How Ray Whitney's 'Clean' Perspective Shapes the Department of Player Safety

He logged more than 1,300 NHL games as one of the sport's classiest, most sportsmanlike players. Now, Whitney balances out the league's DOPS with his unique skill-player experience. He caught up with The Hockey News to discuss the highs and lows of his job.
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The NHL’s Department of Player Safety runs through senior vice-president George Parros, an ex-enforcer. While he prides himself on understanding how to play on the right side of the line – he was never fined or suspended once as a player – he balances out the department with director of player safety Ray Whitney. Known as a class act who epitomized clean play, compiling 1,064 points during a career that spanned 1,330 games across 22 seasons, he brings a unique skill-player perspective to the DOPS.

Whitney, 48, joined the department in 2017. What has he been up to since? What do his days look like? And does it ever get awkward dealing with punishments for players who were his teammates or opponents? Whitney recently caught up with The Hockey News to discuss his experiences at the DOPS.

THE HOCKEY NEWS: When you were a player, were you aware of how clean your game was? Did you take pride in it?

RAY WHITNEY: Obviously, at my size, I wasn’t going to be going around running guys. That wasn’t in my nature. When it came to the physical game, where I was physical was whether I was willing to go into a corner and battle for a puck and if I’d come out with it or not. I think a lot of times things get misconstrued that being physical is if you’re running over somebody. When it came to contact, I didn’t shy away from it, but I wasn’t going out there blowing people up, either.

My penalties would be hooking, tripping, something that had to do with me trying to reach for a puck. Very rarely was it me splashing somebody with ferociousness or cross-checking somebody from behind. It wasn’t in my nature to play like that.

THN: What attracted you to working for the Department of Player Safety?

WHITNEY: I was scouting for Carolina at the time. I was a west-coast pro scout, and I was enjoying it. It keeps you in the game. It keeps you looking at players. But in the end I just felt like I was crunching data, never really doing a whole lot in terms of having a say with anything. When you play as long as I did, whatever your next step is, you want to have some kind of impact on the game. When George called me and asked me, I talked to my old agent Mike Barnett. We were scouting in San Jose at the time, a little rookie tournament. I told him I just talked to George, and Mike recommended I do it. He said, “It’s in the league, you’re working for the league itself, it’s a real feather in your cap, and you get to see the inside of the game from the other side, which is important if you’re going to move on to another area of the game.”

So I entered the job knowing I’d learn a lot about the NHL side of things. It was a good eye opener for me. For 23 years, I saw the PA side of it.

THN: What does a typical day look like for you at the DOPS?

WHITNEY: The schedule is great. During the day, I wouldn’t say it’s easy, but whether we’re looking through emails of plays the night before, or if we have a hearing on the phone – that’s basically it for me during the day. I’ll go back and watch the clips from the night before again that day. But really, my job doesn’t start until the first game starts out east and the last game finishes out west. I have to be on call during the day in case of a hearing or if anybody has any questions, but during the day is actually pretty good for me other than being prepared or on call. We’re more night owls. I’m out west. I go to New York three or four times during a normal (non-COVID) year.

So other than that, it’s a good job for having kids at the age that they are. I can still be around and still be relevant in their lives and still have an impact in our game.

THN: Do you have a mini war room set up? Office?

WHITNEY: My office can be anywhere. I have my work computer, my work iPad, my work iPhone. All the guys in the war room who are cutting the video, all our co-ordinators, they send it all to me. So I watch all the games. My house in Arizona. I have two big screens in the living room. My wife doesn’t love that I have two hockey games on at the same time all the time. If she wants to watch something, she pulls rank and takes over one screen, and I put one game on mute. I’m always watching the games. She understands why. I just think after 23 years of playing and seeing so much hockey, she’s seen enough (laughs).

For me, watching the games, and when you see something happen in that particular game, you can have a feel for the temperature of the game. Even if you’re not in the war room or don’t have the game on live, it’s important to watch the players. You learn really quickly which ones we’re going to see a lot of (laughs).

THN: You only retired in 2014, so there is still plenty of overlap in the current player population with guys who competed with or against you. Does it ever get awkward if one of them needs to be punished with a fine or suspension?

WHITNEY: When I played, not to try and be arrogant or anything, but I believe I had a pretty good rapport with most of the guys I played with. I was a good locker-room guy. I was always fun, funny, kept the room light, enjoyed my teammates. So when (overlap) happens, I haven’t been too uncomfortable.

One time I was uncomfortable was… a suspension happened and affected a really good friend of mine who was behind the bench. He sent me a text and was pretty pissed off at me. I didn’t respond to it. The disappointing part was that he doesn’t know where I stood on the play. It’s a committee, so we’re not all going to see plays the same way, but when it comes to suspensions we all agree and we’re all together when it’s done. It was close for me. So the text message, after all we’d gone through (as players), I was like “Ugh, that stings a little bit.” But I recognize we’re built on a game of emotions. And when emotions are high like that, you need the old minor-hockey rule that parents can’t talk to you for 24 hours. Let people cool down.

I take it pretty well. It hasn’t gotten too awkward. The guys who are still playing now, when I played with them, I was old and kind of the senior dog, so I had a lot of respect from most of them. I think that still carries over. They’re still pretty respectful and understanding that I’m not trying to screw anybody here. I’m just trying to do what’s best for the game of hockey.

Our players, our GMs, I give them credit. They’re pretty forgetful souls. They take what’s coming, they don’t agree with it, and then they move on. They might yell at you for a day or get mad at you for a week, but in the end they’re usually pretty good about it.

THN: George has said you represent the clean-player perspective to balance stuff out. Is that the dynamic when you sort through plays?

WHITNEY: I suppose? If you talk to (NHL group vice-president of player safety and director of hockey operations) Damian Echevarrieta and (NHL senior director of player safety) Patrick Burke and (NHL deputy commissioner) Bill Daly, because all the emails go through him as well, you’d be surprised at how I view the game in terms of the contact. Although I didn’t play that game, I was always a proponent that it’s a big part of our game. I expected to be hit, and I expected guys on our team whose roles were such to do that job.

As a skill guy, as a smaller guy, the first thing I do when I see my clip, which is in my nature, is say, “OK, show me something that’s suspension worthy. Show me something that doesn’t make me want to suspend.” My first thought is he’s innocent until I can find something that says this is a suspendable play.

A lot of times, and more often than not, I put the onus on the guys getting contact and getting hit, strictly because, when I played the game, I played half my career in the trenches, in the hook and hold ’90s with the fighting and the meanness. If you went to the net with Chris Pronger, you were going to get hit. You went to the net with Dave Manson, holy, you were going to feel something. So I grew up in an era that was pretty tough. I received a lot. I wasn’t giving a lot. So I really take pride in putting the onus on skill players to be able to take contact and be prepared for contact, to expect to be hit.

One thing I’ve noticed in today’s game is that I’m not sure guys are always prepared for contact or always thinking they’re going to get hit. Taking hits, absorbing contact along the boards, is also an art. In 23 years I had one shoulder injury, and that’s pretty rare for a guy my size. A lot of times. you hear guys say, “Get him in the numbers, hit him in the numbers.” The best thing I could do from my experience is say, “Guys, when someone’s coming to hit me, I turn my numbers so I get hit flat against the boards. If I turned sideways, it’s a broken collarbone. That’s gonna hurt me in getting hit. I’d always turn at the last second and just absorb it, knowing that wasn’t a “hit from behind.” I wasn’t ever expecting it to be a “hit from behind.” That’s just how I liked to receive hits, because it didn’t hurt that way.

That’s the kind of perspective you need to have in the department. You have a guy who got hit a lot. He didn’t give a lot of them. 

THN:
Do you have a pet-peeve infraction that drives you nuts and you want out of the game?

WHITNEY: Yeah, I do. There’s the play that’s a defensive tactic when two guys are going to the boards together. Right above the goal line, the defending player gives a guy a little push down on his hips and sends him into the board late, feet first. Those are the broken ankles and broken femurs. The major injuries happen from those. Guys aren’t expecting the push down or pushing the back leg out, the back-of-the-knee push. You can’t defend yourself against plays like those. I really look hard at them. I don’t like them.

Being a player, I can accept and justify a lot of stuff the players do these days. The timing and speed of the game, I understand and get all that. But plays like that are the ones that, personally, I’m not a fan of. I don’t think most GMs are, either. 

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