Evanston-born Tommy Wingels returns to Chicago as Blackhawks forward


Source: Chris Sweda/Chicago Tribune/TNS

The Chicago Blackhawks’ Tommy Wingels (57) battles against a group of Minnesota Wild players in the first period at the United Center in Chicago on Thursday, Oct. 12, 2017. Wingels returned to Chicago to play for the Blackhawks after playing for the San Jose Sharks and the Ottawa Senators.

Nikki Baim, Reporter

When Tommy Wingels returned home to play for the Chicago Blackhawks, it was a reunion on and off the ice.

After playing with the San Jose Sharks from 2010-2017 and one year with the Ottawa Senators, the Evanston-born and Wilmette-raised 29-year-old forward signed a one-year deal in June to play for the team he grew up watching.

“It’s pretty surreal,” Wingels said. “You grow up here, you dream of playing for the Blackhawks, you never actually think it might happen. I was one of the few people that was able to live their dream.”

Growing up, Wingels played for Team Illinois AAA Hockey while attending New Trier High School. On the Blackhawks, he joins other former Team Illinois players, including linemate Ryan Hartman.

“These are guys who grew up playing with my brother, so I saw them evolve from young 10- to 12-year-olds to NHL players now,” Wingels said. “It’s cool for both of us, for me to see their development and growth as players from boys to men to where they are now.”

Wingels said the Blackhawks wanted to sign players who would bring energy to the fourth line. He added that he can bring that intensity with his skating ability and physicality.

This season, Wingels is averaging 3.3 hits per game, more than Richard Panik, who led the Blackhawks with an average of 1.79 hits per game last year. Alongside his linemates, Wingels provides the much-needed physical presence the Blackhawks have been searching for.

“(The Blackhawks) lacked a little bit of that grit,” Wingles’ former Team Illinois coach Jim Marchi said. “That versatile player that is able to do a lot of the little things and a lot of the dirty work on the ice. I know that Tommy knows how to play that role well.”

When he was young, Wingels said, he dreamed of playing in the NHL, but it was only toward the end of high school that he realized he had pro potential.

Marchi said Wingels’ ability to understand the importance of doing little things right, such as playing smart and leading with a strong work ethic, made him successful.

“In my opinion, the biggest strength that Tommy had was what was up between his ears,” Marchi said. “He was interested in being a more diverse player … Tommy understood early on that he needed to be able to bring other valuable assets to his game, and he worked on those things.”

On the road to the NHL, Wingels spent three years playing at Miami University. There, he saw how hockey can impact communities beyond the ice.

His college teammate and close friend, Brendan Burke, came out as gay to his teammates in 2009. Several weeks later, Burke died in a car accident. In response to the tragedy, Burke’s brother, Patrick Burke, along with Brian Kitts and Glenn Witman, founded You Can Play — a campaign dedicated to fighting homophobia in sports.

Inspired by his friendship with Brendan Burke, Wingels wrote a check to the organization that allowed the group to open a bank account and begin its campaign.

“Tommy has a really unique place in the history of You Can Play and in the history of LGBT equality in sports,” Kitts, president of You Can Play, said. “He wrote the first check that helped get us up and running.”

Wingels worked with the campaign as a member of the You Can Play advisory board, and will continue to do so from Chicago.

He said being in Chicago’s familiar environment has allowed him to focus on hockey while spending time with friends and family, especially his parents.

“They sacrificed a lot (for me),” Wingels said. “People probably thought my parents were crazy, all the time and money and effort they put into letting me pursue the game of hockey … giving up a big piece of their life so that their kids could have the ability to chase their dreams.”

But with Wingels back in Chicago, now playing hockey at the highest level, it’s clear their efforts paid off.

Now, not only do they get to see Wingels in action, but they can be there for him as he raises his one-year-old daughter with his wife, Molly Wingels.

“It’s what he set his goals to and what he had his heart set on,” Marchi said. “The one thing I can say about Tommy is he embodies exactly what every one of those youth hockey players would love to be.”

Email: [email protected]
Twitter: @nikkibaim22