Milestone night for ageless wonder Whitney

GLENDALE, Ariz. — Ray Whitney was at a crossroads. The San Jose Sharks had just bought out their 1991 second-round pick after a season spent mostly in the minor leagues.  His six-year NHL career had seemingly come to an end.

It was time for a heart-to-heart with his dad.

“We were talking (about playing in) Europe. We were talking police department — talking a lot of other possibilities,” said Floyd Whitney, a 32-year Edmonton police officer, a former part-time scout and practice goalie with the Oilers and Ray’s dad. “I said, ‘Give it another shot.'”

Then-Edmonton general manager Glen Sather did the Whitneys a favor by inviting Ray to training camp in 1997, but he made no promises, and Whitney lasted just nine games with the Oilers before they waived him.

But the Florida Panthers saw enough in that short span to bring Whitney aboard, and an against-all-odds NHL career took wing.

“I’ve had to earn what I’ve done,” Whitney said. “I’ve been on seven teams. I’ve been bought out twice. I’ve been on waivers a couple times. There have been a couple times in my career where it didn’t look like it was going to go any further.”

At Arena on Saturday, it was hard to imagine this career ever coming to an end.

And for a guy who has made a habit of slipping in the back door of NHL rosters, it was fitting that Whitney notched his 1,000th career point on a backdoor, power-play feed to winger Radim Vrbata, who one-timed it past Ducks goalie Jeff Deslauriers late in the second period of the Coyotes’ 4-0 win.

“I threw it to Shane (Doan) earlier and he was going to let one go, but he threw it back to me, so I said, ‘Well, I’ll try the other way now,'” said Whitney, who added a goal 40 seconds later. “An assist to Vrby probably is even more appropriate seeing as, this season, he’s been the biggest factor for me getting there.”

The assist was Whitney’s 51st of the season, the most any Coyote has ever notched and the most in franchise history since Phil Housley notched 79 in 1992-93 with the Winnipeg Jets. It also made Whitney one of just 79 NHL players to reach 1,000 career points and came on a play that epitomizes what the 39-year-old has brought to the table during his 1,226 career NHL games: unselfish play, pinpoint passing and apparently ageless skill.

“He’s a veteran player, won a Stanley Cup, can make other players around him better, but that skill level is what makes him such a good player on our team,” coach Dave Tippett said. “He’s a veteran that knows how to win.”

Wins are exactly what the Coyotes need right now in the tight Western Conference and Pacific Division races. Thanks to Whitney’s heroics and goalie Mike Smith’s second consecutive shutout (44 saves), Phoenix kept pace with Los Angeles, moving into a tie atop the Pacific standings with three games left to play.

“With what happened with L.A. tonight, getting a point, it’s a big win for us,” Whitney said. “They’re all big for us.”

Whitney was showered with attention after his landmark assist. Vrbata immediately fished the puck out the net so he could give it to his linemat, and when everyone lined up for the ensuing faceoff, Whitney’s teammates left the ice so he would have the applause from the fans all to himself.

Senator John McCain paid Whitney a visit in the locker room afterward to tell him how much it meant to witness the milestone. And former NHL referee Mick McGeough shared a funny memory from Whitney’s first year in the league at San Jose’s old arena.

“You were skating around The Cow Palace and you skated up to me and you said, ‘Hi, Mr. McGeough, how ya doin’?'” McGeough said. “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 (expletive) kid will never last.'”

Twenty-one years later, the 5-foot-7 Whitney is still here.

“It’s special,” he said of reaching 1,000 points. “Only 79 people in the history of this game have done it. But saying that, I looked at the stats in between periods, and I see I’m 400 (points) behind (Ducks forward Teemu) Selanne, who was out there tonight, so that puts it in perspective.”

As long as the NHL doesn’t experience a lockout, Whitney said he would like to play two or three more years, adding Saturday that he hopes those years are spent in Phoenix.

The 41-year-old Selanne doesn’t see any problems with that plan.

“They’re only numbers, those ages,” Selanne said, laughing. “There’s no secret. Just a lot of passion and enjoyment.”

Speaking of enjoyment, Whitney is a collector of fine wines. When asked if he and his son might share one after Saturday’s achievement, Floyd Whitney winked.

“We might have a sip,” he said.