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Penguins' Whitney On The Mend

by Staff Writer / Pittsburgh Penguins
Ryan Whitney, “crutching around right now” after undergoing surgery on his left foot last week, will miss the Penguins’ historic season-opening games against the Ottawa Senators in Stockholm, Sweden Oct. 4-5.

He’ll miss the Penguins’ North American opener against New Jersey at Mellon Arena, Oct. 11, the club’s first game on home ice since its pulsating trip to the Stanley Cup Finals -- “and I can only imagine what it’s going to be like in the arena on that night – so it’s going to be a little frustrating sitting in the press box.”

The reality for Whitney is that he’ll miss the first several months of the 2008-09 season, coming off a surgical procedure that normally takes 3-5 months to heal, and that might mean a lot of frustrating nights in the press box or the stands or the dressing room. But, in the big picture, he is confident he’ll be better for it – able to both skate and walk pain-free.

And that’s good news for the Penguins, who consider the big, skilled defenseman a key component of their young, talented core.

“I was so frustrated tying to skate with the problems I had that this is something I’m very happy about,” he told in his first interview since the surgery. “I couldn’t take not being healthy. It just wore on me, mentally as well as physically. This will be like a new start.”

Whitney, 25, known for his ability to move the puck – including a quick, sharp outlet pass – ranked sixth among NHL defensemen in scoring in the 2006-07 season when he recorded 14 goals and 45 assists for 59 points in 81 games. But it was near the end of that season when he first noticed the problem in his left foot. Although there was pain involved when he walked and skated, he also described it as a “lack of stability” that affected his ability to do quick turns, quick stops and turn tightly around the net.

He hoped a summer of rest would provide some relief heading into 2007-08, but there was no improvement, and the problem gradually escalated. Although he battled through the entire season, playing 96 games including playoffs, and never talking about the injury or trying to use it as an excuse, he knew he had to seek a solution in the off-season. He went to four different foot specialists, all of whom agreed on their diagnosis.

“At that point, it wasn’t just an on-ice thing… it was a quality of life thing,” said Whitney, whose production had dipped a bit to 12 goals and 40 points in 76 regular season games. “It was miserable getting out of bed every day and trying to work out, trying to do quick feet drills. It was miserable even going for a walk. It was starting to affect me off the ice as well.”

At the suggestion of the specialists, he tried orthotics for a month, starting in July, in a final attempt to avoid surgery, but there was no improvement. So he decided to have the procedure, which was performed by Dr. Robert Anderson in Charlotte, N.C.

“You can’t just jump into surgery – it’s a big decision – but I had four highly-recommended foot specialists telling me they believe this is really going to help me,” he said. “Because of the way my foot was shaped, along with taking some slapshots off my foot the year before, it has lost some stability. This was what we had to do.”

Looking back, he is especially appreciative of the work done by Penguins head equipment manager Dana Heinze, assistant equipment manager Paul DeFazio, head athletic trainer Chris Stewart and assistant athletic trainer Scott Adams, to help him through the Penguins’ magical 2007-08 season.

“Those guys were incredible, and I can’t say enough about them,” Whitney said. “Dana and Paulie did an unbelievable job sharpening my skates in different ways. Stew and Scotty tried different stretching techniques, tried to tape it. They tried everything to help me.

“Without those guys … well, basically, I was a headache to them all year, but they helped me get through the season.”

Now, it’s a fresh start for the fourth-year defenseman, although he won’t even  be putting any weight on his foot for a period of up to six weeks. He’ll eventually go from crutches to a walking boot, and then he’ll be able to start some upper body exercises. But he knows he’s going to have to be patient, especially as the team reports to training camp Sept. 16 to renew its quest for the Stanley Cup.

“I know I won’t be skating for a while, and that will be tough, but I’m just going to have to be patient and deal with it,” Whitney said. “After what I’ve been through, I’ve got to make sure it heals. It’s going to take some time. But I’ll be looking forward to getting back on the ice.”

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