“Ray Whitney was the easiest guy in the world to coach because all you had to do is tell him he couldn’t do something, and he would,” former Sharks assistant coach and analyst Drew Remenda said in 2010. “That was his motivating factor. His whole life he was told he was too short, too small, too light, too slow.”
Most Fear The Fin readers probably have a Ray Whitney memory or two. After all, he played 1,330 NHL games over 22 seasons, and he only retired at the close of the 2013-14 season. His retirement marked a milestone in Sharks history: he was the final Original Shark to hang up his skates. And he was the first Sharks draft pick in a long line of homegrown successes to embark on a successful NHL career.
Born in Fort Saskatchewan, Alberta in May 1972, Ray Whitney grew up around hockey. He didn’t just play the game: he and his brother Dean were the stick boys for the 1980s Edmonton Oiler dynasty. An undersized winger, Whitney used speed and his puck vision in juniors to compensate for his lack of physicality. He led the Western Hockey League with 185 points in his 1991 season and guided his Spokane Chiefs to the 1991 Memorial Cup, all but ensuring he’d be drafted at the 1991 NHL Entry Draft.
With their first pick in the 1991 draft -- their first pick ever as a franchise — the San Jose Sharks selected Pat Falloon second overall. In the second round, they selected Falloon’s Spokane teammate Ray Whitney. Sharks GM Jack Ferreira wouldn’t promise Whitney a spot on the team for the fall, so the young winger played in Germany for part of the fall and then hooked on with the San Diego Gulls of the International Hockey League. L
iving in San Diego with veteran forward Keith Gretzky’s family, he wreaked havoc in go-karts and put up 90 points in 63 games. Whitney reported to the Sharks after the IHL season ended. He recorded an assist in his NHL debut against Calgary on April 15, 1992, and recorded two more in the Sharks’ final game of the season against Winnipeg the next day.
After a 92-93 season in which The Wizard put up 10 points in 26 games with the Sharks, Ray Whitney caught on with the Sharks full-time in time for the 1993-94 season. Playing primarily on the wing with bigger men like Todd Elik and Ulf Dahlen, the 5’10’’, 160-pound Whitney demonstrated flashes of the brilliant passing vision, footspeed, and scoring touch.
He scored 14 goals and assisted on 26 more in 61 games, and tacked on four more assists in the playoffs. That offseason, he lifted weights for the first time and bulked up to 170 pounds. The lockout-shortened 94-95 season was Whitney’s finest as a Shark.
He netted 25 points in 39 games and felt he had augmented his game: "Nowadays I try harder to fight through things. Before I might have said, "OK, you've got me,' when I was getting hooked." In that postseason, he scored one of the greatest goals in Sharks history, an overtime series winner to send the Sharks past the Flames to a matchup against the Red Wings:
1995-96 was another solid year for Whitney: 41 points in 60 games. But San Jose fired Constantine and hired Al Sims the following offseason, and Sims’ big man, veteran-obsessed mentality spelled disaster for the Sharks as a team and Whitney as a player. “[Sims] came in, and he wanted to go with this tough team, and he brought in a lot of older, bigger guys. They ended up finishing last, and he got fired,” Whitney recounted.
Whitney spent most of the season in the minors, and then the Sharks bought out his contract during the offseason, with the organization feeling that Steve Guolla and Ville Peltonen were the future. At just 25, Ray Whitney’s Sharks career was over.
Whitney was worried it might spell the end of his NHL career as well: “I couldn't get a contract anywhere. All I could get was a tryout with Edmonton. I barely played there, and then I got put on waivers.”
Desperate for forward depth, the Florida Panthers claimed him off waivers on November 9, 1996. The gamble paid off: The Wizard exploded for 32 goals for the defending Eastern Conference champions, assuring his place in the NHL.
In some ways, Whitney’s Sharks career was a false start: after that 96-97 performance, teams knocked down Ray Whitney’s door. He spent three more seasons in Florida, producing at a great clip and making the All-Star team in 2000. He was traded to Columbus in the 00-01 season, where he was nearly a point-per-game player, was named team captain in 2003, and made another All-Star Game.
Then he caught on with the Detroit Red Wings: 43 points in 67 games. Whitney’s subsequent five-year stint in Carolina sticks in the mind of most hardcore NHL fans because he won a Stanley Cup there, but that was just his first year in Carolina. The Wizard scored 334 points in 372 regular season games in Carolina, and he always flashy in that subdued, humble Ray Whitney way. Check this out:
Why did Whitney move around so much? As the man himself says:
“It was easy for them to get rid of me. Some teams I have been on, when things start to go sour, they say, "Hey, we can always get rid of a smaller player and add size." Sometimes that works and sometimes it doesn't. When I left Florida, they were cutting salary. In Columbus, it was my choice to leave for a better contract. I got bought out by Detroit.”
But he produced wherever he went, and brought a delightful sense of humor with him wherever he went. Coach Peter Laviolette reported in 2007:
“He’s got a funny personality, well-liked by his teammates and comes off as a happy-go-lucky kind of guy, which he is...But when the game is on the line, when you have a championship to play for, Ray Whitney is someone you want on your team. I don’t know if that comes through a lot unless you work with him day in and day out.”
So after his stint in Carolina was done, the 38-year old Whitney just kept going. He hooked on with Arizona, and in two seasons he posted 134 points in 154 games. Ho-hum. The Wizard went to Dallas and kept producing: 61 points in 101 games. Jaromir Jagr makes us forget these things, but 32 points in 69 games as a 42-year old is a ridiculous achievement.
After the 2013-14 season he hung up his skates for good. Whitney retired as the leader in career points, goals, and assists from the 1991 draft class. If you buy into Hockey-Reference’s era-compensation formula, The Wizard is 49th all-time in adjusted points, sitting right there with Bryan Trottier, Martin St. Louis, and Guy Lafluer.
He’s enjoying his retirement as only a restless mercenary could: The Wizard was last spotted at the 2016 Rio Olympics, caddying for Canadian golfer Graham DeLaet. Once a visionary, always a visionary.
Share your Ray Whitney reminiscences!