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Whitney's NHL path filled with twists and turns

by Keith Loria /

"I played on expansion teams, Original Six (teams), won a Stanley Cup, been bought out, been put on waivers. … I’ve seen just about everything the game has to offer. I’ve been through coaching changes, GM changes. I know enough now to stay in the game in some capacity and I look forward to what’s to come."
-- Ray Whitney

By now, most hockey fans know the story of how Ray Whitney the stick boy for the Edmonton Oilers became Ray Whitney, the two-time NHL All-Star and perennial good guy during his 17 seasons in the League.

Yet, reflecting on those years, the native of Fort Saskatchewan, Alb., didn't exactly end up where he imagined as a child.

Whitney's unique childhood saw him take the ice with future Hall of Famers Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier and Paul Coffey as a teenager when he wasn't busy handing out sticks and filling water cups during games and practices. So, it was only naturally that he believed he would one day play alongside those legends as a member of the Oilers -- a goal he enjoyed for a brief, but tantalizing, nine games in 1997-98.

At the very least, he dreamed he would suit up for Chicago, Montreal or one of the powerhouse hockey teams he watched religiously in the early-1980s. But when the expansion San Jose Sharks called his name during the 1991 Draft, it set the stage for an NHL career that has meandered through cities that didn't even have teams when Whitney was a youngster.

Except for one season in Detroit and those nine games with Edmonton at the start of the 1997-98 season, Whitney's entire career has been played with San Jose, Florida, Columbus and Carolina.

"I'm one of those players who could play and contribute offensively and didn't make a ton of money and could produce if I played a lot, so I think that was a factor in these teams being interested in me," Whitney says. "Some teams I have been on, when things start to go sour, they say, ‘Hey, we can always get rid of a smaller player and add size.' Sometimes that works and sometimes it doesn't. At my size, I'm probably not people's first choice when making a trade deadline deal."

Wanting a chance to win a Stanley Cup, he decided to sign on with the Red Wings in 2003, even though he knew that his ice time would be cut significantly from what he was getting during his previous few years with Columbus.

"When I was in Detroit, I didn't play as much and my production went down, but they didn't care if it wasn't at 70 points a year because they had enough players who put up points," he said. "But I wanted a chance to win. I had followed Steve Yzerman as a kid and it was quite a thrill to be there, on an Original Six team, and not playing for a team that was an expansion or new to the League."

But when Detroit wanted to trim its budget after a second round ouster in 2004, Whitney wasn't invited back for the following season. A free agent coming off a 43-point season and a year off because of the work stoppage, Whitney's services were not in great demand.

Carolina emerged as the most viable from the list of suitors and Whitney signed with the Hurricanes in August of 2005, believing his championship dreams were once again on hold.

"I thought I would have won one with Detroit and when I came here, I didn't know much about Carolina or the team or the coach, and we weren't picked very high by most of the experts in the polls," Whitney says. "But there was something special about that team. I remember telling my wife in December that it was the first time in my life that I thought we could win it. That's how good of a team we were, on and off the ice."

After putting up 55 points in 63 regular-season games, Whitney reeled off 15 points in the Hurricanes' surprising Stanley Cup championship run. In the Final, against the Oiler team he served as a teenager, Whitney scored a pair of goals in Game 1 to set the tone for a seven-game triumph by the Hurricanes that delivered the franchise its first championship.

"It was the biggest thrill I could have ever imagined," Whitney said. "I just play my whole career to try and get into the playoffs and getting my name on the Cup and that is really what means the most to any player. It's a thrill to play in the playoffs. I have been in the League a long time and have only been to the playoffs five times. It's so hard but once you are in, it's so much fun."

The Hurricanes are currently tied with Buffalo for the last playoff spot in the East.

"We have a great core of guys and a great core of leadership here and I think that puts us in a good position," Whitney says. "(Rod) Brind'Amour, (Eric) Staal and (Cam) Ward are the backbone of this franchise and we are still a very good offensive team.

"Last year one game cost us the playoffs. I think with (coach) Paul Maurice here now, we are better defensively, trying to find that happy medium, going on offense without giving up too much defensively."

Whitney has certainly done his part this season, leading the team in scoring with 51 points through the team's first 63 games, numbers that many thought should have earned the 36-year-old his third All-Star Game selection. But that honor went to Staal, a decision with which Whitney agrees.

"I don't have any illusions that I should be there ahead of Eric Staal. He's the star on our team, no question," says Whitney. "I'd rather be home with my family anyway."

With three little ones -- Hanna, Hudson and Harper -- running through his house, Whitney always is happy to take a little break from the game. Sometimes he even finds time to spend some time on his hobby of collecting vintage cars.

"I have a 1970 Chevelle, a1970 Plymouth Roadrunner and a '69 Camaro convertible," he says. "It's something different and I like the look of the old cars better."

Speaking of old, Whitney knows that as birthday No. 37 approaches in early May, he is likely approaching the end of his career. But he's not worried … yet.
"It's no longer the clutching-and-grabbing game of the '80s and '90s, so I think the rule changes have obviously helped someone like me." -- Ray Whitney
"It's no longer the clutching-and-grabbing game of the '80s and '90s, so I think the rule changes have obviously helped someone like me," he says. "I think as long as you don't slow down, you can play in this game for a while, and I still have quite a number of years left in me."

When the time does come for him to hang up those skates, Whitney plans on staying a part of the NHL in some way, preferably on the management side.

"I've been in the game and around the ice since I was 9, growing up with the Edmonton players and basically being in the locker room the whole time," he says. "I played on expansion teams, Original Six (teams), won a Stanley Cup, been bought out, been put on waivers. … I've seen just about everything the game has to offer. I've been through coaching changes, GM changes. I know enough now to stay in the game in some capacity and I look forward to what's to come."
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