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Derek Whitmore: In between a dream and a dream deferred







What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore--
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over--
like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?

-Langston Hughes
 

 

At first, Derek Whitmore thought his dad's phone may have gone dead.

For the longest time, both thought they might never have this conversation. Yet when they finally did on Dec. 19, 2011, there was silence.

Phone calls from Whitmore have rarely taken his dad by surprise. They have been coming for years, beginning with a 16-year-old Whitmore excitedly dialing to say he'd made his first junior team.

Since then, he has called his dad back home in Rochester, N.Y., from minor-league hockey cities all over the country. From Butte, Mont. to Lincoln, Neb. to Waterloo, Iowa – he's called after nearly every game.

For the past three years, calls have come from Portland, Maine, where Whitmore was a forward in the Buffalo Sabres' farm system for the American Hockey League's Portland Pirates.

Shortly after Sabres owner Terry Pegula bought the Rochester Americans last June, Whitmore signed on for a fourth year with the organization.

Now, he makes pre-game phone calls from just a few miles away from where he was raised, in Greece, N.Y., a large suburb of Rochester.

“I don't really try to break down games with him when he calls,” Whitmore's dad says. “When we talk after games, I just listen and try to offer as much encouragement as I can.”

Since Whitmore begged his dad to let him on the ice at age 2, hockey has been a big part of their relationship.

It didn't take long for the family, especially his older brother, to realize Whitmore was special.

“I remember being seven or eight, playing around in the garage showing him I could do a backhand shot right under the cross bar,” Whitmore says, like he's told this one a thousand times. “He spent all day out there trying to do it and he couldn't. That's when I started to think I had some skill.”

He had ferocity, too. After watching Whitmore push larger and older players around the rink, his grandfather nicknamed him “Derek the Destroyer.”

The Whitmores weren't a prototypical hockey family. “Coach Ray,” as the family calls him these days, didn't push hockey camps and travel teams on his son. He preferred to let Whitmore play Little League baseball and spend summers swimming and playing hide-and-go-seek.

But like many hockey families, they made sacrifices for their son to play.

“When we were young, I always hoped my brother and sisters didn't look at me like I was the golden child,” Whitmore says. “I didn't want them to end up resenting me since everyone gave up so much for me to play hockey.”

Coach Ray picked a pretty good area of the world to raise a hockey player. In Greece, which is about 60 miles from Buffalo, winter lasts three months too long, every high school has a team and home is 15 minutes from the Americans' home ice.

When Coach Ray wanted to show his son how the pros did it, he took interstate 390 to 490, got off at Broad Street and parked on the bridge that shadows Blue Cross Arena.

Whitmore takes the same route to the arena – only he's one of the pros now.

--

Three weeks before Whitmore's Dec. 19 phone call, he received a text message from Coach Ray.

Nov 26, 2011 at 12:12 p.m.“You're here, go make the most of it. Go get a hat trick”

Early in the Americans' season, Whitmore was struggling to score. He had only scored two goals in his last 10 games and only six in the team's first 19. A slow start coming off a career-high 27 goal season in 2010-11.

And his frustration was mounting over not being called up by the Sabres.

Buffalo had passed over him to call up their former first-round pick Zack Kassian two days before. That day veteran Paul Szczechura was picked to go to The Show.

By the time Pegula purchased the Americans, Whitmore had already played 243 games in Buffalo's organization.

He'd never been called up.

“Every time someone would get hurt, I would hold my breath,” Whitmore says. “When I don’t get the call, I just try to set goals to work toward the types of things I need to do to get up there. But, it's frustrating.”

Each year, he improved his scoring, from 22 to 34 points in his first two seasons, then from 34 to 47 the next year. He kept holding his breath.

Whitmore eventually went to Americans' coach Ron Rolston to ask what more he could do.

“We basically said that a lot of times when there is call-ups, the most important thing you have to be aware of is you have to be dependable player,” Rolston says. “The coach has to have confidence to put him out in certain situations and he's really worked on that.”

When the puck dropped that night, Derek the Destroyer put his frustrations aside. On his first shift, just 32 seconds into the game, he jumped on a loose puck, cruised around a defender and scored on Hamilton goalie Robert Mayer. Top shelf, right underneath the cross bar, just like in the garage. On his second shift, 81 seconds later, he did it again, breaking into the zone hard and knocking the puck by Mayer.

In the third period, he scored again, this time on a power-play rebound. Then, at 12:12 of the third period, Whitmore scored his fourth goal of the night.

After the game, he pretended not to see three or four media members walk into the locker room. He sat with his head down, trying to cover a smile. He did so until teammate Joe Finley yelled, “OK guys, I'm right over here, or do I have to score four goals to get an (expletive) interview?”

“I actually had quite a bit of family here tonight, which it was nice to do that in front of them,” Whitmore said. “(Scoring) my first professional hat trick as a Rochester American, a team I grew up watching and cheering for. Definitely special moment for myself, but more importantly happy the team got the two points.”

What he really wanted to say was: “Did you see that, Sabres?”

“I miss the lobster, but Rochester isn't terrible,” Whitmore's wife Sarah says with an earnest laugh.

She sits close to him, staring intently up at his face as he speaks. She looks at the scar on his chin hidden under a few days worth of scruff. She looks at his dark eyes and black hair. Her face reacts to his words. He can't lie or exaggerate - she'll give him away.

Whitmore and his wife met in Portland. After a few dates, they “made it official on Facebook.” Nine months later, they were married.

“When you know, you just know,” Whitmore says. “Why wait?”

Sarah smiles.

She isn't a “hockey wife” like you see on VH1. She isn't wearing makeup and doesn't need to. Several times, Sarah claims not to know much about hockey, but when she talks about it, you figure she could outwit most Amerks fans.

When Pegula purchased the Americans, Whitmore was still a free agent. He had the option of staying in his wife's home town, only with Portland's new parent club the Phoenix Coyotes.

They spent their summer nights talking about whether to stay or go.

“It was really a once-in-a-lifetime type thing,” Whitmore says. “To be able to come home and play in the city I grew up in and have my family be there. It wasn't an easy decision, though.”

Sarah doesn't like Rochester's seafood, but she's adjusting. She has known some of the other players' wives for a few years from Portland and has made friends at her job at the mall.

Really, she's just along for the ride, supporting her husband's pursuit of his dream, getting more upset than him each time the Sabres call someone up and it's not her husband.

She has dreams, too.

Sarah can bake like Whitmore backhands pucks underneath the cross bar. She posts pictures of intricate cupcakes on her Twitter page and treated the opportunity to bake Whitmore's sister's wedding cake like it was her NHL first call up. When his career ends, they plan to move back to Portland and start a bakery.

“I am waiting for him, but my time will come,” she says. “When his career is over, then it’s my turn and he will support my dreams like I have his.”

When she stands up from the table, he leans in and says, “She's really good at it, man.”

--

Six years before he put on a Rochester Americans jersey for the first time, nine years before he would make a long-awaited phone call to his dad, and one year after being the second leading scorer on the Butte Irish, Whitmore was bumped up to an elite American junior league the United States Hockey League.

At 17, he joined the Waterloo Black Hawks. Here, everyone was backhanding shots top shelf when they were 7-years-old.

The Black Hawks had an 18-year-old center from Stevens Point, Wisc., named Joe Pavelski, who after scoring 69 points in 60 games, was drafted by the San Jose Sharks. Whitmore, meanwhile, scored only 15 goals in 58 games and ranked 11th on the team in scoring.

Ten games into the following season, with only two goals, Whitmore was traded to the Lincoln Stars. Whitmore shot to the first line of the less-talented Lincoln team, scoring 42 points in 45 games.

Still, he went undrafted. Still, he went ignored by major collegiate hockey programs.

Whitmore ended up at Bowling Green University, which went 11-18-9 the previous season. Pavelski went to super-power Wisconsin.

During his senior year, Bowling Green hired alumnus and former NHL player Todd Reirden as an assistant. Reirden, a current assistant coach with the Pittsburgh Penguins, realized quickly that Whitmore had the talent and desire to play at the highest level.

“We spent a lot of time talking about how to make it happen,” Reirden says, just before boarding a plane with the Penguins. “Give him a lot of credit for the effort he put in. The season we spent together he did a lot of extra stuff before practice and after practice working on different areas to develop his pro game.”

Reirden knew if Whitmore had any chance to make it to The Show, he would have to start out in the AHL or ECHL as a third liner and work his way up. They worked on his defensive skills and game away from the puck.

Reirden was right.

When his collegiate career ended, a former midget coach turned Sabres scout offered Whitmore a chance. He'd known Coach Ray and his son for years, followed his career through college and admired Whitmore. In 2008, the two sides agreed to a contract. He started out as a fourth liner.

Reirden's career began similarly. He started in the East Coast Hockey League – one level below the AHL - with the Raleigh Icecaps in 1994 and worked his way toward an eventual NHL debut with the Edmonton Oilers during the 1998-99 season.

“I felt that my personal story was close to his,” Reirden says. “I found out the hard way draft picks and players that teams have invested money in sometimes get more opportunity. It's up to you to stay persistent in terms of accomplishing your goals. I was hoping to give him the blue print if that came his way.”

The Sabres' expectations for Whitmore were pretty low. Maybe he'll turn out to be a decent third-line forward, the scout thought. No matter. He'll be good for the community, a leader in the locker room and a stand-up teammate.

“He's extremely driven, but he's also a good person,” Reirden says. “I liked what he was all about and who he was as a person. He volunteered and did charity work as well. It seems like guys who are good student athletes, hard workers and have the ability to play at a higher level are those that coaches gravitate toward.”

A week later, he scored his first AHL goal as a member of the Rochester Amerks. A few weeks after that, the Sabres changed their AHL affiliate to the Portland Pirates.

Before Reirden hangs up to head to his flight, he notes, “I'm always happy to talk about Derek Whitmore.”

On Dec. 19, 2011, Coach Ray ran around Hartsfield-Jackson Airport in Atlanta like a mad man.

A few hours earlier, he was in Memphis, Tenn., on a business trip. He would connect through Atlanta – a very common route back to Rochester – and be back in Greece in a few hours. He thought It would be a mundane trip home.

Then, his phone rang.

His son spoke. Then, there was silence.

Memories of carrying hockey equipment through feet of snow came pouring over him. Thoughts of the lessons taught on hockey trips and the phone call from Butte convincing his son to keep at it. Reflections of his son's first goal at Bowling Green and his first as a Rochester American and shadows of all the players he'd taken the ice with that never made it. All hitting Coach Ray like a tidal wave.

“Dad, I just got called up to the Sabres,” Whitmore said, his voice shaking a little. “I'm playing tonight against Ottawa.”

Silence.

“I was just so happy for him,” Coach Ray says. “The kid has a lot of positives in his game, but he doesn't have the size that they like to see at that level, so he's had an uphill battle. Then he finally got there. I got pretty choked up on the phone.”

When the shock wore off, reality set in. Coach Ray wasn't going to be able to watch his son's first NHL game.

“When the game started, I was in flight from Memphis to Atlanta,” he says. “When I finally got there I was looking for a sports bar, way away from my gate. I finally found one that had the NHL channel, but when the bartender went to the Sabres game, a message came up saying it was unavailable.”

Until he made it back to Rochester, Coach Ray had to follow updates on his Blackberry.

“You dream about that day,” he says. “You want to be there, you want to share that experience with him and it just didn't work out for us.”

Back in Rochester, Sarah's parents sat alone in Whitmore and his wife's apartment. Her parents had planned a trip to Rochester for weeks. They were excited to see the city where their daughter had followed her hockey husband and to see her hockey husband play again. Instead, Sarah drove alone to Ottawa and her parents watched Whitmore's debut on TV.

In Ottawa, the Sabres lost, but Whitmore proved to himself he could play. He'd thought all along he could make it in the NHL, a place where you don't handle your own luggage, where the arenas are like cathedrals and hotels have room service. After that night, though, he knew for sure.

Whitmore played 18 shifts, a total of 14:08. He did everything against the Senators that he's always done: moved the puck, blocked shots, drove hard to the net, brought energy to a lifeless Sabres team. He was the same Derek the Destroyer.

“The first person I saw when I walked out of the locker room after the game was my wife,” Whitmore says. “That was a really special moment to share. We've been through so much waiting for this, it was great to see her first.”

Coach Ray wasn't able to see the game until the next day, when he watched the replay on TV.

“He looked like he fit right in,” he says. “It looked like he belonged, which was great for him because it convinced him he could play at that level.”

Two nights later, he traveled to Toronto to watch his son play against the Maple Leafs.

“It was wonderful,” Coach Ray says. “That was his team growing up. The family watched Sabre games. To see him out there in the Sabre blue and gold was exciting.”

After the game, he gave his son a hug.

“I said a few things that only him and I heard. I said I was proud of him and that not too many people can say they've reached their dream,” Coach Ray said.

After the game in Toronto Dec. 22, the NHL went on Christmas break. Whitmore was officially sent back to Rochester, but was told it was only a paper move to save the Sabres cap space for a few days. He left his equipment in Buffalo.

Unfortunately for Whitmore, the break gave the Sabres regulars time to get healthy. He was called into head coach Lindy Ruff's office. The two went over some game tape from the previous two games, then he was informed he'd jump on a plane to meet the Americans in Oklahoma City.

He hasn't been back to Buffalo since.

“It's just something that you can check off the bucket list, that you played for the Buffalo Sabres,” Sarah says.

Whitmore doesn't see it that way.

“Two games in the NHL? That's unacceptable,” he says. “I got there, and for that brief moment I saw that I could be successful at that level. I’m not giving up this dream. The minute I do, I will lose that jam that keeps me going. Any time you get that taste of being at the highest level, all you want is just to get back there and I’m doing to do everything I can to do that.”

He says that his game has to constantly be reinvented, knowing that he'll likely be a third or fourth-line winger if he's going to make it to the NHL long term.

But Whitmore understands the business. He understands teams pay big money for top-line scorers. He understands that first-round picks are given preference. If a first-rounder fails, the team looks bad. If a never-heard-of-you free agent fails, fans don't flinch. Neither does the front office.

What he's convinced himself: Whether he's called up again isn't up to him. At 27, no amount of practice is going to change the Sabres' mind about where he stands. When a scorer gets hurt in Buffalo, there's a draft pick to move up. When a tough guy gets hurt, there's a more physical player to get the call.

“You know, I just wish that somebody would give him 10 games to really see whether he can do it or not,” Coach Ray says. “But, you know, he's got two choices: He can either stay in the fight or give the fight up.”

The Sabres think he should be happy playing in front of his hometown fans and family. They think he should be happy having made it this far, when none of his teammates from Butte made an NHL debut and only one from Waterloo.

But he isn't content with playing for his home fans. He's going to keep the fight up. He and Sarah and the Whitmore family are going to go along for this ride, whatever team, whatever city, to make it back, to go back to the NHL, where you don't handle your own luggage, where the arenas are like cathedrals and hotels have room service.

And maybe some day, a game in The Show will mean just another text message from Coach Ray instead of silence.

 


 


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