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Whitney keeps ticking, closes in on career milestone

by Jerry Brown
Of all the numbers that serve to encapsulate the impressive 20-year hockey career of Ray Whitney, here are three that might surprise even the most observant NHL followers:

Two, two and 38.

Whitney has been waived twice in his career -- once after just nine games by his hometown team, the Edmonton Oilers.

Whitney has been bought out of his contract twice -- once in Carolina a few years after leading the Hurricanes to a Stanley Cup.

But as he laces up his skates for the 1,191st time in the NHL tonight in Detroit's Joe Louis Arena, where his one-year stint with the Red Wings ended with one of those "it's not you, it's us" buyouts almost eight years ago, the impish, 39-year-old winger stands just 38 points shy of the 1,000-point mark in his career.


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And the man they call "The Wizard" is on a scoring pace that makes that milestone possible by the end of the season.

Only 78 skaters have reached 1,000 points in NHL history, a club that is becoming harder and harder to join.

"The 1,000 points is a big number for a lot of people. That list includes some of the greatest players of all-time," Whitney said. "I don't think it's going to get me in the Hall of Fame. I think Wayne Gretzky got to 1,000 points when he was 23, so … but it means a lot to me, and I think fewer and fewer players will get there with the way the game has changed."

Not surprisingly, Whiney was bypassed for selection to the NHL All-Star Game on Thursday. He's played in two previously and admitted, while he would have been honored to be picked, the extended break is welcome after the Coyotes endured a brutal schedule over the last six weeks.

But there is sufficient evidence to suggest the decision amounts to another snub for a guy who signed his first NHL contract on the hood of his car more than two decades ago:

* Whitney collected both his 350th career goal and 600th assist weeks apart earlier this season. And at an age where many players are either hanging on or watching from the sidelines, Whitney is a major contributor to a Phoenix team that would have a hard time without him.

* On a team with All-Star defenseman Keith Yandle, Whitney leads the Coyotes in assists with 22. On a team with 20-goal scorer Radim Vrbata, Whitney leads the team in points with 36 and is tied in power-play goals (4) and plus/minus (plus-12).

* And on a Coyotes team where offensive skill is in short supply, Phoenix coach Dave Tippett uses Whitney like a pair of jumper cables to get other slumping forwards in need of a spark back on track.

"I can say a lot of good things about Ray Whitney, but the best is that he makes all the players around him better," Tippett said. "He makes the plays that other players try to make. The difference is, he makes them. We don't have any stars on our team, but he's the guy who has that type of skill level, and he's unselfish. He's a very important player for us."

Whitney is also a go-to player off the ice -- a must-stop for both home and visiting media for the latest quip or carve on a teammate, all done with a straight face … and then a wink. Television viewers know Whitney will skate behind any on-ice interview, working his contorted mug into every shot and play the "Where's Whitney?" game.

"It's me being me, but I've been around long enough to know when it's appropriate and even a good joke at a bad time isn't appreciated," Whitney said. "We have a great room -- Yandle and (Adrian) Aucoin are right there with me -- but when it's time to play, we are all business. Some people can watch TV or do a crossword puzzle right before the game. I find a camera or two."

While scoring a goal is always fun, Whitney has always taken the most pride in his assists -- he had 118 of them in his final year of juniors with the Spokane Chiefs in 1990-91. It was something ingrained in him by his father, Floyd, a former Edmonton Oilers practice goalie who help get young Ray a spot as a stick boy for the Gretzky/Mark Messier dynasty teams.

Ray Whitney
Left Wing - PHX
GOALS: 14 | ASST: 22 | PTS: 36
SOG: 95 | +/-: 12
"Dad was always very adamant about the value of an assist," Whiney said. "Being one of the better players growing up, not being a puck hog was very big to him. If I went through a few shifts where I was puck-hogging in his opinion, I could hear him from the stands yelling, 'Pass the puck!' So I always had a quick grasp of sharing the puck with others.

"I grew up watching Gretzky and that's all he did back then was set up the play. Sometimes I pass on some pretty good shot opportunities, but I've always preferred to pass than shoot. A nice pass is better than tapping one in yourself."

His latest helper, No. 607, was pure Whitney. With Shane Doan looking for the first hat trick of his 16-year career in the final seconds of Saturday's win over the Islanders, Whitney's serpentine balancing act on the blue line gave the huffing and puffing captain enough time to drag himself up the ice and receive a teed-up pass that he pounded into the back of the net an instant before the final horn.

"The old goat finally got there," Whitney said, timing the quip as well as his pass -- catching Doan just as he walked past him in the hall and earning both a laugh and a shake of the head.

In the last year of his two-year contract, Whitney turns 40 in May. But on pace to produce his best scoring season since 2008-09, there are no plans to retire, though he'll worry about next year later.
"No one is giving me a three-year contract even if I put up 70 points," Whitney said. "And my kids and family have done enough moving around. I plan on playing and this is a great place and a great room, but there are a lot of factors that aren't in my control about that. We'll see what the summer brings."
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