|| David Droschak |
RALEIGH, N.C. (FEB. 5, 2007) - Get into a conversation with Ray Whitney about the latest driver on the market or Tiger Woods and you may be tied up for about 30 minutes. Ask the veteran left wing about one of the best seasons of his 15-year NHL career and the talk may not last 30 seconds.
Whitney, 34, has been downplaying his team-leading point total of 59 in 55 games, which puts him among the top 15 scorers in the league and on pace to surpass the career-best 76 points he scored for Columbus in 2002-03.
"I'm not going to be in the Hall of Fame with my stats so I don't really care," said Whitney, who has 243 goals and 406 assists in 818 career games. "I would rather take the Stanley Cup any day, or be fourth or fifth in the Eastern Conference standings instead of seventh of eighth."
Whitney, a two-time All-Star who probably should have been selected this season, has already passed his point total of 55 last season, when he played in just 63 games because of a pair of nagging groin injuries. But once the playoff rolled around, he scored nine goals and had six assists to help the Canes to the Cup.
So, in Whitney's mind, nothing beats winning.
"What has impressed me the most about Ray since I've gotten to know him is his competitiveness, his want to be successful, to win a championship, and then to win a championship again," said coach Peter Laviolette. "That is one of his greatest strengths. You know, he's a skilled guy, he's a funny guy, but his competitiveness and his want to win are very, very impressive."
General manager Jim Rutherford signed Whitney to a two-year contract after the work stoppage, targeting him as a skilled player who would be able to add some punch to the power play.
Whitney hasn't disappointed, scoring 12 of his 17 goals a season ago with the man advantage and adding a team-leading 18 assists so far this season on the power play. Laviolette calls Whitney the club's most consistent forward. He has had at least one point in 35 of Carolina's 55 games.
"He came back with a purpose and told me he wanted to play, wanted to be more of a part and wanted to contribute," said Laviolette. "I love it when players do that. But then you've got to back it up and he's done that every step of the way."
Whitney saw the exit of free agents Mark Recchi, Doug Weight and Matt Cullen and knew in his mind he would be counted on for more scoring. He has 21 goals now. His most productive season on that front was 33 in 1997-98 while splitting time between Edmonton and Florida.
"When you have those three guys leave everybody should have wanted a bigger role," said Whitney.
At 5-foot-10, 180 pounds, Whitney is one player who has benefited from the new NHL rules of no clutching and grabbing, taking on the nickname of The Wizard.
"He's crafty and a tough player to try to check," said Erik Cole. "He's got those quick, tight little cut-backs or escape moves. He is one of those guys who can make you look pretty foolish, and then you are almost more upset and you're going after him harder and then he does it to you again.
"He certainly sees the ice in a special way and can see how plays develop, and he opens up shooting and passing lanes for guys."
Whitney also adds spice to the locker room and on the ice. One of Whitney's funny traditions is getting in the background of Carolina's pregame interviews, stretching out along the boards and getting his mug in the camera shot while Tripp Tracy tries to conduct business.
"I enjoy his humor," Cole said. "I think it's a lot of fun and important to have a guy like him. He keeps everybody in check. There is nothing off limits for him -- no topic is too far out of reach for Whit."
Whitney's second love is golf, and he's good, real good. He shot even-par when I played with him at TPC Wakefield this past summer. I don't think he missed a fairway.
However, Whitney has no illusions of a second career in golf. He tried to qualify for the U.S. Open in 2001 and missed out badly, and he shot a 78 on Pinehurst No. 2 this summer playing with Cole and Eric Staal.
"He tried to qualify for the U.S. Open and they told him not to come back," said a laughing Cole. "I wouldn't recommend him going that route."
"I play for fun," said Whitney, who is a scratch golfer. "I've played with a lot of pros on the course I belong to in Arizona (Whisper Rock). There is a huge difference between their game and my game. They can hit every shot possible and I can't. They can hit it consistently. If I was to play PGA Tour conditions I would be a 7, 8 or 10 handicap."
If you were handicapping Whitney's NHL career early on it's a good bet he wouldn't be around in 2006-07. He was floundering in San Jose and was placed on waivers by Edmonton before catching on in Florida in 1998, where his career began to flourish. In his last 618 games over nine seasons Whitney has 528 points.
"I am too cocky not to think I would be," Whitney laughed when asked if he believed he would still be playing in the league after 15 years. "I don't think my parents thought I would be. There was a time, five years into my career, I didn't think I would still be playing in the NHL."
He's not only playing, but is one of the more productive players in the league.
David Droschak is the former sports editor for the North Carolina bureaus of the Associated Press, the largest news-gathering organization in the world. In 2003, Droschak was named the North Carolina Sportswriter of the Year. The only writer in the Triangle to have covered the Carolina Hurricanes every season since the organization moved to North Carolina, he currently is a principal in the Raleigh-based public relations firm Hughes-Droschak Communications.