support your family and pick up for them.

I didn’t need to search very far to find the decision to support [Brendan]. I knew this is who I was and this is what I want to do. And I was confident in it.

He was the courageous one. Him doing that, coming out, and sharing that. What I was doing was just support him. That’s like nothing for me to do. I truly feel that way. That was just me picking up for a friend and supporting a friend. I know if the roles were reversed in some sort of other decision, he would have done the same thing for me.

SP: There’s a lot of focus on how hockey culture in North America grappling with homophobia. What was your experience like in Switzerland with homophobia?

TW: I found it pretty similar. At the end of the day, sports in general and hockey specifically is such a team-oriented sport. You support your teammates for what they are, what they believe in, whether you agree with it or not.

Now you see what’s going on with Black Lives Matters, support for the the black community, it’s good. You need people as allies. You need people to speak up. You need people to go out on a limb.

When I say that, I don’t think these people are doing extraordinary things. The people who are supporting them are doing what’s right. They’re not doing something extraordinary by doing that.

SP: You bring up Black Lives Matters. In the past month, we’ve seen NHL players come out more than usual to take a stand on things, whether it’s the formation of the Hockey Diversity Alliance or white players attending Black Lives Matters marches or players speaking out on how they were mistreated in juniors. Frankly, I don’t think hockey is used to this much activism from its players. Why is it important for hockey players to break that “culture of silence” mentality and start speaking up?

TW: As athletes, we are part of a group that is looked upon for inspiration and as role models. We have the platform to help create change, to help make the world a better place. I really feel we are in a unique place — people of all ages are not only willing to hear what we have to say, but want to hear what we have to say.

We, as viewers, show our kids sports from an early age and we, as athletes, often become role models for our youth. This next generation will not only be the group of people to lead the sports we love to watch and play, but also to lead the communities we live in and in the lives we live. So it is important to speak up if you feel strongly about something and show young kids that being an athlete is not just excelling on the field or the ice rink, but excelling and doing something big in all aspects of life.

We have to realize that people and players choose to do this in many different ways and that every effort goes a long way.

SP: Let’s go into your playing career with the Sharks. What were some of your favorite memories in San Jose?

TW: Obviously, that Stanley Cup Final. We all play the game for that reason to win the Stanley Cup. Lots of players don’t get the opportunity, few get to actually win it, few get to play for it.

Even though we didn’t win, the experience, the bonds with those guys, being the only game on TV where the whole country, the whole world is watching, it’s a pretty darn cool experience.

Just that and I’d say their relationships with the guys. There’s 6, 7, or 8 of those guys that I played with on the Sharks that I still talk to all the time.

That’s always felt like the pinnacle of my career. Certainly the memory that I’ll probably tell my kids to maybe show them that I actually did play.

SP: Is there that moment from the Final that sticks with you? The first national anthem or Joonas Donskoi’s goal or something else?

TW: I think just the overall feel. The Sharks put on one of the best programs for fans and players with the lights off and the pre-game show. The memories I have of the lights and and the flashing, whatever gimmick things they were handing out, it’s just such a cool thing.

Even playing in Europe, watching these guys play over the past couple of years, I get the goosebumps thinking about it. That’s probably my most fun memory from those playoffs.

SP: Your 2013-14 season was memorable too. That was your breakout year, you scored 16 goals that year, and remarkably, you led the team with seven game-winning goals. That’s kind of amazing, half your goals are game-winners. What came together for you that year?

TW: I played with some incredible guys, I think that year I played a lot with Logan. He was and is a world-class player and one of the top players in the league. Playing with him helped, we had a really good team that year too. A lot of trust from my teammates and the coaching staff. You got put into a role to succeed and I made the most of it.

SP: As a Shark, you saw your greatest individual success under Todd McLellan. Under Pete DeBoer, however, your icetime slipped, and eventually, you were traded. Why do you think you didn’t get as much traction under Pete?

TW: You know, that’s on me. My game wasn’t where it needed to be. There’s some seasons, you play better. There’s some months you play better than others.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to earn his trust. That has nothing to do on his part. He gave me ample opportunity. He’s a great coach. The way he played was the style I fit well under. But you go through a time where you’re maybe not at your best game. I wish I could have done more under him. I wish things had worked out differently. There’s certainly no hard feelings there at all.

SP: How satisfying was it for you guys who had been there in the 2013 and 2014 playoffs to finally beat the Kings in 2016?

TW: Any time you beat them, whether it was a regular season game or a playoff series or a pre-season game, it was special. Going down to LA, it’s one of the coolest buildings. You play the same guys, there’s that dislike for player versus player.

Obviously to beat them in the playoffs, that was a huge step for us. Both from a mental standpoint to to get over what happened previously, but just in terms of re-establishing the Sharks as the team of of California.

SP: Now Tommy Hertl signed a big contract, are you going to collect on all the breakfasts and lunches that he owes you from “Fun Run”?

TW: (laughs) He and I still get together. I’m super-proud of him. That’s one of those things where, talk about the evolution of a player from day one.

Like I said, I’m super-proud of him. I’m amazed at the player and the man he’s become on and off the ice. He deserves all the credit. You come over to the U.S. as an 18-year-old, not knowing much English, becoming what he’s become is an incredible thing. Like I said, I’m super-proud of him. I’m glad I could play a small role in it.

He knows I’m his biggest fan. He’ll tell me that he was my biggest fan, but I’m on my way out. He knows I’m rooting him on every game I’m watching, following his stats. He and I are good friends.

SP: Did you guys ever figure out who’s peas and who’s carrots?

TW: Nah, you’ll have to ask him on that one. That was his little running joke.

SP: Hey, something I read, you speak Chinese and French?

TW: Unfortunately, I have lost most of my ability to practice Chinese, as it has been many years since college. But I have continued speaking French, as it was very useful living in Geneva.

SP: Anyway, it sounds like you’re going to settle in the Chicago area. Do you want to get back into hockey as a scout or a coach? Or any other endeavors you want to talk about?

TW: To be determined. I’m sorry I can’t give you a better answer right now.

I’m really ready to take it slow. Play golf on the weekends and spend more time with my kids here. I’m gonna find something. I’m not a guy who’s going to sit around and do nothing. I can promise you that.

SP: You became a real fan favorite in San Jose, Tommy. Congratulations on a great career. Any last thoughts?

TW: Everything about my time in San Jose will be the pinnacle and the highlight of my career. It was such a special time.

I grew into the person I am now on and off the ice through the leadership in that organization from Doug to the coaches, to the people in that locker room. Jumbo and Patty and Pav, these guys who really took me under their wing as a young guy.

Everything about it from the fans. I can’t tell you how enjoyable my interactions were with with the fans, people in the community when we lived in Willow Glen. Everything about it was first-class.

It’s something my wife and I talk about all the time. We miss it. We will be back soon and visiting and try to be frequent guests there in the Bay Area.

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