Here is an interview that I conducted with former ECHL tough guy, Chris Wheaton.
I would like to think Chris Wheaton for taking the time to do this interview.
Chris played 4 seasons with the South Carolina Stingrays, recording 565 PIMS in that time. In 2003-04, Chris played his last season for the Las Vegas Wranglers and recorded 214 PIMS.
At what age did you first start playing hockey? Also, when growing up, was there ever any particular hockey players that influenced you or your style of play?
I started playing hockey at the age of 5. As a teenager, I began to follow Mario Lemieux
very closely and did my best to mimic his style of play. Obviously, that has changed over the years.
Who would you say has been the most influential person on your hockey career? Why?
I would have to say that the veteran players for the South Carolina Stingrays had the biggest influence on my career. Being one of the youngest players on the team my first couple of years, I really looked up to the older guys like Jared Bednar, Rob Concannon, Jason Fitzsimmons and Brett Marietti. They always looked out for me on and off the ice.
At any point when you were growing did you have a favorite Enforcer? If so, who and why? Also, who do you consider the best fighter of all-time?
I was always a fan of hockey fights and enjoyed watching everyone. In my opinion, Bob Probert
would have to be the best fighter of all-time.
You played for the South Carolina Stingrays from 1998-2002. How would you best describe your time spent there? Also, what would you say is your most memorable moment from when playing in South Carolina?
My time in South Carolina was probably the best years of my life. It makes things so much easier when you are able to return to a team year after year. I met so many great people there that I still keep in touch with today. My most memorable moment would have to be winning the Kelly Cup in 2001. It was an amazing feeling to be a part of that team. You have no idea what it takes to win a championship unless you actually have the chance to experience it first hand.
What goes through your mind when you are squaring off with another fighter?
Don’t get beat, especially at home!
Which coach has been able to help you the most in your progression of a player and a fighter?
My coaches in South Carolina (Rick Adduono, Jason Fitzsimmons, and player assistant Jared Bednar) are really the ones that took a chance on me and helped me grow as a player and fighter. My ice time increased each season and so did my confidence.
In your hockey career, what have been some of the wildest games that you've been apart of?
Personally, the wildest game for me had to have been against the Greensboro Generals in 2000. I was checked awkwardly into the boards as the buzzer sounded to end the first period. The whole bottom of my skate broke off, and I had to be helped off the ice because I had nothing to skate on. Our trainer fixed my skate, and I thought that I had sprained my ankle because it was very sore and starting to swell. I put my skate back on, and my coach put me out to start the second period. I took a few strides and realized that something was wrong, but at the same time, the play got broken up, and I had a breakaway. I skated the best I could and scored! I went to the bench, and told my coach that I could hardly put any weight on my ankle. We decided to keep me on the bench, because we were short players and he could use me to serve penalties. Sure enough, in the third period I am serving a penalty for our goalie … when the penalty was over, I stepped out of the box to find myself on a two on one with our captain. I decided to go for it and was sent a perfect pass from Brett Marietti that I was able to one-time past the goalie for the game-winning goal! After returning home and going to the doctor for x-rays, it was determined that I had a broken ankle and was put in a cast for two months. My teammates told me that I should play with a broken ankle from now on! Seeing that I wasn't a goal scorer, that was a wild game for me.
What would you say has been your most memorable goal you’ve ever scored and why?
We had some goalies in our league that were former NHL’ers, and it was always fun to score on them. One that sticks out in my mind, was against Roanoke Express goalie, Daniel Berthiaume. Since never playing in the NHL, it gave me a feeling that I could score on a legit NHL goalie.
When fighting, do you like going toe to toe, or do you prefer to be more technical and pick your spots? Why?
I prefer to go toe to toe. My first few punches usually won or lost the fight for me. I always ended up getting in trouble if I tried a different style.
Who would you say is the toughest player you have ever fought? Also, who would you say has been the hardest puncher you've ever faced?
It’s hard to say who the toughest player would be, but the hardest puncher would be Mike Lee. In fact I even told him, “I forgot how hard you punch” after a fight in Alaska.
What does your off-season training workouts consist of? Do you do any boxing?
My off-season workouts were probably similar to most hockey players. I taught hockey camps as well, and that kept me in very good shape. I spent part of my summers in the Bahamas, and began boxing with Bahamas champ Ray Minus Jr. He helped with the strength and quickness of my punches.
What would you say has been the most memorable or funny pre-fight conversation you've had with someone?
I wouldn’t say it was funny, in fact I don’t even remember the players name, but a player was trash talking our bench in Las Vegas. My coach (Glen Gulutzan) got into it with him and told him that he had some medicine for him. The opposing player said, “bring it on”. I was sent on the ice and lined up against him. The ref dropped the puck and we dropped the gloves. It was a one-punch fight and the guy went down hard right in front of our bench. I found out after that he used to date one of my teammate’s girlfriends, which I thought was funny, and later found out that he had to have surgery on his face, which was not so funny.
When trying to get a player to drop the gloves, what are the kind of things you say or do when at face-offs or in the middle of play?
Fighters are fighters and they know their role. It is pretty rare to have a tough guy back down from a fight.
Have you ever had any funny or memorable penalty box incidents?
We were playing in Richmond against the Renegades and during warm-ups, a fan was waving a sign that said “Irving you suck!” I instantly started to laugh and went over to my teammate, Joel Irving to point it out. Just as I was pointing and laughing, the fan flipped over the sign and it said; “Wheaton fights like a girl”. It was one of those things where the timing couldn’t have been better! Joel and I had a good laugh.
Who would you say has given you your toughest fight? Also, have you ever been knocked out during a fight?
Although I have never been knocked out, I have been buckled a couple of times by Mike Lee and Josh Gratton
. Fights against them were always tough.
Which would you say has been your best fight in your hockey career? Why?
My best fight was probably against 6’6” Kyle Clark. He played for the Richmond Renegades and I fought him twice. I won the first fight in Richmond, and he wanted another shot when he came to South Carolina. He is probably the biggest player that I have ever fought. He came after me, and I could see in his eyes that he meant business. I geared myself up and dropped the gloves. We went toe to toe and we were both connecting with hard punches. I finally landed one in his right eye and his legs buckled, but I kept him up and continued to hammer away. I wanted this to be settled once and for all. I caught a glimpse of him in the penalty box after the fight. His eye was swelled shut and needless to say, that was the last encounter I had with him.
Josh Gratton played in the NHL towards the end of this past season, and will most likely see some time in the NHL next season as well. How would you best describe the exchanges you’ve had with him in the 2003-04 season? Also, what are your thoughts on him as a player and a fighter?
I have a lot of respect for Josh as a fighter. Although I did cut him very bad in our first fight, I would give him the upper hand in both encounters that I had with him. He is one of those guys that respects other tough guys and is not a dirty player. I am glad to see that he has made it to the NHL at such an early age.
In your opinion, who would you say is the best fighter in the NHL right now?
I like watching Derek Boogaard
, it’s pretty hard to contain someone that big!
When entering the ECHL for the first time, did you feel that you had to establish yourself as a fighter?
Definitely, the South Carolina Stingrays were lacking toughness and needed someone to step in and fill that role. I had to prove myself to the other fighters, but more importantly to my team that I could protect them. I took on the biggest, and baddest around at that time and certainly opened some eyes as a youngster.