GLENDALE -- As a connoisseur of fine wine, Ray Whitney
has a distinct appreciation for things that get better with age. How appropriate that his long, winding, NHL career has turned out to be a vintage collector's item as well.
One month shy of turning 40, when most hockey careers have already withered on the vine, Whitney is savoring the bouquet of one of his best NHL seasons. The capper came Saturday when the Phoenix Coyotes' forward set up linemate Radim Vrbata
for a second-period goal in a 4-0 win over the Anaheim Ducks, becoming the 79th player in League history to reach 1,000 points.
Many of the players on that list played their entire career with one team – or at least have a particular franchise with which they are quickly associated. Not Whitney. The Coyotes are his seventh NHL team -- part of an odyssey that has seen him released, bought out, placed on waivers and traded in order to keep or acquire players who could only dream of matching his achievements.
"It hasn't been overly easy, I've had to earn what I've done," said Whitney, who over the summer, aware he needed 74 points to reach 1,000 – which would be one of his best seasons ever, boldly said he expected to get there. "There's been a couple of times where it didn't look like it was going to go on any further so this is something I'm very proud of."
► Click here to watch a Q & A with Whitney after Saturday's game.
The real crossroads came in 1997, when after being one an original San Jose Shark and collecting 106 points in the previous three seasons, Whitney was sent to the minors -- the Sharks eventually bought out their second-round draft pick from 1991. Whitney went home to Edmonton and sat down with his father Floyd – a 32-year veteran of the Edmonton police department who moonlighted as a part-time scout and practice goalie for the Oilers dynasty in the 1980s.
Was it time to give up on the NHL? Was it time to give up hockey?
|Ray Whitney poses with the puck used for his 1,000th NHL point on March 31, 2012. Photo by Norm Hall.
"We were talking [playing in] Europe. We were talking [getting a job with the] police department — that's a pretty good job – talking a lot of other possibilities," Floyd Whitney said. "That's when Glen Sather said he could come to camp.
While dad was in the nets for the Oilers, 15-year-old Ray was a stick boy for the team. They were both in the locker room watching "Sather was giving them all hell and stuff and stuff like that. It was really special."
As a favor, the Oilers' general manager made an offer – a make-good contract. No promises.
"Dad said, ‘Make sure you give it one last good one before you take off,' " Ray Whitney
It only lasted nine games – the Oilers released him – but father and son will never forget riding the bike side-by-side, or when Ray would shoot on his father in practice. "No taking it easy on me either," he remembered.
Florida was intrigued enough to pick up Whitney, and everything finally clicked. He scored 32 goals in 68 games, including a pair when he returned to Edmonton for the first time. "I remember when I went back there in February I would have been leading their team in goals as well," he said with a wry smile.
That's the fire that has burned for 20 years. Prove everyone wrong. Pile up the points. Raise the Stanley Cup, as he did in Carolina in 2006 – four years before the Hurricanes joined the list of teams convinced "The Wizard" was out of magic.
Apparently not. Whitney's 1,000th point was also his 51st assist of the season – the most by any Coyote since the team moved to Phoenix in 1996 and the most in franchise history since Phil Housley had 79 in 1992-93, when he set up Teemu Selanne for many of his League-record 76 goals by a rookie. Just 40 seconds later, he started on his next 1,000 points with a power-play goal -- giving him 75 points for the season.
Selanne, still going strong and on the ice Saturday when Whitney reached his milestone, welcomed him into the 1,000-point club. ""I'm so happy for him. He's a smart good player and fun to watch, said Selanne, who's still going strong at age 41 and has more than 1,400 points in his career. "They're only numbers, those ages. There's no secret. Just a lot of passion and enjoyment."
Whitney's locker stall was more like a receiving line after the game. Teammates, coaches, team officials, even Sen. John McCain offered their congratulations, as did former referee Mick McGeough, who remembered Whitney as a 160-pound rookie two decades earlier in San Jose.
"You were skating around the Cow Palace [in San Francisco] and you skated up to me and said, 'Hi, Mr. McGeough, how ya doin'?'" McGeough told Whitney as he shook his head in agreement. "I turned around and I'm thinking, 'How in the [expletive] is this little guy playing?' You seriously looked like you were 12. I went into the officials' room and I said, 'This kid will never last.' But you sure did."