Jens Meilleur didn’t know much about the Western Hockey League when he was a youngster. He’s certainly thankful he does now.
Meilleur, 27, played four seasons with the Brandon Wheat Kings from 2010 to 2014.
“It was an honour,” Meilleur said of his time with the club. “You look back and you see how difficult it is to stay in one place and you see how many guys get shipped around. To be a Wheat King for four years and to be in the leadership group for two years was awesome.
“I still think about it and there are times I wish I could go back to it. I learned so much and gained so many friends. Being a Wheat King will always be something I’m thankful for.”
Meilleur was born in Portage la Prairie but grew up on the family farm north of Elie, which is 168 kilometres east of Brandon.
The vegetable farm was run by his parents Gerry and Astrid, and the family also included his older brothers Lars and Mats, and younger sister Meike.
All four kids were devoted hockey players.
“That’s what our winters revolved around,” Meilleur said. “We played out of St. Eustache, so it was only five minutes down the road. Every week revolved around somebody’s practice or game or tournament. My dad had a backyard rink for us growing up so it was hockey, hockey, hockey.”
He began skating at age two, and within a couple of years was playing organized hockey.
Not surprisingly, as the youngest of three boys, Meilleur spent his fair share of time in net when they played together. But he also learned how to compete against his brothers.
“I think that helped me growing up,” Meilleur said. “I just always wanted to be as good as them and it was so hard because they were bigger and stronger and faster. Looking back on it now, I think that pushed me to get to the level I got to. It was always trying to be better than them, which was a difficult task in itself.
“Normally you want to be the best on your team but I just wanted to be better than my brothers.”
They weren’t the only family members fuelling his development.
Meilleur has a greater understanding and appreciation now for the sacrifices his busy parents made to support all four kids in the game.
“I never understood how much was involved with the farm, even through the winter, ” Meilleur said. “The more and more time I spend on the farm now, I realize how much work they had to put in, and on top of that, run four kids around playing hockey. First you think of all the money they spent on you and gas and their time. Their time was our time. It’s crazy how much they did for you.”
After playing minor hockey in the area, they didn’t have enough kids to make a bantam team and he was granted his release. Since St. James was closer than Portage, he was allowed to join the Winnipeg Hawks.
Meilleur scored 20 goals and added 15 assists, putting him on the radar of WHL scouts.
He knew about the league and who the Wheat Kings were, but since his brothers never played at that level, it wasn’t a topic of conversation in their house.
It became one on April 30, 2008, however, when the Wheat Kings selected him in the seventh round with the 145th overall pick. He learned about the news in an unusual fashion.
“I was in school and then they announced it on the intercom, ” Meilleur said. “That was pretty cool. At that point of your life, it’s a pretty big deal.”
He was also taken in the Manitoba Junior Hockey League draft, seventh overall by the Waywayseecappo Wolverines.
That season, he joined the Central Plains Capitals of the Manitoba AAA U18 Hockey League because he was in their catchment area.
After attending Wheat Kings camp as a 16-year-old the next fall, Meilleur chose to head to Wayway instead of returning to U18. A couple of people, including former Wheat Kings head coach, general manager and owner Kelly McCrimmon, helped with his decision.
Wolverines coach and GM Barry Butler kept in frequent content about his plans.
“I knew that was always an option because I wasn’t so sure I would make Brandon when I was 16,” Meilleur said. “Then after (Wheat Kings) camp, Kelly talked to me about going to Wayway because of how Jordan DePape (Winnipeg Saints) and Brenden Walker (Portage Terriers) did the previous year before they came to Brandon. They had some really good years there and developed well.”
Meilleur contributed 11 goals and eight assists in 59 games as a 16-year-old in the MJHL, and also had the opportunity to attend the World U17 Hockey Challenge.
“That was a big step as far as hockey went, ” Meilleur said. “You don’t really know what you’re getting into until you get there. It was great hockey, it was fun, it was so cool to throw on the Maple Leaf.”
After an MJHL season that allowed him to skate against bigger players and get comfortable with their size and strength, Meilleur graduated to the Wheat Kings as a 17-year-old for the 2010-11 season.
However, his debut would have to wait. He broke his hand in training camp and didn’t play until Nov. 6, 2010 in a 3-2 victory over the Seattle Thunderbirds.
“I was in and out of the lineup until Christmas, and then after Christmas I started playing every game and getting more comfortable, ” Meilleur said. “I think I had one assist at Christmas. It wasn’t a great first half. After Christmas, it ended up turning around and going well.”
In 40 games, he contributed nine points. He admitted it was a big transition on the ice.
“You’re dealing with size and strength, and then you have to deal with talent on top of that, ” Meilleur said. “You’re always trying to play keep up. That was a really tough thing for me because growing up, I was always on top of the team and the leader, and then all of a sudden you’re at the bottom of the totem pole.
“It was a lot of learning and a lot of growing.”
It was also a year of transition for him off ice. He credits the support systems set up by the team as a big help.
He billeted with Ralph and Sonja Kampe all four years.
“They were awesome to me, ” Meilleur said. “There was always food in the fridge, they would offer to do anything and if you asked they were on top of it helping you out. That made that transition easy.”
Unfortunately, living with Meilleur didn’t seem to be a good idea. Every time someone else billeted at the house, they were eventually traded.
Meilleur, who was in Grade 12 that year, added the team’s academic advisor Glenda Zelmer did a terrific job of helping he and his teammates handle their academic loads.
“You were just taken care of every way, ” Meilleur said. “You had a lot to do on your own but there was always someone to help you.”
It didn’t hurt that he quickly made friends with his new teammates as well.
His rookie class included Ryan Pulock, Eric Roy, Jason Swyripa, Tyrel Seaman, Jordan Fransoo, Rene Hunter, Spencer Galbraith, Corbin Boes and Liam Liston.
He quickly became close to second-year player Micheal Ferland.
“I remember like it was yesterday, Mike Ferland, after one of the practices in camp, put his arm around me, and it was Hunter and Roysy, and it was ‘What are we doing boys?’” Meilleur said. “He was an older veteran taking the young guys under his wing. Ever since then, Mike and I have been best buds and still hang out to this day.”
He also got close to Pulock, Ryley Miller, Roy, Hunter, Mark Stone and later to Tyler Coulter and Brett Kitt.
After his first season, Meilleur realized he had to do more, and poured himself into his off-season work, both mentally and physically.
“A huge part of my junior career was just getting mentally stronger, ” Meilleur said. “Kelly helped me a lot with that and in the summers I started to train with Jim Frederickson. He helped me get bigger and stronger and quicker and mentally stronger.”
He said McCrimmon and Frederickson ultimately had a tremendous impact on him as he developed into a better player, leader and person.
In his second season in 2011-12, his responsibilities began to crystallize. He became one of the club’s penalty killers, and was also asked to take on an important role that would define the rest of his WHL career.
“My responsibility transferred into being the defensive forward and the penalty killer,” Meilleur said. “That was my role and my responsibility.”
He said assistant coaches Darren Ritchie and Dwayne Gylywoychuk were big helps as he improved his defensive game.
One of the many benefits of playing then was the chance to watch Pulock, Stone and Ferland in action. Meilleur said the future National Hockey League players were all special.
“Those guys just have so much raw, natural talent,” Meilleur said. “All three of them had natural strength, they were just men in junior. You can see how big and strong and aggressive Fer was and how strong of a player Pulock was with his shot and Stone too, with his size and smarts. You could learn a lot from them just day in and day out.”
Meanwhile, Meilleur developed a reputation as a dependable team guy and that led to other opportunities.
He only played forward after starting in hockey as a tot, but got a taste of life on the blue-line for the first time as a Wheat King. He was moved back after a number of injuries left the club shorthanded.
“Kelly was the coach at the time and he told me I was the next best D-man,” Meilleur said with a chuckle. “I played five games on D that season. That was pretty fun. I actually enjoyed it. I played with Roysy (Eric Roy) for those five games and he made it pretty easy.”
As his career progressed, new responsibilities surfaced.
Meilleur was made an alternate captain for his 19- and 20-year-old seasons as the team transitioned from the Stone era to a new one featuring a pair of promising youngsters: Jayce Hawryluk and John Quenneville.
His approach to leadership was simple.
“On the ice, you always try and do the right things and follow the system, and play the way that you’re supposed to play,” Meilleur said. “Work ethic on and off the ice was huge. The young guys watch you. You don’t know it, but they’re always watching you to see what you do.
“In the room, when things are going good you keep it positive, and when things are going bad you try to keep it positive but you have to kind of get mad to wake the guys up.”
Working hard wasn’t a big problem for him.
He said developing a strong work ethic was part of growing up.
“Farming isn’t easy,” Meilleur said. “It’s long days and hard hours, and it doesn’t matter what faces us, you have to get the job done because that’s how you earn a living.”
In a league where overage forwards are generally expected to be offensive leaders, Meilleur’s abundant intangibles surely factored into McCrimmon’s decision to keep him on the roster as a 20-year-old.
Meilleur takes pride in that fact.
“It’s obvious I wasn’t a points guy in junior,” Meilleur said. “I knew what I had to do to stay on the team, and Kelly had a lot of trust in me as far as leadership went and defensive hockey went, so I embraced it. I tried to be the best leader and the best defensive player I could be.”
In 227 regular season games over his career, Meilleur scored 32 goals, with 40 assists and 95 penalty minutes. He added seven more points in 24 playoff games.
His contributions weren’t forgotten by McCrimmon a few years later.
After Brandon won the 2016 WHL title, Meilleur received a text from his former coach thanking him for his work in developing the culture that later proved so successful.
In his final season in 2013-14, Brandon swept Regina in the first round before falling in five games to the eventual league champion Edmonton Oil Kings. Meilleur’s junior career ended with a 5-1 loss on April 11, 2014.
It wasn’t an easy pill to swallow for Meilleur, who made Brandon his adopted home.
“It was tough,” Meilleur said. “I spent my summers there training too so I spent four full years there. Pre-COVID, I was still going to Brandon in the summers when I got back home from Germany to see some buddies and I was still going there once a month or so to catch up.
“Brandon was a second home and it still is, and I think it always will be.”
Fortunately for Meilleur, his mother’s parents were both German immigrants so he qualified for citizenship. He earned that during his final WHL season, which allowed him to play professionally in Germany without counting as an import.
The next season, he joined the EC Kassel Huskies in DEL2, one league below the top level Deutsche Eishockey Liga. He spent virtually his entire five-year professional career in the city, which is located in central Germany.
He spoke only a tiny bit of German when he moved there — “Growing up, what am I ever going to need German for?” — making the move that much harder.
“You get there and you have jet lag and you don’t know where you are,” said Meilleur, who picked up a lot of the language in his time there. “It was definitely a very difficult transition.”
The tough times didn’t last long, in part because most of his teammates spoke English.
On the ice, Meilleur was asked to be a more offensive player and responded with 32 points in 62 games. He said it was fun to be in that role again.
A year later, Kassel won the league title with a team that also included former Wheat Kings forward Carter Proft.
He later played with another former Wheat King, Richard Mueller.
“(Carter) was a good friend in the first couple of years because we were both in the same boat,” Meilleur said. “Richie, from my last year, was a lot of fun too. He had lots of good stories from when he played for the Wheat Kings way back when.”
He said the hockey was likely at about an ECHL level.
His favourite part of playing in Europe, aside from the beer and the food, was the fans, who went to games to enjoy themselves.
“They would sing and dance and chant the entire game,” Meilleur said, noting it’s similar at soccer games. “That’s what it sounded like the entire game. Whistling when there was a bad penalty call, and yelling and chanting. It was such a cool experience.”
Meilleur, who had family members visit, made sure to take advantage of the geographic situation. He didn’t travel much during his first year in Germany, but after that would get dragged along as other import players used the mid-season and pre-playoff breaks to explore.
“Flights were cheap and train rides were cheap so you just jump on a last-minute flight and you enjoy Europe,” Meilleur said.
After the 2018-19 season, however, he decided the experience needed to end. It was time to go home for good.
“My family is very important to me, we’ve always been very close,” Meilleur said. “As time goes on, my parents get older and it felt like it was the right time to come back and help my family transition and join my two brothers on the farm and start that next chapter of life.
“I probably could have played another five years in Germany but it was just the right thing to come home after all my family did for me growing up. I think it was time to give back to them.”
He and his fiancée Courtney have just moved into a new house near the farm.
His childhood prepared him for the path that lies ahead, but so did the game of hockey.
“The biggest thing I learned is how to work with others,” Meilleur said. “You have such a big team and so many guys with different quirks. You have to navigate how to work with people and get the best out of everybody.
“… And mental toughness. There are so many things I took from learning from junior how to control emotions and be positive. It’s stuff like that I can take into the real world. I grew so much as a person through hockey.”