On cue, Ray Whitney poked fun at himself when asked about his impending 1,000th game Wednesday night, saying he’s not only “too small” to play in the NHL, but now “too old.”
For a half dozen years in the early to mid ‘90s in what used to be a clutch-and-grab league, the 5-foot-8 Whitney heard ad nauseum that his lack of size was a stumbling block for advancement. For Whitney, that criticism echoes to his youth hockey days when he was often one of the smallest kids on the ice.
Now at 37, most players in the NHL would find themselves winding down their careers, but not the Wizard, whose last 11 seasons have been far more productive than his rocky start with the San Jose Sharks, who took Whitney with the 23rd overall pick in the 1991 NHL Draft.
That’s what makes Wednesday’s skate onto the ice on Long Island extremely satisfying for Whitney. Less than 250 players in the history of the NHL have logged 1,000 games, and few, if any, were placed on waivers twice and had their contract bought out at one of the lowest points of their careers.
In Whitney’s case, playing 1,000 NHL games is as much a testament to his mental toughness and will to succeed as it is to his offensive talents and ability to fight through pain.
Few knew last season that the alternate captain broke a bone in his hand, had a pin inserted during an operation over the All-Star break and never missed a game en route to his fourth productive season with the Carolina Hurricanes.
“Of the 1,000 you probably have about 200 where something’s not bothering you or something isn’t taped or you’re not taking a Tylenol or Advil to take the edge off before a game,” Whitney said. “It is not an easy sport to play for 1,000 games. Football is obviously very hard on your body, but hockey is right there with it in terms of recovery time.
“And you usually cut injuries short by a week or two weeks in terms of recovery time trying to get back. To get to 1,000 you are going to have to play through a few bumps and bruises. Last year was a good example. I had a pin in my finger for eight weeks and couldn’t bend my middle finger on my bottom hand, but you have to play, otherwise if you’re out of sight you could be out of mind. It’s best to be in.”
Whitney still remembers when being on an NHL roster wasn’t a given. And he can still rattle off the list of general managers who sidetracked his career and the players given opportunities ahead of him in San Jose and later Edmonton that are no longer in the league.
“He’s had an interesting go at it, all the things he’s gone through to be such a good player, it really is amazing,” said coach Paul Maurice. “So many times fit has a lot to do with it – being on the right team at the right time that needs exactly what you have. And you look at Ray now and say, ‘How could any team not want what he has?’
“You don’t appreciate what he does on TV or if you are watching it once every two weeks,” added Maurice. “The first thing you notice is how competitive he is. And there was that stretch there over the last two months last year where all his numbers showed up in the last eight minutes of games -- big goals, big assists, big plays. He’s also a great resource for the coaches in the room in terms of what he sees on the ice and how he processes the game, because he can articulate it to you and he has a different feel of it being out there. And he really enjoys it. Maybe at the end of the day that’s really it, he’s happy to be in the games, he’s excited before the games, and the other players see that.”
Few playing the game have experienced more highs and lows than Whitney, playing for six different teams. After establishing himself as a solid NHL player in San Jose, he was sent to play for such minor-league teams as the Utah Grizzles and Kentucky Thoroughblades. He also made an All-Star team in Florida, was a team captain for Columbus and raised a Stanley Cup in 2006 with Carolina. In 299 career games with the Canes, the former stick boy for the Oilers during the late Gretzky years has amassed 280 points, seconds only to Eric Staal in productivity. He is one of Jim Rutherford’s steals since the work stoppage whipped away the 2004-05 season.
In recent years, the Carolina organization has witnessed respected players such as Rod Brind’Amour and Glen Wesley reach the 1,000-game milestone and beyond. And Associate Head Coach Ron Francis is third all-time in games played at 1,731.
Wesley said Whitney’s skill and longevity are impressive, but insists that the Wizard’s mental makeup has allowed him to withstand the test of time in a sport that has been best described by many who played it as “a grind.”
“Ray was on the verge of not knowing if he was going to last in the league,” Wesley said. “Can you imagine the doubts that go through your mind when you get put on waivers? And he has played with different organizations that didn’t have a whole lot of success. When he got an opportunity to have some stability here he was able to establish himself as not only a veteran but a great leader in the locker room.
“Ray is known for his jokes, but on the other side of it he calls it as he sees it,” Wesley added. “And he’s going to give you his honest opinion of what he thinks. That’s something a lot of the guys don’t do enough of. That’s a credit to him and the standard that he wants to see night-in and night-out and prove, not only to himself, but to his teammates. That’s why he has a letter on his jersey.”
Of course a joke was forthcoming from Whitney when I asked him the meaning of his 1000th game.
“Expensive gifts,” he said with his dead-pan humor.
Whitney then turned serious for a bit, and expressed his spot-on feelings.
“It’s a big milestone for a guy who was told a few times I wasn’t supposed to play in this league, especially not this long,” he said.
The little guy with big dreams skates on.