Tommy Wingels was ready for his next chapter.
The Wilmette native knew the timing was right for the other aspects of life to take over after a 10-year professional hockey career that included time with four National Hockey League teams and two international clubs.
Wingels wanted to come home and have his children grow up in a tight-knit community — as long as hockey was a part of that.
When Winnetka Hockey Club Hockey Director Evan Nielsen reached out to see whether Wingels would be interested in helping the club, Wingels saw it as a perfect way to do it all.
“It’s been a lot of fun,” Wingels said of coaching local youth. “Obviously hockey has been a passion of mine ever since I was born. It’s been something I’ve enjoyed doing, whether it’s playing it or watching it, whether it’s helping younger kids, it’s definitely something I enjoy doing.”
Wingels knows the importance youth hockey can play for aspiring players. He played for the Wilmette Braves as a kid, before heading to Oxford, Ohio, to play three seasons at Miami University.
The NHL’s San Jose Sharks drafted Wingels in 2008, and he made his NHL debut in 2010.
The center played for the Sharks until 2017, when he was traded to Ottawa. He signed with his hometown Chicago Blackhawks to start the following season before they traded him to the Boston Bruins midway through the year.
In 2018, Wingels signed with Geneve-Servette Hockey Club in Switzerland and played there for two seasons before he decided to retire from professional hockey in June 2020.
“It was difficult because it wasn’t difficult,” said Wingels about retiring. “Hockey’s been such a big part of my life and it’s taken me now all over the world. I’ve enjoyed every moment of it. There hasn’t been a moment I haven’t enjoyed.”
Nielsen, who played professional hockey as well, was excited when he heard Wingels and his wife, Molly, moved their family to Winnetka this year. Nielsen just took over the club this summer and was always looking for hockey people nearby who could work with young players. So, he reached out to Wingels about hosting a clinic with the teams.
Wingels worked with every team during a weekend at the beginning of October and put them through different practices, running it the way he wanted.
The weekend went so well that he agreed to stay on as a skills instruction coach.
Wingels coached some of the older teams once a week before the club had to stop holding practices when state mitigations were increased because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Prior to the shutdown, Wingels had fun getting to know the players. At first, most of them were awestruck by working with a former NHL player, but they quickly became comfortable, asking Wingels questions ranging from technical skill work to how long practice would be.
While the questions might be funny at times, Nielsen sees firsthand just how much the players learn from Wingels each practice.
“It’s exciting watching a kid soak in information and learning information from someone that they have a lot of respect for,” Nielsen said.
Wingels is enjoying himself too.
He’s happy to be home, back among many of his friends, and he’s happy that his family has a permanent homebase after 10 years of traveling around the world.
He’s happy that with everything going on in the world, his family is comfortable being part of a community that means so much to him.
It’s a good fit for the time being. Wingels doesn’t know whether it will last a month or a couple years, but in the meantime, he’s excited to keep hockey in his life and help shape the next generation of the sport.
“This has been a really good fit for now,” Wingels said. “I’m enjoying it. I think the kids are enjoying it. It’s one thing to go through it all by yourself and have this self enjoyment, but to see the joy of other kids and when you have kids going through youth sports, you start to enjoy it even more.”
Michal is an award-winning sports journalist based in Chicago. He most recently served as the sports editor of The Glenview Lantern and Northbrook Tower and is a graduate of the College of Media at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. He also contributes to The Varsity podcast.