By Larry Wigge
Literally growing up in the locker room of the five-time Stanley Cup champion Edmonton Oilers you have a lot to take in.
Being a stick boy and all-round boy in the same locker room as Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier, Jari Kurri, Glenn Anderson, Paul Coffey and Grant Fuhr to talk to ... and learn from.
Growing up in that atmosphere was special. I learned a lot about winning, what it takes to have a successful team and being a good teammate. I remember seeing how much they had to sacrifice to be a good team ... and what it took to get to win the Stanley Cup.
I was a very lucky kid. I saw it up close and I got to use it. I still swear it helped me avoid a lot of the pressures my teammates had when we got into big-game, big-pressure situations ...
Ray Whitney still uses all those important intangibles -- even at the ripe old age of 39. He leads the Phoenix Coyotes in scoring with 17 goals and 39 assists. And he has a plus 22 rating. He's won a Stanley Cup himself -- in 2005-06 his Carolina Hurricanes beat the Oilers in seven games.
It's been more than 20 years since he was a stick boy and his father Floyd, an Edmonton cop, served as the Oilers practice goalie and a member of the support staff who opens the dressing room door to let the media in after every game. Ryan was a stick boy for the third and fourth Cup titles.
The Fort Saskatchewan native still uses that apprenticeship as a positive, taking his first-hand knowledge of an NHL locker room as a plus. This year, he can feel the competition for a playoff spot -- and how it may be slipping away.
On February 23, his Coyotes had fallen behind 2-0 to Calgary. Then, Whitney set up Daymond Langkow to get on the board and with 9:33 left the Flames lost the puck to him. He scored on a breakaway for a 3-2 lead.
But that wasn't enough. The Flames tied it later in the third period. Then, it went to a shootout.
Look who stepped front and center.
The Wizard did. He beat Miikka Kiprusoff for the game-winner.
The 39-year-old winger used all of his wiles to will the victory for a 4-3 victory.
"Ray's game is all hands," said Phoenix coach Dave Tippett. "He's such a good pro; his conditioning is top-notch. He thinks the game very well, very dedicated -- sometimes that's what pushes some players out of the game, because they don't have the dedication toward doing what you have to do to prepare to do things right. He prepares every day."
The Stanley Cup run is a marathon. Even to a stick boy. It's a long ride. A winding ride.
In his 20th season in the NHL, Whitney can count the teams he's played for -- Sharks, Oilers, Panthers, Blue Jackets, Red Wings, Hurricanes and Coyotes -- the many happy moments and the invariable excuse he was too small to get that much money.
At that point he remembers the Oilers days. A kid looking ahead for a future.
"It was pretty cool," he recalls. "I probably took it for granted a little bit, considering I was around the team since I was 10 or 11. But I was still awestruck.
"I mean, they were that much better than everybody else. Coff was very good at treating you normal and talking to you, Gretz was very nice ... they were all nice and pleasant guys to you, but you saw what they did every night, you had to be in awe of them. I was very quiet and respectful around them -- I didn't go in and say, 'Hi, Mess. Hi, Gretz, what's going on?' I went about my business and stayed the hell out of the way and spoke when I was spoken to."
Whitney lets his young teammates into the cone of silence. But he still has something to contribute. He isn't just a cheerleader.
There are reasons why Ray Whitney is known as "The Wizard."
One second he's behind the net, the next he's along the boards. Then, before you know it, he's in the circle making a backhand pass that leads to a goal.
"He is clever," Coyotes GM Dave Maloney said. "The biggest lacking we had last season was our power play, our power play production, and I think Ray is one of the best in the league in his creativity with the puck."
Said Peter Laviolette, his Carolina coach, "I think he's one of our more creative players in small spaces. Whitney has brought offense his whole career. He's a smart thinker of the game."
For the rest of the season, the Phoenix Coyotes will head in the right direction -- as long as they listen to Ryan Whitney.