Life After Hockey

Shawn Wheeler ‘not so silent’ as an active, adopted Charlottean

Shawn Wheeler
Almost two decades after becoming the ECHL's first African-American coach in Charlotte, Shawn Wheeler is still available to acknowledge the milestone around town. (Photo by Gregg Forwerck)

As a player, Shawn Wheeler led Charlotte to its finest hockey hour of the last 40 years. As a bench boss, he broke the ECHL’s coaching color barrier. And long after his ice evaporated, he has built on new means of continuing a mutually pleasing relationship with the community.

Shawn Wheeler cites the so-called “Bangin Shrimp” as his go-to crowd-pleaser.

If you met him in his first profession, then lost all first-, second- and third-hand contact due to a Y2K bug that — darn your luck — bit you and only you, the nickname might evoke an intrepid undersized checking-liner. Someone who embodies Don Cherry’s favorite saying about canine body mass versus dimension of aggression to the point where Wheeler cannot help playing favorites.

In reality, the former ECHL winger and one-time head coach has transitioned to a career in sales, and the Bangin Shrimp refers to a delectable decapod dish. As such, it is in no danger of arousing the rest of the roster’s jealousy.

And so, when pressed as to the signature menu item at the Firewater Restaurant and Bar in Charlotte, Wheeler distinguished it. “Of course, I would say, all our items are GREAT!” he wrote in an e-mail to Pucks and Recreation. Upon mentioning the Bangin Shrimp, he added, “If you’re ever in town, it’s a must-try.”

A former fan favorite — a title confirmed, if not reinforced, by animosity from opposing cities — in his own right with the Charlotte Checkers, Wheeler has stuck around town for 17 years and counting since his ties with the organization ended. Little beyond the work setting and everything that comes with it has changed in his professional life over that span.

He once wore the double-billed lid as a player-assistant coach before becoming the team’s bench boss in 1998. Through that role, he became the first African-American head coach in the league’s history.

At his peak as a player, Wheeler had a way of loosening the label “assistant” when he served as the legendary John Marks’ skating sidekick. Through his achievements on the ice, he was less of an assistant and more of a pilot for a franchise that raked in the Riley Cup in 1996. That was the city’s first hockey crown in 20 years, following a previous Checkers team’s 1976 triumph in the Southern League. No titles have come since.

He still wears multiple hats, working full-time in pharmaceutical sales while collaborating with Firewater co-owners Ahmad and Wasef Mohammad.

Technically speaking, in his words, he is the Mohammad brothers’ “silent partner, but I’m not so silent.”

To that point, the way he was reached last week, Wheeler still exudes a hustle, energy and counting-every-second mentality he once left on the ice in a prior millennium. He accepted and filled out a questionnaire over his smartphone when he had a moment free. The ensuing transcript brandished speed, fervor and natural force through its abundant exclamation points and amused acronyms.

Brothers Wasef (left) and Ahmad Mohammad (right) are Wheeler’s Firewater linemates. (Photo courtesy of Shawn Wheeler)

Overtime ombudsmen
Janssen Pharmaceutical’s customers come first for Wheeler, as they have since 2001. He characterizes his moonlight and weekend duties at Firewater as “an investment role.”

But true to his word about “silent” being the not-so-operative word in “silent partner,” he will personally illustrate his investment upon request. Three years ago, when Lake Norman Currents profiled Firewater, Wheeler philosophized, “Service to me is a home feeling. It’s a welcome feeling. It shouldn’t be challenging to sit somewhere and ask for a meal and feel like somebody’s granting you a favor. It should feel like it’s 100 percent their pleasure that you’re there.

In that same interview, he concluded, “If you can give people a neighborhood feel and the customer service that everybody deserves, that’s going to be the key.”

He once used the same sort of adamancy about leaving nothing unturned to make a dose of ECHL history in the winter of 1995-96. Marks singled out a 3-2 triumph over the Roanoke Express from that year when, in 2008, nhl.com’s Brian Compton acknowledged his distinction as the league’s all-time winningest coach.

On that night, Wheeler singlehandedly filled a 2-0 pothole within the final three minutes of regulation. “I recall scoring to tie the game on a backhand shot,” he told Pucks and Rec. “I love saying (that was) my signature shot.”

The ensuing shootout went to a previously unsurpassed 21st round after Wheeler, among many others, failed the bust the knot when the opportunity presented itself. He temporarily rued his failure to beat goaltender Matt DelGuidice — a rare right-handed catcher and a brief teammate the year prior — and his inferred subsequent benching as the extra innings piled up.

But the more the others missed, the closer his second chance to finish what he started came, which it did in that 21st inning.

“Marksy didn’t even look at me, he just yelled, ‘Wheels your up.’ I recall going in and looking at the same low corner as it was wide open, but I think (DelGuidice) was baiting me. So instead of shooting, I held a bit longer and I faked the shot. He dropped, and I stuffed it under the crossbar.”

Comeback complete. History made.

“You would think, after reading this, that I think about moments like this often,” Wheeler said. “And each time I do, it gets better and better.”

Friends close, enemies closer
Frank Anzalone, who coached Roanoke from 1993 to 1998, was no stranger to torment at Wheeler’s hands by the time the latter found his eventual adulthood home. The trend started with their first full overlapping ECHL season when both men found themselves in Virginia.

Wheeler was 27 years of age, and coming off his first (and ultimately only) season spent predominantly at the Triple-A level with IHL Peoria. Now back in the premier Double-A circuit with the Hampton Roads Admirals, he had garnered his first gig as a player-assistant coach under John Brophy. He justified the appointment by translating his exemplary leadership to a career-high 74 points in only 47 games played.

And in a Dec. 17, 1993 home date with the Express, he was singled out for sparking a decisive offensive eruption. On that night, Hampton Roads utilized its timeout at the halfway mark of regulation with a 1-1 deadlock at hand. Minutes after the Admirals absorbed an impassioned earful from Brophy, Wheeler bustled to the Roanoke cage and took multiple stabs before burying a floodgate-opening goal.

Following the eventual 7-4 Hampton Roads victory and a three-point effort by Wheeler, Anzalone enviously told Mike Holtzclaw of Virginia’s Daily Press, “That damn Shawn Wheeler. If we had that kind of effort, we’d be in the middle of the pack instead of last place.”

That season also witnessed one of Wheeler’s more memorable helpings of rough stuff in a home date with his old friends from Greensboro. A four-minute, 28-second YouTube upload immortalizes a series of scraps sparked two seconds after the opening faceoff.

When the majority of the melee slithered to the right corner of the Greensboro Monarchs zone, Wheeler was among those who lost his jersey. Hardly a shock considering he led the Monarchs with 301 penalty minutes in 1991-92.

Likewise, in his first year with the Checkers, he dressed for all 68 games and logged 226 minutes in the sin bin. He was second among the team’s PIM leaders with 210 in 1995-96.

Shawn Wheeler

The Bangin Shrimp, a Shawn Wheeler favorite at Firewater. (Photo courtesy of Shawn Wheeler)

By that time, another entity new to the league in 1993-94, the North Charleston-based South Carolina Stingrays, had come to match Roanoke’s distaste for Wheeler’s impact. In most years, South Carolina and Roanoke were in the same division as the three teams that Wheeler variously represented.

In their run to the 1996 Riley Cup, the Checkers dumped the Express to set a second-round date with the Stingrays. Wheeler’s personal highlight of the series had him polishing a play that took advantage of a South Carolina defensive blunder.

“We were losing, and I was forechecking their D-man, who I think was Scott Boston,” he recalled. “I went to chase him to the right of the net, and he skated behind and as he came around the opposite side, he fired the puck up the middle as they flew the zone. But Phil Berger was posted in the middle and batted the puck down fired a pass to me at the right side of net for a wide-open goal.

“Not sure why Boston fired it up the middle, when he could have skated it out of the zone. But it was a series-changer for which, it typical Berger fashion, he said if I would have missed he would have two-handed me.”

Even the North Charleston media stoked the feuding flames, using Wheeler as the log in one memorable instance.

On the eve of a game at the North Charleston Coliseum, Wheeler kicked back in his room and tuned in to a local newscast. Going in, his plan was to simply soak in the sports bulletins for pleasure before drifting to rest for the action ahead.

But in an age before the Internet made the listicle a media staple, he perked up as the station sports director channeled an inner David Letterman with “Ten Reasons to HATE Shawn Wheeler.”

The following night, the Coliseum congregants greeted him with a classic surname singsong usually reserved for visiting goaltenders. Whee-ler, Whee-ler, Whee-ler, then the punctuation, “You suck!”

The recipient got a kick out of the acapella acrimony. “Man, it was loud, and they really hated me,” he marveled.

‘It was just time to call somewhere home’
Throughout Wheeler’s involvement, the now-nationwide ECHL was a predominantly Southern circuit, with a sprinkling of additional teams in Pennsylvania, Ohio and eventually Peoria, Ill.

As he came out of the Division III program at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, the then-fledgling middle-tier minor league was the best realistic recourse to launch a professional playing career.

Adjustments would be inevitable. Wheeler was born on the outskirts of the Bronx in Mount Vernon, N.Y. For two-plus centuries, Mount Vernon has logged a diverse slew of notable gifts to sports (e.g. Ralph Branca and Floyd Patterson), entertainment (Denzel Washington and Dick Clark) and literature (E.B. White). It was also the shooting location for Mean Joe Greene’s famous Coca-Cola ad when Wheeler was 13.

At age 18, Wheeler moved north and far west to Alberta to bolster his hockey career at the Junior A level. Two seasons there with the Hobbema Hawks yielded the four-year stay at Stevens Point, where he is still holds the single-season penalty-minute record.

Graduating in 1990, he met a new experience with a new decade, breaking into the pucks-for-pay realm while crossing the Mason-Dixon Line. He would be tasked with helping to sell the game to still-fairly unfamiliar audiences while regularly experiencing the continent’s historic epicenter of racial strife. While subjective offsides calls from the stands were not entirely new to him, crossing this line was all but sure to yield its share.

His first stop: North Carolina, where the Monarchs played at the Greensboro Coliseum, located three miles west of where the Greensboro Four staged their groundbreaking sit-in four months after the arena had opened in October 1959.

“Yes, things were extremely different,” he admits. “The South is a great place with a lot of history, but the racial aspect was at a different level, but please don’t think it wasn’t experienced in Canada or even Wisconsin. I’ll just leave it at that.”

With everything he brought to the rink, be it within or without his control, Wheeler was practically the P.K. Subban of his time and level. There was consistent rancor from Roanoke and South Carolina, but general endearment in the cities where he saturated each side of the scoresheet.

The last of those would instill the “neighborhood feel” he would one day strive to reciprocate via Firewater. And when Marks moved from Charlotte to the expansion Greenville Grrrowl in 1998, years of apprenticeship yielded a bigger nugget of ECHL history. Four years after the Atlanta Knights made John Paris, Jr., the IHL’s first head coach of African descent, another league achieved the same milestone in another Southern state’s largest city.

But as a testament to his long-established assimilation to the Checkers, Wheeler’s promotion had more of a formality vibe to it at the time.

Shawn Wheeler, John Marks 96Checkersreunion4

Wheeler followed John Marks, an ECHL Hall of Famer, as the second coach of the Checkers during their run in the top modern Double-A league. (Photo by Gregg Forwerck)

“I don’t recall it being that big of a story compared to when I first signed as their player-coach,” he reflected. “Perhaps it was because I was already entrenched in the program and people were generally just happy I landed the job.

“I would say, it’s more talked about now, as I get requests to speak with youth groups or when someone recognizes my voice, and then it comes up.”

Wheeler was not merely entrenched in the Checkers. He was entrenched in Charlotte. But the test of that relationship soon landed before him in the form of severance paperwork.

After five winning campaigns from their inception onward under Marks, the 1998-99 Checkers were the first installment to finish below .500, albeit by only one game. The next season, on Jan. 11, 2000, a 7-3 home win over the Greensboro Generals — the Monarchs’ distant successor after the city’s AHL and NHL flings — improved the Checkers to a mediocre 14-18-3.

That would be Wheeler’s last hurrah in competitive hockey. The team sought a front-office shakeup for the second half of the schedule.

“It was a challenging two years behind the bench, but to make excuses is to fault others,” Wheeler said. “As a coach, you’re hired to be fired.”

Merely 33 at the time of his dismissal, Wheeler could have left Charlotte to stay in the game, either as a player, a coach or combination. But when no satisfactory opportunities stuck, he left the game in order to stay in Charlotte.

“It was just time to call somewhere home,” he said.

He would stay prominently on the local sports scene for another decade. Within three months of vacating his bench, he was hosting a weekday midday talk show, The Player’s Club, on WFNZ radio. By mid-February of 2009, when a Charlotte Observer blog ranked the city’s five best sports-talk specialists, one anonymous commenter cited Wheeler among the list’s glaring omissions.

That could help to explain the voice recognition and the “not so silent” inclinations.

Postgame ventures satisfy
In his first full year out of hockey and the first official year of the 21st century, Wheeler took his longstanding full-time job in pharmaceutical sales. But another key component of his past kept cropping up in Ahmad Mohammad, who first met Wheeler while working at Bentley’s restaurant, where Wheeler was a common patron in his playing days.

“We used to conduct speaker programs at Bentley’s and we began a friendship with him and his brother Wasef,” Wheeler explained. “They ventured on and I would run into them often. We then crossed paths again, while he was with Red Rocks and was in the process of opening a restaurant and bar close to my home, and we started talking about possibly going into business together.”

By the late autumn of 2012, under Wheeler and the Mohammad brothers’ direction, Firewater opened in Charlotte’s University City neighborhood.

In a pattern starkly reminiscent of the old Checkers’ fortunes, those enterprises have had their peaks and valleys. When Molly Reitter of Lake Norman Publications reviewed it in 2014, Firewater was on the verge of opening its third location. As of 2017, the original location is the only one under Wheeler and the Mohammads’ auspices.

Setbacks and searches for silver linings are nothing new to either partnering party. Ahmad Mohammad is an elder statesman in the locale and the industry, each of which he has been a part of for three-plus decades. As such, from Wheeler’s perspective, collaborating with him is not unlike aiding a John Brophy or a John Marks in their tutelage of a hockey team.

“Not only the leadership role, but more the failures or bumps in the road I experienced, helped me more,” he said.

As it is, if only by happenstance, the original Firewater represents both of the lives, eras and millennia Wheeler has spent in Charlotte. Mohammad’s fanaticism for football’s Carolina Panthers makes the bar section a hotspot for watching major sports telecasts (including, most recently, the NFL Draft). That allows for spots where people may be sporting athletic apparel and occasions where raw emotion is not unexpected.

Then there are other places in the building where business and formalwear are the norm. A private dining lounge hosts a multitude of gatherings that call for tablecloths, flowers, candles and less animation from the attention seekers and givers.

Another one of Firewater’s tamer sections is a “lake room” that lives up to its name through the view. The water in sight is warmer than, say, the ice at North Charleston Coliseum, and so are the hearts of the people looking down on it.

Shawn Wheeler 96Checkersreunion

Though his appearances around a rink are restricted to cameos these days, Wheeler notes that the 1996 Checkers reunion “was nice, and my kids really enjoyed the game and scoreboard interviews.” (Photo by Gregg Forwerck)

Even if there were sarcastic serenades in earshot, Wheeler’s turn to take and transform it has long passed. Likewise, the view of the North Carolina hockey landscape has evolved before his eyes from a unique perspective.

When Wheeler parted with the Checkers, the NHL’s Hurricanes were halfway through the first season at their new arena in Raleigh. They had spent the previous two at the Greensboro Coliseum, which forced the AHL’s Carolina Monarchs to cut their stay short.

By 2010, the Checkers brand got the same ECHL-to-AHL upgrade, as the Canes took the opportunity to move their top prospects closer to home. In turn, the current calendar decade has been the first in which both of the sport’s top two leagues have fielded a team in the state simultaneously.

Though he admits he does not frequent the current Checkers, Wheeler admires the way the local fan base has evolved.

“It has grown with the influx of Northerners who have relocated to the region,” he said. “Pool that with the old-timers who never left and former AHL Checkers who stayed and made Charlotte home, and it has given quality youth coaching and an excitement around the game.

“The Checkers moving to the AHL has helped tremendously, as there is the chance to watch future stars and/or reassignments of NHL players rehabbing.”

The transplanting Northerners and former players sticking around are two of Wheeler’s own demographics. But as the hockey gods would have it, one of the top figures in North Carolina’s icebreaking age could not garner similar gratification on the ice as the advocates have reaped off of it. Playing in the final stages of the pre-Hurricanes period, he logged 66 games in IHL and AHL call-ups.

Still, he delivered 70-plus points three times in as many cities where the sport was looking to cement a following. In his final year as a regular skater, he tallied 62 and added 11 in the playoff run to Charlotte’s Riley Cup.

And because he decided to keep the pegs down in the area, rather than the arena, he has easy access to moments that reopen the pleasure section of his memory bank. Case in point: December 5, 2015, when he, Marks and others savored a ceremony at an AHL game as part of their 20-year championship reunion.

“Which was nice,” he said, “and my kids really enjoyed the game and scoreboard interviews.”

The fanfare’s fleeting return satisfied his craving. These days, the Bangin Shrimp is more likely to command an encore.

“I do find myself thinking about what could have been, as I see old teammates and friends still in the game,” Wheeler said, “but I’ve been good about not living in the past.”

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Al Daniel

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