Wharnsby: Whitney awaits 1,000th NHL game

Ray Whitney will play in his 1,000th career NHL game when his Carolina Hurricanes visit the New York Islanders on Wednesday.

Ray Whitney will play in his 1,000th career NHL game when his Carolina Hurricanes visit the New York Islanders on Wednesday.

Hard to believe that the former Edmonton Oilers stick boy, who at 5-foot-8 was considered too small back in his draft year of 1990, will reach the longevity milestone.

Whitney had to wait until the 1991 NHL entry draft before the San Jose Sharks took a chance on him early in the second round, 23 spots after the Quebec Nordiques made Eric Lindros the first overall selection. The Sharks drafted Pat Falloon second.

"The number that I finally drafted at was no insult, but being overlooked that first year put me in an underdog situation," Whitney said. "I'm not looking to say 'I told you so,' but I do believe that I've been around a lot longer than most people would have ever thought."

Now the 37-year-old Whitney will reach 1,000 NHL games, while Lindros (760) and Falloon (575) were around long enough to only play in a combined 1,335 games.

"We should have taken Ray with our first pick," said former Sharks general manager Jack Ferreira, now a special assistant to Los Angeles Kings GM Dean Lombardi.

"He wasn't highly rated. I remember we had him rated in the late first round, early second round."

Ferreira recalled that when he scouted both Falloon and Whitney in their Memorial Cup championship season as linemates with the 1990-91 Spokane Chiefs that six times Falloon would be the best player on the ice and the other six times it would be Whitney.

Whitney is the last player standing — or should we say skating — in the NHL from the inaugural 1991-92 Sharks club. But the Sharks did not immediately sign Whitney that season. They haggled over a one-way contract, like Falloon received.

When the Sharks refused to give him a one-way deal, Whitney didn't want to return to junior so he set off for Germany, but got homesick. He returned to Canada to work out with the national team and then his agent, Mike Barnett, found a loophole for Whitney to play with the independent San Diego Gulls of the IHL.

Finally, Whitney signed a contract with the Sharks just in time to don a teal sweater for the final two games of the year.

But the proving-time was not over for Whitney. In his second season he split time with the Sharks and their farm club in Kansas City, he spent half the 1996-97 season in the minors and was placed on waivers by his beloved Oilers, where his father Floyd was a practice goalie, early in the 1997-98 season and picked up by the Florida Panthers.

"Probably attitude more than anything has kept me going," he said. "I love the game of hockey and I love the NHL.

"I've been around the NHL since the age of nine. It's the greatest game and the greatest league. I have enjoyed every minute of it."

'He makes smart plays'

It was in South Florida where Whitney's career turned in the right direction. He scored a career-high 32 goals in 68 games that season, a total he reached again with Carolina in 2006-07.

"Ray is the same player he was when we scouted him long ago," Ferreira said. "He's clever, he makes smart plays and he's an opportunist."

Whitney, who still has a year after this season remaining on his contract, will be remembered as a winner with his Memorial Cup success and the 2006 Stanley Cup in Game 7 with the Hurricanes against his Dad's Oilers, but it will be interesting to see how much longer there is a place in the NHL for one of those kids who was supposed to be too small.

"The last four seasons and the start of this year have been the most consistent of my career and right now my full concentration is on to continue playing," Whitney said. "Not many people would have a 47 year old on their team, but if there was a way I could play another 10 years I would."

Widely regarded as one of the top hockey journalists in the country, Tim Wharnsby writes daily for CBCSports.ca. He will provide you with daily news and notes to illustrate what happens inside the world of hockey. Tim looks forward to your comments.