After three years at Boston University and nine seasons in the National Hockey League, Ryan Whitney (Scituate, Mass.) had no idea what was next for him after retiring in 2015.
Five years and several stops later, it’s safe to say he’s figured it out.
From a two-way NHL defenseman to doing analysis on NHL Network and then conquering his way through the podcast and adult beverage world, Whitney’s done it all.
Now 37, Whitney joined the latest session of New England Hockey Journal’s The Rink Shrinks podcast with longtime friends and co-hosts Brian Yandle and Mike Mottau to chat about playing at local New England prep schools, making it to the National Hockey League, as well as his recent and rousing success in his post-playing days.
After starting his career with the South Shore Seahawks, then eventually the South Shore Kings, Ryan went to Noble and Greenough for his middle school days, playing a myriad of sports, including football, at the Dedham, Mass., prep. But even as a budding multisport athlete, hockey always stood out.
“From the minute I remember the game of hockey, I was just obsessed,” Whitney told the Rink Shrinks. “Looking back on my childhood, all it was, was hockey.”
Growing up in the tight-knit Boston hockey community, the Whitneys and the Yandles spent considerable time together, especially the fathers and the kids. It was from that, the long car rides to and from games, the hours spent at the rink and the memories made away from it, that first molded their passions for the game.
“I mean, my dad loved the game,” Whitney said. “So, I think, like any kid, you’re watching what your dad loves. I’d go skate with him, like you’d skate with Buddy (Yandle’s father), and it was just something that became such a big part of my life.
“That’s all I thought about. Never, ever thought about what I was going to do when I grew up, never once. I was going to play hockey. There was never a doubt in my mind, which is so ridiculous looking back because the actual odds of it happening are so out of this world, but it’s an outlook you almost have to have. Younger kids, they’re not thinking about anything else. It’s not looked at as hard work by them, it’s just their passion. They’re all working their tails off, but to them it’s just fun.”
In fact, it was Yandle’s father, a longtime high school coach, who suggested Whitney move from forward to defense, which ultimately paid off big time. Years later, he was making his debut on an NHL blue line behind another exciting rookie, Sidney Crosby.
“My dad always told me,” Whitney remembered, “this guy (Buddy Yandle) knows so much about hockey, you’ve got to listen to this guy, trust me … he just knew the ins and outs of hockey and what it took to be successful. So, I always looked up to him. He went up to my dad and he’s like, ‘I think Ryan can play a lot a lot longer in this game, maybe in college, if you switch him to ‘D.’ I don’t think he can do it as a forward.
“Which is, I don’t think it’s easy to say, but it’s also just him looking out for me and my dad said, ‘This is what Buddy thinks,’ and I’m like, ‘I’ll do it.’ You know, you just trust people growing up that have meant a lot to you doing what you love to do.”
While it was all hockey, all the time in Whitney’s head as he made the transition into the back end as a teenager, his father, Dan, made sure to keep him balanced off of it.
Just as Ryan and his team were getting ready for one of the biggest tournaments of the season — USA Hockey’s Select 16s National Festival — his dad had other ideas.
His father, Ryan’s grandfather, wanted to go to Alaska for a fishing trip with his three oldest grandkids. The only problem? It was the same week as the tournament.
But Whitney wasn’t having it. It would get in the way of his overarching dream. “You can’t miss Select 16s and make it to the NHL,” he remembered thinking.
But your dad’s your dad, and ultimately, Dan put his foot down. He was going.
“He’s like, ‘This is your grandfather and your cousins, and you’re going,’ ” Whitney said. “I remember being so upset, like, ‘Are you kidding me? This is such a big deal.’ ”
In the end, it turned out to be the right move.
“People were probably like, ‘What is he doing? You have to go to this thing. But looking back, you’re so blinded at how everything’s so important and everything’s so life or death to your career as a hockey player,” he said of missing the festival.
“That’s seriously how you think when you’re at that young age — you don’t know anything. I think my dad knew his dad wouldn’t be around forever, and it was just such an awesome trip that I look back on now. … I’m so happy I had a father and grandfather who looked past sports in terms of family time and being close with people you love, as opposed to always looking toward your games and practices.”
After leaving Nobles to play his high school hockey at Thayer Academy, Whitney spent a year with the U.S. NTDP before heading off to play for Boston University.
Following a solid freshman year, he was selected fifth overall in 2002 NHL draft.
Two years later, he decided to forgo his senior year of eligibility with the Terriers and inked an entry-level deal with the Pittsburgh Penguins. Immediately, he joined their AHL affiliate team, Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, for the 2004 Calder Cup playoffs.
After garnering 20 games of AHL playoff experience, Whitney made his NHL debut with Pittsburgh in 2005, following the end of the 2004-05 labor lockout.
His first goal? Against none other than goaltending legend Henrik Lundqvist.
After four seasons and a Stanley Cup Final appearance with the Penguins, he was dealt to the Anaheim Ducks at the trade deadline in the deal that sent Chris Kunitz to Pittsburgh. Soon after, he was traded again, 62 games into the following season.
Ultimately, after a slew of lower-body injuries, he landed in Edmonton for three seasons, before concluding his NHL career with the Florida Panthers in 2013-14. He went oversees to play in Russia and Sweden afterward, but it didn’t last long. Soon, he had to figure out the thing he never imagined as a kid: a life after hockey.
He’s doing OK in that category, as a co-host on Barstool Sports’ hockey podcast Spittin’ Chiclets, the No. 1-ranked hockey podcast in the world. He also is a spokesman for New Amsterdam Vodka, with the “Pink Whitney” drink — vodka and pink lemonade — named after him.
For more from Whitney, as well as many other interviews with The Rink Shrinks featuring co-hosts Brian Yandle and Mike Mottau, find the podcast through a variety of streaming platforms, such as Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher and TuneIn, or online at hockeyjournal.com/podcast.
The Rink Shrinks is sponsored by
Boston Junior Terriers
Laura Stamm Power Skating
Paul Vincent Hockey