Trent Whitfield knows he must be doing something right.
The 35-year-old pro hockey veteran is starting his fourth season in the Bruins organization as a borderline AHLNHL player that provides leadership and experience at the AHL level, and gives the Bruins good veteran injury insurance at the NHL level if something should compromise their center depth. That makes him a valuable commodity to a Bruins organization that keeps bringing him back to set an example for the young wave of players.
In fact Bs assistant general manager Don Sweeney said it had a palpable negative effect on the P-Bruins younger players last season when Whitfield went down with a concussion.
Part of our trouble last year in Providence was that he was hurt for a long period of time and wasnt allowed to show other players his professionalism on a regular basis, said Sweeney. The year before when he returned so quickly from Achilles surgery that was a huge testament to him, and other guys need to see how hard he works to come back. When you lose a veteran presence like that, and Jamie Tardif falls into that category as well, those things are hard to overcome.
When youre at a developmental level like the AHL with young players, you need your veteran guys to be the first one through the door for practice and working the hardest. It sets the precedence for everybody else.
The 5-foot-11, 204-pound Saskatchewan native isnt going to post another 33-goal and 78-point season for Providence like he did with the Peoria Rivermen back in the 2006-07 season in a career AHL season. Whitfield clearly knows that, but he can apply the Bs organizations principles of playing responsible two-way hockey on the ice. More importantly he can show young forwards like Ryan Spooner and Jared Knight how to prepare for an 80-plus game season like a professional.
Little things like what to eat, how much sleep to get and how to ensure consistent performance despite crazy AHL travel schedules are lessons learned over time, and they are things that Whitfield has mastered at this point. That includes keeping focus on the task at hand when something like a lockout could easily become a distraction.
The lack of an NHL training camp was disappointing for me, but it was probably even more so for the younger guys that have only been once or twice if at all, said Whitfield. In essence this whole first half of the AHL season or however long it takes for the NHL to get-going it a big tryout period for guys.
When the season starts up theyre going to be looking for guys from this league, and individual players need to keep their eyes on it. It makes me feel good that Ive done things right during my career: Ill give guys a boost when they need it and Ill also give them a kick in the butt when they need it too. Ill let the coaches do the scolding and I can be a little bit of a buffer between the coaches and the younger players.
He can also fill in like he did three years ago when David Krejci was knocked out of the series against the Philadelphia Flyers with a dislocated wrist. Whitfield was a member of the Black Aces during the playoffs as hes been for the last few seasons, and Claude Julien actually chose to go with the grizzled center over an unproven Brad Marchand during postseason crunch-time.
In all, Whitfield has played in 17 games with an assist and a minus-2 rating for Boston during his four years in the organization, and has returned quickly from a partially torn Achilles and concussion injuries over the years. The quick return from injuries is another quality the Bruins love in Whitfield as it sets the tone for expectations right on down the line for their AHL farm club.
One bonus for Whitfield: the AHL will be much higher quality this season due to the NHL lockout just as it was in 2004-05 when he was skating with the Portland Pirates.
I was up in Portland and there were five or six NHL guys on every single team. It was electrifying hockey and the skill level was exceptional, said Whitfield. Well need to be ready. Weve got good young talent in Providence and were looking forward to see where well be at.
Its pretty clear to Whitfield that chunks and bites of NHL action are the best he can probably hope for heading into his late 30s as a player thats spent nearly his entire career at the AHL level. The term Crash Davis derived from the movie Bull Durham where Kevin Costners character is a lifelong minor league catcher brought on to tutor a wild young pitcher applies to a degree with Whitfield after a working mans career built around the game of hockey.
So whats the next step for a guy like Whitfield after the next handful of years play out in pro hockey?
Moving into coaching at the pro hockey level would be a natural next step, and Whitfield said hes already kicked around that notion while still fully intending to play for at least a few more years.
I still enjoy playing. If I didnt then I probably wouldnt be grinding it out here at 35 years old. I wouldnt have stayed in the minor leagues for as long as I have, said Whitfield. Being around these young guys makes me feel young too. They probably give just as much to me as I bring to them, you know?
Maybe I can tell them a few things to help them get over the hump, but being around this young energy keeps me young too. It works both ways. Ive thought a lot about coaching over the last few years. I want to play as long as I can, but a career as a coach is definitely something in the back of my mind. Ive taken baby steps and learned nuances while watching coaches over the last few years, but hopefully thats still a few seasons away.
It sounds like Whitfield is in no hurry to move on from his elder statesman hockey role, and the Bruins are certainly glad to have him.