How Iowa Heartlanders defenseman Ryan Wheeler’s family shaped his tenacity

The blueliner has a lion tattoo to symbolize his father, Tom Wheeler, who he wants to emulate.


Jerod Ringwald

Iowa defenseman Ryan Wheeler skates during a hockey match between Iowa and Wheeling at Xtream Arena in Coralville on Wednesday, April 6, 2022. The Nailers defeated the Heartlanders, 6-4.

Isaac Goffin, Sports Reporter

Iowa Heartlanders defenseman Ryan Wheeler has a lion tattoo with a scar over an eye to symbolize his father, who’s blind in one eye. 

“Growing up, he didn’t have a ton,” Wheeler said. “It was all about work ethic and proving people wrong and stuff like that, and I think that’s something I want to emulate myself.”

Wheeler is about 750 miles from his hometown of Lancaster, New York, while competing in Coralville, so he looks at the tattoo every day as a reminder that it’s up to him to determine his own destiny. His father is now a senior project manager for a commercial real estate company outside Buffalo, New York, and Wheeler’s mother and two sisters work in the nursing field. 

The blueliner, who likes the lion’s tenacity, has put in the effort to manifest his talents. 

Wheeler competed for the North American Hockey League’s New Jersey Junior Titans from 2016-18 and received the 2016-17 NAHL Community Service Award. In 2017-18, he was an alternate captain. Then the left-handed shooter joined the University of Connecticut men’s ice hockey program. 

He made strides on the ice in the Constitution State. Though Wheeler recorded no points during his freshman season, the 6-foot defenseman notched four goals and eight assists over the next three years and finished his career with a plus-7 rating. Wheeler blocked 42 shots in 2021-22 — the second-most on the Huskies’ roster.

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The upstate New Yorker also excelled academically in college. The Hockey East Association recognized him in July as a distinguished scholar because he earned at least a 3.0 GPA in each semester of his four varsity seasons. 

Following a collegiate hockey career, Wheeler’s family didn’t expect him to take a job in the Midwest. Though Wheeler’s been to Chicago and Minnesota before, along with a bit of the west coast, he’s played on the east coast for his entire career. 

In fact, one of the few aspects he knew about Iowa before he moved was the Hawkeye Wave, which he wants to take part in if he attends an Iowa football game.

“A lot of people were wondering where in Iowa I was going, what there was to do,” Wheeler said. “But there’s actually a ton to do, and it’s a great city.” 

Wheeler continued taking classes online when he signed with the Heartlanders in March.

Then, following the season, the business management major and real estate minor returned to Connecticut so he could walk in his commencement ceremony. 

“My parents made sure that happened,” Wheeler said. 

Although the ECHL and NCAA Division I hockey has similar speed of play, Wheeler thinks skaters are smarter with the puck in the ECHL.

The 25-year-old thinks he might go into real estate or pharmaceutical sales after his hockey career. For now, he’s focused on what he can do for the Heartlanders. Over 15 career ECHL games, he’s recorded one assist. 

“We see him being a good shutdown defenseman who breaks our team out, and that’s what we need all our defensemen to do,” Iowa associate coach Joe Exter said. “Why? Because we have speed and skill up front, and those guys up front are going to play harder with more detail, and that’s going to result in better results for us.”