Shawn Wheeler played in the ECHL when the league was a much different place. The early 1990s saw several players post seasons of over 400, and in some instances, even over 500 penalty minutes.
Coming out of the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, a Division III school, the rough and tumble nature of the League in those days was one of the first things that caught his attention.
“The biggest difference to me between the college game and the ECHL was the chippiness,” Wheeler said. “Just about every team had heavyweights, who were only there to fight and couldn’t play, which meant most players who were decent with fighting, were forced into the dancing aspect.”
Wheeler enjoyed a solid rookie season with the Greensboro Monarchs in 1990-91, scoring 15 goals and adding 14 assists in 52 games. Not bad production for a guy who didn’t feel overly comfortable at the start of that season.
“Coming out of UWSP, I attended training camp with the Calgary Flames. I must say I felt a bit out of place, coming from a small college to the bigs, but as camp went on I became more comfortable,” he recalls.
His second season with the Monarchs was his breakout year, as Wheeler surpassed the 30-goal mark with 36 tallies, and added just as many assists for 72 points in 52 games. It was the first of four 30-goal seasons he had over the next five campaigns.
“My 30-goal success was attributed to good linemates who fed me the puck, along with my willingness to park in front of the net and ability to bang away,” Wheeler said. “I would also contribute this to my physical play, my mouth and not being too scared to fight, which granted me some room. Some may even say I had better than average hands, but you’ll have to ask them.”
The 1992-93 season saw Wheeler spend much of the season with Peoria in the International Hockey League, while also seeing action in five games with Greensboro. In 1993-94, he spent a season with the Hampton Roads Admirals, lighting the lamp 31 times. He settled in with the Charlotte Checkers in 1994-95, where he played the final seasons of his pro career, culminating in a Riley Cup championship in 1996.
Wheeler’s time in the ECHL saw him play for three of the most successful coaches the League has known. In Greensboro, he played for Jeff Brubaker who is 10th in ECHL history with 307 wins. His season in Hampton Roads was spent with the legendary John Brophy, who is third all-time with 480 wins while he played under John Marks in Charlotte, the second-winningest coach in the League with 491 wins.
“They each played a significant role in my success and leaning the pro game,” Wheeler said. “Jeff coached as he played, raw physical talent with a ‘go get em’ attitude. Brophy coached with a nasty, physical thought process, which he leaned on his talent to work with his physical players to have a team approach. We beat you with skill or we beat you up. John was more of a tactician. He had an understanding of teaching each zone, both offensively and defensively. Marksy also knew when to unleash the hounds and when to pull them back. We won the championship that year, because we were not just better, we were smarter.”
The seasons spent with Marks in Charlotte led him to a role he never had envisioned; serving as a coach himself. Wheeler was the Checkers’ player/assistant coach in the 1994-95 and 1995-96 seasons before transitioning into the club’s full-time assistant coach in 1996-97. When Marks departed for the Greenville Grrrowl following that season, Wheeler was promoted to head coach, a role he held for about a season and a half.
“Coaching was a lot of fun and also humbling, as your success is determined by your ability to recruit, trade, strategies and ultimately teach,” he said. “I wouldn’t say it’s something I always wanted to do, but it became a goal, after joining John.”
Following his departure from coaching, he joined WFNZ Radio in Charlotte, where he was a co-host of The Player’s Club with former NFL players Ethan Horton and Ray Farmer. He and Farmer then hosted a show called Ball of Confusion, until a programming change led him in a new direction. In December 2001, he joined Janssen as a pharmaceutical sales rep, where he continues to work today. He also is involved in a few small businesses in Charlotte, including being a part owner of Firewater Restaurant and Bar.
His time playing professional hockey in the ECHL taught him lessons that he continues to put to use in his daily life.
“I’ve learned that nothing comes easy and one’s willingness to push forward, tackle the obstacles and wipe yourself off after falling down can be essential to success,” he said. “Also, from each of these men that coached me, all had the notion of surrounding themselves with good people, willing to work for their goals, but most importantly, not being afraid to fail. This is something I’ve had in me, and continues to be a staple for me.”
He also offers some words of advice for players in the same position he was over 20 years ago, skating on the rinks of the ECHL.
“Don’t give up on your goals. Don’t be afraid to fail and be willing to do the extra to achieve your goal of climbing the ladder.”
From pro hockey player to coach to successful businessman, Wheeler has certainly done his part in successfully climbing the ladder.
If you are a former ECHL player, or you know someone who played in the league who would be interested in being featured in a future “Catching up with”, please email the ECHL at firstname.lastname@example.org with more information.