Examples of individual greatness are easy to spot on the ice. An electrifying goal, a game-saving stop, a momentum altering hit or a how-did-he-do-that pass.
Great leadership is much harder to define. While there is plenty of hyperbole devoted to the term, rarely does a moment jump out, smack you in the face and proclaim. ‘This is leadership.’
It did on April 18, 2012.
Some members of the Chicago and national media were frothing at the mouth after Arizona Coyotes forward Raffi Torres knocked Blackhawks star Marian Hossa out of the team’s Western Conference Quarterfinal series with a vicious head shot in Game 3 that initially earned Torres a 25-game suspension. Hossa was carried off on a stretcher with a severe concussion, the Blackhawks had an emotional rallying point, and a Phoenix team with precious little playoff experience was facing an enormous distraction as it headed into Game 4 at United Center.
On the off day between games, Coyotes vice president of communications Rich Nairn approached veteran forward Ray Whitney about talking to the media. Whitney never relished that role. It wasn’t that he disliked reporters. When he did talk, his quotes were solid gold. He just never considered it a priority.
This day was different.
"There was this whirlwhind of hatred for Raffi and repeat offenders all around the league," Whitney said. "They wanted somebody’s head, so I really thought it was important for our guys to get the focus away from that.
"I’d been around long enough to know that if the first words out of my mouth were, ‘That was a bull(expletive) call,’ it would have added fuel to an already stoked fire. The Chicago Blackhawks were already outshooting us 2-1. We didn’t need it to be 3-1. Smitty (goalie Mike Smith) was holding us in there.
"I thought the best way to handle it was to be honest and measured about what you thought and diffuse it the best you can."
"He was the only guy on the team who had won the Cup," said former Coyotes forward and Whitney linemate Radim Vrbata. "He knew what it took. He was an older guy so he was well respected in the league, and that was the season that he hit 1,000 points so when he spoke, believe me, everybody listened.
"It’s always nice to have a player like that on your team, because he can take the pressure off you a little bit."
Whitney’s underappreciated career and countless photobombs came to a close Wednesday when he announced his retirement after 22 seasons, 1,330 regular-season games, 1,064 points and valuable service to eight NHL teams. Like many players in the twilight of their careers, Whitney had hoped to latch on with another team to extend this dream for one more year. But this fall, it became apparent to him that youth was being served around the NHL.
"This was just kind of a formality I guess," he said Thursday from his home in Scottsdale, Arizona. "There was nobody beating down my door. It wasn’t like I was saying no to anybody. I’m just going to settle into being a dad and being a golfer."
The legacy Whitney, 42, leaves behind is multi-faceted. He is an insightful and articulate analyst, which made him a de facto spokesperson for the team and a sought-after quote. It’s an ability that would serve him well in the broadcast booth if he ever chooses that path.
As a veteran, he always had an instinctive understanding of what his team needed to hear.
"He could be a great, fun-loving guy or he could be harsh sometimes," Coyotes coach Dave Tippett said. "Every locker room needs that."
What defined Whitney’s play on the ice, Tippett said, was his ability to play to his strengths.
"He’s not a big guy by any stretch, but he is a determined guy," Tippett said. "He wasn’t going to punish you physically, but he would make you pay with his skill set."
Whitney’s wasn’t shy about noting how the rule changes after the 2004-05 lockout helped open the ice for smaller, skill-based players by eliminating some of the clutching and grabbing that is creeping its way back into the game.
But size wasn’t the only obstacle The Wizard overcame.
"When I think about interviewing for a management job now my biggest thing is this: If somebody ever asks me ‘what do you have to offer?’ I’ll say, ‘What don’t I have to offer?’" said Whitney, who lives in Scottsdale.
"I’ve been a part of just about everything. I’ve been a holdout in training camp. I demanded a big contact out of juniors. I’ve played in Europe and three minor leagues. I’ve been put on waivers, bought out twice and been a part of more lockouts than anybody should have to be a part of.
"I’ve won a Stanley Cup, I’ve won a Presidents’ Trophy, I’ve played with countless Hall of Famers and superstars. There really isn’t anything I haven’t seen or done or had to deal with in my career."
To Vrbata, who will play in his first All-Star Game this Sunday, one thing about Whitney stood out above all else: His ability to consistently impact games.
"I remember when we signed him, I texted (GM) Don Maloney that I thought it was a great pick-up for us as team, but I was also hoping I would get the chance to play with him on a line," said Vrbata, who scored 35 goals with Whitney in 2011-12 — what he still calls the best hockey season of his career. "The way he thinks the game and sees the ice and the patience he has and the fact that he likes to pass the puck — it just made him the perfect linemate."
Whitney left his career door open a crack when he laughingly noted Thursday that his body composition won’t be any different next September than it was this September when he looked lean, fit and ready to play. But he seemed to understand that this was the end. And more importantly, he sounded at peace with that reality.
"At the start of your career, you think you’ll play forever and the focus is always so short term that it’s hard to look down the road," he said. "Before I knew it, I woke up and it was 20-some years later.
"I haven’t really thought much about what I accomplished, but when you look back and see how long the average career is, you can finally take a step back, without pumping your own tires, and realize I played a lot longer than most people do.
"Obviously, there are a lot of people who weren’t Ray Whitney fans, but for the most part, I tried to play the game the right way, and I tried to be a good teammate. With all the support I’ve received the last few days from guys I hadn’t heard from in a long time, I think I did that."
THE BEST OF RAY WHITNEY: 3 QUOTES/ANECDOTES
1. When Coyotes captain Shane Doan recorded his first and only career hat trick against the Islanders on Jan. 7, 2012, the final goal came with one-tenth of a second left, which required a league office review to make sure it beat the buzzer. Whitney had the assist on the goal. He also produced one of his best lines when asked about his conversations with the officials during the review.
"I went over and told the refs ‘Listen, it’s been a long time. It’s been 16 years,’" Whitney said. "’Tell Toronto that this may never happen again, so make sure this counts.’" (Read the full story here.)
I tried to play the game the right way, and I tried to be a good teammate. With all the support I’ve received the last few days from guys I hadn’t heard from in a long time, I think I did that.
2. Known as a practical joker, Whitney authored one of his finest pranks when he was unwisely left alone in the Panthers dressing room one day during his four-season tenure in Florida. (Read the full story here.)
"I got a hold of some of this powder from my dad, who was a cop," Whitney said. "Police use it to mark dollar bills and catch people stealing because once you get it on your skin it turns purple, and it takes about a week for it to wear off."
Whitney’s teammates found out the hard way after he sprinkled a little bit inside their gloves, skates, socks … and Rob Niedermayer’s underwear.
"He was pretty much Barney from underwear to toes," Whitney said, laughing. "Everyone was soaking their feet in bleach just to get it off."
The final stroke of brilliance came in the planning. Whitney waited until the next-to-last day of the season so nobody could exact revenge or definitively identify the culprit.
"There really wasn’t a whole lot of doubt who did it, but the thing I had going for me was that (Hall of Famer) Dino Ciccarelli was hanging out in the locker room those last few days, and he hadn’t been playing a lot," Whitney said. "So I just blamed it on him."
3. Whitney on the significance of playing his 1,200th NHL game on Feb. 6, 2012, vs. Detroit: "None. A thousand is the big one. After that, it just means you’re getting old."
1. Two Cup Final goals in a 3:29 span: With Carolina in danger of dropping Game 1 of the 2006 Stanley Cup Finals at home to Edmonton, Whitney netted a pair of goals early in the third period to rally the Canes from a 3-0 deficit to a tie in a game they eventually won, 5-4. Carolina won its only Cup that year, the moment Whitney predictably points to as the highlight of his career.
"It was a roller coaster of a series," said Whitney, whose team nearly blew a 3-1 series lead before winning at home in Game 7. "There were so many ups and downs, but I guess that made it even more satisfying because we had to earn it."
2. Game-winning goal vs. Nashville in Game 1 of the 2012 Western Conference semifinals: The Coyotes didn’t deserve to win this one. Nashville outshot Phoenix 16-1 in the third period and tied the game 3-3 on then-Predator Martin Erat’s power-play goal at the 15:58 mark. But goalie Mike Smith (39 saves) was brilliant, and the Coyotes cashed in on their sixth shot of overtime when Whitney took a feed from Martin Hanzal and flipped a puck past Pekka Rinne for a 4-3 overtime win. "To me," coach Dave Tippett said, "that was the key turning point in that series."
3. Five-point nights: Whitney’s first goal of the season against the Blues on Nov. 13, 2010, was the start of a special night. He had a hat trick and matched his career high with five points, figuring on each goal in the Coyotes’ 5-3 win over St. Louis. The only regular-season game that rivaled this one was when he notched a natural hat trick in a 1:40 span, and five points overall, on Feb. 8, 2007, in Boston while playing with Carolina.