Sometime in January 2016, as he got set to dress for a practice at the Arizona Coyotes’ training facility, Shane Doan scanned his stall and noticed that something was amiss.
He reached for his skates, only to find the laces had been cut. This, to Doan, was peculiar. It was a classic hockey goof, a rite of passage to haze players in dressing rooms across the sport, though one usually reserved for rookies or those new to a team. Yet here was Doan, 40 years old, the venerable Coyotes captain on a team full of guys who were much, much younger. If nothing else, Doan reasoned, he had the respect of the room. Who would possibly try something like this?
Doan shrugged it off. But when he reached up to pull down his shin pads that were resting high above his stall, a cup of water hidden inside the equipment came pouring down on top of him.
He stood there for a moment, drenched and dripping to the floor, when it hit him.
“Friggin’ Whits!” he exclaimed to the room.
The other players getting dressed were confused. “Whits?” they wondered.
Imagine their surprise, though not Doan’s, that the culprit had been a beloved former teammate and Stanley Cup champion. It had been four seasons since the prankster last played with the Coyotes – heck, it had been two years since he had last played in the NHL. And yet there was no question to Doan who had got him. “It’s Whits,” he muttered again. “I know it was him.”
He was right. Ray Whitney had struck again.
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There are all manner of ways for a player to leave his mark, though few of any stature have made more impressions on more teams over more years than Whitney. He came from Fort Saskatchewan, Alta., and grew to be one of the most durable players the NHL has ever seen. He put up 1,064 points in 1,330 games over 22 seasons. Yet it almost ended after just seven.
A mildly heralded prospect, Whitney was bought out by San Jose, the team that drafted him, and then placed on waivers by Edmonton, the team that picked him up. In his mid-20s, it seemed like he had no clear NHL future. “I thought my NHL career was done,” he said.
And yet, after he thought he was heading to Europe to play out whatever years he had left in the game, something changed. He devoted himself to a new kind of training, a rigorous fitness regime that energized his career. He became one of the league’s most consistent forwards and one of its most reliable scorers, racking up a career-high 83 points in 2006-07, at age 34, and another 77 points in 2011-12, at 39.
After it was all said and done, when he finally retired in 2015, so wide was the scope of Whitney’s career that he had starred for eight clubs over more than two decades in the league. According to the editors of this magazine, on a whopping five of the organizations he suited up for, Whitney is one of the 50 greatest players those teams have ever had – the highest such figure to appear in The Top 50 Players of All-Time By Franchise.
* * * * *
Like most future pros, Whitney was a star early in his sport. After ruling over the minor hockey ranks in his hometown, he became a point-scoring machine in the WHL, stuffing stat sheets for the Spokane Chiefs, where he caught the eyes of NHL scouts. Alongside Pat Falloon, who would be drafted second overall behind Eric Lindros, Whitney put up an absurd 185 points in 72 games during his final season in Spokane, capping a sensational junior career with the 1991 Memorial Cup.
Ray Whitney, left, was the 23rd overall pick by the San Jose Sharks in the 1991 NHL draft. Pat Falloon, who was Whitney's WHL teammate on the Spokane Chiefs, was selected second overall by San Jose.
He was a second-round pick of the Sharks in 1991, with concerns over his size sabotaging his draft stock, and yet the truth was Whitney had reached the NHL many years earlier. His father, Floyd, was the Edmonton Oilers’ longtime practice goalie, and so there Whitney found himself in the glory days of the 1980s, a fresh-faced teen playing stick boy and dressing room gofer for Wayne Gretzky and Mark Messier.
The guys were all great to him, team icons such as Craig MacTavish and Kevin Lowe, but of course Gretzky sticks in his memory. “Gretz was obviously one of the best players,” he said, “but he was one of the best people behind the scenes.”
Sometimes, Whitney would forget to pass Gretzky the sticks that he had just cut and powdered for him, and ‘The Great One’ would playfully whack him upon the head. Whitney ate it up. He still has a cheque from Gretzky for $100, a tip from hockey’s biggest star that a young Whitney could never bring himself to cash.
When it came time for his own pro career to begin, Whitney, who went on to play so many seasons in the NHL, didn’t start right away. He figured there was little left for him to prove in major junior, yet the Sharks were unwilling to grant him a one-way contract to guarantee his stay on its roster. So off he went to Germany, having just turned 19. There he spent what could have been his first months in the NHL playing for the Cologne Sharks of the old Eishockey-Bundesliga before returning to North America, where he finished the season with the San Diego Gulls of the International League.
His NHL debut came late in the 1991-92 season, when he scored three points in two games with San Jose. In the years to come, it appeared he was a promising Shark, twice scoring 40 points across the ice from Falloon, his old Spokane teammate. Yet the Sharks had other plans. Whitney never quite caught on in San Jose, bouncing between the minors and the big club until the team bought him out in 1997. When he signed with Edmonton as a free agent, the Oilers, too, cast him aside. He was placed on waivers after only nine games, and here is where Whitney believed he was finished as an NHL player.
He was still only 25, but he began to look overseas, the NHL knocking him down and, at least to Whitney then, seemingly out for good. He figured, after Edmonton, he would play out the year if he could find a team to take him, then prepare for a life in Europe. “I had no idea I’d go as long as I eventually did (in the NHL),” he said. “I couldn’t fathom it at all.”
What Whitney had in his back pocket, however, was that newfound training regimen, having been hooked up the previous summer with Daryl Duke, an Oilers strength coach and former Canadian kickboxing champ. After getting kicked to the curb, Whitney dedicated himself to more core exercises than he believed he could handle, with endless stair runs and push-ups to go alongside them. “You think you’re in shape,” Whitney said, “but you’re not even close until you work out with a boxer or a kickboxer.”
His improved conditioning seemed to ignite his career when the Panthers plucked him off waivers later in 1997. Florida was an unremarkable team, yet what they could provide Whitney was opportunity. He was asked to score early and often, and he found he was stronger on the ice than he had been as a younger player, that he could carry much more stamina much longer into games.
In only 68 games, he led the Panthers with 61 points, and from there began the business of Ray Whitney, Dependable NHL Scorer. Over the following 13 seasons, Whitney put up fewer than 50 points only twice, carving for himself an unlikely career log in which some of his best statistical lines came in his mid-to-late 30s.
He left in his wake a host of teammates and coaches who still swear by him. “Some players, as a coach, you learn from,” said Paul Maurice, who coached Whitney in Carolina. “He was one of the guys in the room that as a coach you felt like you had to be on that day. You weren’t throwing a half-assed video session. You weren’t yelling or screaming in generalities. You had to be better than that when Ray was around.”
Maurice found in Whitney a sophisticated understanding of the game, but more than that a worthy foil in a relationship that is often uneven in its power structure. As a young coach, Maurice would sometimes have to scream at his team, to “give them the business,” in his cleaned-up coaching parlance.
But Whitney helped Maurice realize that, following a required tongue-lashing, the players and coaches were still men, that they all needed to quickly regain a balance that would allow them to work toward a unified goal again. Maurice, at Whitney’s encouraging, always made sure to say hello to his guys when he walked by them in the hallway following a confrontation, to insist on saying good morning and to never look down at his shoes as he passed. “I still keep that in mind now when I deal with all of my players,” Maurice said.
* * * * *
A few months after he turned 34, during his first season with the Hurricanes, Whitney hoisted the Stanley Cup in 2006, Carolina’s first and only championship. For a player his age who had just reached the pinnacle of a career, perhaps it was time for Whitney to slow down.
Not so fast. Instead, fresh off a Cup ring, Whitney put up his finest statistical season in 2006-07 – 83 points, including 32 goals – and an unlikely career twilight began in earnest. In succession, Whitney put up 61, 77, 58, 57 and 77 points in the years that followed until the season he turned 40, and even then, though he played only 32 games in 2012-13, he still averaged nearly a point per game.
Whitney left the NHL at 42, happy to kick around his home in Scottsdale, Ariz., with his wife, Brijet (who famously appeared on the first season of the W Network reality series Hockey Wives), and his three children, Hanna, Hudson and Harper. There, close to the Coyotes, he could occasionally pop in and goof on his old buddy Doan.
But as it has gone for Whitney, a life outside of hockey didn’t last long. He soon joined the Hurricanes as a pro scout, and this past off-season he joined the NHL’s Department of Player Safety. Few were surprised by his turn to the front office. Steve Yzerman, who played with Whitney for a season in Detroit and later became GM of the Tampa Bay Lightning, admitted that, before Whitney took a job with Carolina, Yzerman would often seek his help evaluating players. “He can pick them out, good or bad,” Yzerman said. “He just gets it. He understands.”
Whitney has nearly seen it all in the world of hockey. He was disregarded by many ahead of the 1991 NHL draft; he ended up as the highest-scoring player in the entire class. He was bought out and placed on waivers; he turned into one of the longest-tenured and highest-producing NHLers of his generation.
Ask around a little, and guys love to rib on Whitney, the famous video-bomber, just as he always did on them. “He’s a terrible card player,” Doan relishes in sharing. Or there is Yzerman, who is able to sneak a dig at his old teammate while at the same time gushing over Whitney’s golf game. “He can’t break a pane of glass with his slapshot, but he can hit a 340-yard drive,” Yzerman marvelled. “It makes no sense.”
These are the reflections on a life in the NHL, of 22 seasons, many of which were played at the top level of the sport. At every stop, though some were brief, Whitney managed to make an impression, to coaches and teammates that leap today at the chance to return calls and emails to discuss their old friend and teammate.
Just ask Shane Doan. Ray Whitney always found a way to make his mark.