After foot surgery in the summer, three months of rehab and a month of skating, Penguins defenseman Ryan Whitney rejoined his teammates for practice for the first time since the Stanley Cup Final on Friday afternoon at Southpointe.
“It’s just nice to feel kind of normal again,” Whitney said following practice. “There’s plenty of rust. Handling the puck is something that tough to do after you haven’t done it for five or six months. It’s good to be passing the puck with guys. You can only do so much when you’re out there alone. Giving hard passes, taking hard passes, that gets you back into it.”
Practicing with the Penguins is the latest phase of Whitney’s recovery process. He skated on his own and with strength and conditioning coach Mike Kadar for the past month, but is still only in the early stages of a complete return.
“I won’t be practicing the full (session),” Whitney said. “I don’t think I’m ready for the physical stuff – the one-on-ones and things like that – but just getting back into the timing of passing the puck at this speed and those types of things. It’s to start passing to guys, shooting the puck and getting flow. You have to get your timing back down. When you’re out there by yourself there’s no timing.”
Though his return to practice – even if it is only for a portion of practice – is an inspiring sign, his return to the lineup is still unknown.
“I haven’t set a return game or return date,” Whitney said. “In my head, I had Christmas and right around then. Hopefully it’s a little before that but I don’t want to get my hopes up and have it be after. It’s something I just have to stay with it. You have to have solid practices and feel real good in practice before you even think about playing.
“Once I’m practicing full time, in two to three weeks I should be ready to play a game. You should really have your timing back and have solid practices before you’re playing again.”
Whitney had offseason surgery on two areas of his left foot following a few seasons of severe discomfort. He was born with high arched feet and the problem was compounded by his shot blocking prowess.
“Playing hockey and taking a lot of shots off each (foot) have created problems,” he said. “After two years, enough had been enough. It kept getting worse and worse. I couldn’t have gone through another year like last year where everyday you don’t know how it’s going to feel.”
Whitney broached the problem with Penguins management and staff. Everyone was onboard with the surgery and supported Whitney through the process.
“Management, I can’t say enough about how much they helped me through this,” he said. “At no time were they hesitant to help me find help and find out what was wrong. Once I needed surgery, they were 100 percent with me. They said don’t worry about anything. I can’t say enough about how good Ray (Shero) was through the whole thing.”
After his foot healed from surgery, Whitney began an arduous rehab regime that incorporated a total body workout. He arrived at Mellon Arena long before his teammates and started his day with stretching and strength exercises for his foot. Then he would skate on the ice with Kadar for over an hour, followed by weight training and more foot exercises.
“You’re here for a long time but it’s necessary to get healthy again,” Whitney said. “We use a band to strengthen (my foot) and getting it stronger. You do balance stuff. Being on the ice, there’s a lot of stuff that comes with skating, sports specific rehab. Then there’s upper-body lifting and leg strength. I tried to get a stronger upper body while I’ve been out and keep working on the ankle strength and getting that back.”
But rehabbing isn’t only taxing on a player’s physicality. It can seem like a never ending and lonely road to recovery for any player with a lengthy rehab. A player must have the right frame of mind to handle the frustrations and remain patient.
“It’s more mental than anything,” Whitney said. “The rehab’s been tough. There have been up days and down days. Being away from the team has been real tough. You get lonely. When they’re around and at home it’s not bad. When they’re on the road, it’s an hour or two hours of rehab and then a whole day of being by yourself, which isn’t any fun.”
To keep his mind off of hockey during the last few months, Whitney threw himself into community projects. He attended a street hockey tournament and handed out trophies. Whitney also visited local schools and read to fourth-grade children as a way of encouraging students to learn through reading.
“I thought it would be a good idea; it would get my mind off of (rehab),” Whitney said. “It’s pretty cool to bring a smile to a kid’s face or help out people that are in need. When you’re hurt, it makes you think of how lucky you are. Even if you’re injured and you’re down and out, once you see people that really need help it puts everything in perspective.”
That perspective helped Whitney overcome an unexpected scare during his rehab. He experienced that all too familiar discomfort to his foot when he skated for the first time after surgery.
“It was a little disheartening,” Whitney admitted. “I thought it would be better right away. The trainers actually told me, ‘Don’t worry, it’s still really weak.’ In the three weeks of skating by myself, it’s gotten a lot better. But right at the beginning it was a little nerve racking.”
Whitney will rejoin his teammates in the lineup once he is completely healthy. Until then, he’ll continue to rehab and strengthen his foot.
“The rehab continues. I’m by no means done with that,” Whitney said. “There’s a lot left to do there. It’s still weak right now but at the same time I notice a difference. Day-by-day, week-by-week, it’s gotten a lot better. As the weeks go on it feels stronger.”