Wingels contributes after playing career
OXFORD, Ohio – Johnny Wingels missed the last four months of his final juniors season because of concussions.
And after he’d worked his way back on the lineup card his first season at Miami 3½ years ago, the worst thing that can happen to someone coming off that type of head injury occurred: Another major concussion.
For the second time in a year, the 5-feet-10 defenseman suffered through the aftereffects. He decided the risk of permanent injury was too great and opted to hang up the skates after just 11 games in a RedHawks sweater.
“It was definitely always a dream of mine to play college hockey, and even though it only lasted half a season, it was a dream come true and I think I proved to myself that I was very capable of playing at this level,” Wingels said. “Because of that I don’t have any regrets with this decision and am satisfied with what I was able to accomplish.”
Wingels is the younger brother of Ottawa Senators forward Tommy Wingels, and when Johnny was very young, he was dragged to Tommy’s practices each morning. Inevitably, Johnny took up the sport as well.
The brothers are from Wilmette, Ill., a northern suburb of Chicago, and fortunately for Johnny Wingels, his juniors rights belonged to the Chicago Steel. He was called up from Triple-A to the Steel for two games in 2011-12 and was slated for a starting role the following season as an 18-year-old.
Wingels exceled in his only season in the USHL. He recorded assists in each of his first two games of 2012-13 and racked up seven in the first 22 contests.
“It was cool to play in my hometown – my parents got to come to all of my games, which was nice, and I got to live at home,” Wingels said. “So it wasn’t your typical junior experience. It was a pretty short junior career, but it was fun while it lasted.”
In mid-December vs. Dubuque, he received a minor concussion and was out for nearly three weeks.
But in his first game back from that injury, he was blindsided and suffered a more substantial concussion. Wingels said he had others before that, but these were his first two documented cases.
That cost him the balance of the season, as he wrapped up a brief juniors career with 26 games played, seven assists and a plus-2 rating.
Wingels had visited Princeton and Yale, but he had narrowed his college choices to St. Lawrence and Miami. With two sisters and his older brother having chosen the latter, Wingels went that route as well.
“I felt at home at Miami,” Wingels said. “It just was always a dream of mine to play here after seeing my brother play here when I was younger, so it definitely felt like it was the right decision to come here.”
Coming to Miami meant joining a team that his older brother had captained four seasons earlier. Tommy Wingels recorded 99 points in three years in Oxford and has logged 355 NHL games between San Jose and Ottawa, scoring 52 goals and assisting on 72 others.
By the start of the 2013-14 season, Tommy Wingels was a regular for the Sharks and had set a high bar for the Wingels name in Oxford. Comparisons were inevitable when another skater named Wingels joined the team.
“We were far enough apart (age wise) that I never really crossed paths with him,” Wingels said. “The only time I ever felt that was when I was considering coming to Miami. The coaching staff let me know that they were recruiting me for me and not because of my brother.”
Cracking MU’s lineup presented a challenge. Wingels had not played since January, and the RedHawks had seven other highly-skilled defensemen on their roster in 2013-14.
That meant Wingels was going to have to beat two of them out each night just to earn a spot in the lineup.
“It was a struggle to start, not having played in four or five months and getting back into hockey shape and game shape,” Wingels said. “It was difficult – it was a tough training camp – but the coaches prepared me very well, spent a lot of extra time getting me back into game shape and getting ready for the games. “
Wingels played in three of Miami’s first six games that season but was scratched for the next eight. Finally in late November, he forced his way onto the ice with his dependable and heady stay-at-home style, dressing for six consecutive tilts and eight of nine.
Wingels was a regular in the RedHawks’ lineup when he headed to Colorado College in late January of that freshman year.
In the series opener, Wingels got the puck from the blue line along the boards, ran a scissors play and tried to cut back. But when he did, he was crushed from behind, slamming his head into the boards.
No penalty was called at the time and Colorado College actually scored before the next whistle, but after reviewing the play, a major penalty was assessed to CC.
“Didn’t think too much of it at the time, had a little bit of a headache but nothing too serious,” Wingels said. “I didn’t think it was another concussion because I pretty much knew what the symptoms were from my other experiences.”
So he finished the game and felt fine the rest of that Friday night. But when he woke up on Saturday, those familiar concussion traits had returned.
And they didn’t go away.
At that point, Wingels had to weigh his future in hockey vs. his future quality of life. And while Wingels had logged quality minutes in his brief Miami career, he was undrafted, and just six defensemen in the history of Miami hockey have ever made the NHL.
He chose retirement.
“I was never actually told by a doctor that I needed to stop playing,” Wingels said. “I just talked with many doctors who were trying to get my symptoms to subside, and I tried many forms of treatment and none of them really seemed to help, and so it seemed like time was really the only thing that would help me in the long run. With my experience the year before, having symptoms for four or five months and having symptoms for four to five months after this last one, it just dawned on me that there’s a lot more to life than hockey, and I have 60, 70 years left of life ahead of me. So I just knew it was the right decision to stop playing, because I need my brain for longer than I need hockey.”
During this time, he read an article about Scott Parker, an enforcer for the Colorado Avalanche who sustained at least 20 concussions. At that point, it had been five years since head injuries forced Parker out of the game, but he still suffered from seizures, acute nausea and intense ringing in his ears.
Like the previous season, Wingels’ headaches and other maladies lasted over four months. The chance of long-term effects increase as concussion totals mount in an individual.
In about a year and a half window, Wingels had already suffered through the recovery process for over eight months in total.
“I sort of had the mindset that if I kept playing, I had to assume that this would happen again eventually just because of the nature of the sport, and that’s not something I was prepared to handle again,” Wingels said.
Fortunately for Wingels, he had already made a couple of close friends on the team in current fellow seniors Colin Sullivan and Justin Greenberg, who could empathize because of their own injury histories.
“He waited a while…we kind of knew he wasn’t going to play again because he was really struggling with headaches,” said Greenberg, who was concussed last season and dealt with the effects. “Obviously that’s not an easy decision, but I still remember when he came in and told us, he was pretty much in tears and the guys were pretty broken up about it.”
Said Sullivan: “That’s actually how we got to be really close. He dealt with concussions, and before I got here I dealt with concussions. I had one serious concussion going into my senior year of high school where I was out of school for two months. I’ve gone down that road and I know what he was going through, trying to come back. The headaches, the memory loss, you don’t really feel like yourself. I have the utmost respect for Johnny because what he’s had to go through I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy.”
Wingels finished with 11 games played, seven shots on goal and seven blocked shots. But just because he was done as a defenseman did not mean his Miami career was over.
He was given an opportunity as a student-coach, a position he has held for the past three seasons.
“When I was going through this decision to stop playing, the coaches were extremely supportive and wanted me to do what was in my best interest, and they said I could be involved as much as I want or as little as I want,” Wingels said. “To start, I didn’t really have a clear mindset as to what I wanted to do, I just wanted to be around and obviously all of the guys on the team are my best friends. It just sort of evolved from helping out in drills, taking stats during to games to what it is now, which is helping out the coaches accomplish some of their coaching duties.”
Wingels said that being a coach who is also a student – and one who has players in his class still lacing up the skates – can be a little awkward.
“I feel like I’m sort of the liaison between the coaches and the players – whether that a good thing or a bad thing I’m not exactly sure,” Wingels said. “It’s a little bittersweet to see my classmates finish up their time here. I definitely wish I could be out there with them.”
And while Wingels is enjoying his role as a coaches’ assistant, his career goals are loftier. He has a 3.61 grade-point average as a finance major and would love to work on Wall Street.
Or if he did work in hockey, his dream job would be general manager of an NHL team.
“He could be a GM, he could be the CEO of some Fortune 500 company – I would give him all of my money to invest in whatever,” Sullivan said. “That’s how much I trust I guy, that’s how smart he is, and I’m sure Justin Greenberg’s going to be handling his books too.”
Greenberg and he and Wingels initially ended up hanging out frequently because the pair were in business school.
“I can’t even imagine how he went through everything he went through,” Greenberg said. “Hockey was everything. He had to make the decision, because it wasn’t healthy for him to keep playing. There’s always a life beyond hockey, we talk about that all the time – even coach does, no matter how long you’re going to play for. For him to come to the rink and be so positive is unbelievable. I can’t imagine having to do that.”
Wingels has made the transition from player to coach look easy, but his friends know how much he misses taking regular shifts on game night.
“The kid still comes to the rink every single day, he’s helping guys out on the ice, trying to help guys get better,” Sullivan said. “Watching us be able to play, and him I’m sure wishing to God he could – he’d give his right arm to play one game, one shift – so I gave the greatest respect for Johnny and what he’s had to go through. He’s somebody that younger kids should definitely emulate.”
Off the ice, Sullivan called Wingels one of the most genuine people he’s ever met.
“He’s super smart, super intelligent, just a really nice person,” Sullivan said. “He and I kind of have the same personalities, we watch the same movies, we’re too pretty big movie buffs – we swap movie quotes back and forth – he’s one of my roommates too. We spend a lot of time with each other, and Johnny is a guy I made friends with here and he’s going to be a friend for the rest of my life, for sure.”
Obviously, being limited to 11 games was not what Wingels was hoping for when he came to Oxford in the summer of 2013.
But he has still enjoyed the Miami hockey experience in addition to thriving in the classroom. And he has still found a way to contribute to the team without putting on his No. 21 jersey.
“It definitely didn’t go as I expected – I would’ve loved to have played four years here and then played professional hockey like my brother – go down that path, but it’s been a wonderful experience,” Wingels said. “I’ve had a great time here, I’ve made great friends and the coaching staff has been great. I have nothing to complain about during my time here, and the school here – it was just an awesome experience.”