Even though he’s never far from the center of attention, the winger with a low center of gravity has had a week to remember.
Albany Devils left wing Joe Whitney was recalled by the New Jersey Devils last Thursday; with his parents and wife in the stands, he played his first NHL game the next day, linemates with Jaromir Jagr and Travis Zajac; returned to the AHL Saturday, when Albany was handing out a bobblehead with his likeness; then Monday was named to the AHL All-Star team that will take on one of the top Swedish teams on Feb. 12.
The third-year pro stood in the hallway Tuesday outside the team’s dressing room, considering what phrases he might ask his three Swedish teammates or assistant coach Tommy Albelin to teach him.
“I might learn some, ‘Hey, how’s it going?’ or ‘Hey, good luck tonight,’ kind of stuff,” Whitney said. “I’ll have a lesson with Tommy.”
One of the Swedes who was nearby and listening in then jokingly offered up a saltier phrase he might teach the young winger, getting a laugh.
It’s been all smiles for Whitney off the ice because of the way he works on it. The 5-foot-6, 170-pound undrafted Boston College product hit the ground running in his rookie season, leading Albany in points with 15 goals and 29 assists in 72 games. He did it again his sophomore season, compiling 26 goals and 25 assists in 66 games.
Entering this season, Albany coach Rick Kowalsky said Whitney was going to have a tougher time of it as something of a marked man. He was going to have less time to act, less space to maneuver. Still, he has 16 goals and 21 assists in 42 games so far.
“He’s not only found a way, he’s taken it to another level,” Kowalsky said. “I kind of go back to last year, about the halfway point in the season. It was just after the lockout had ended. I joked with him. I knew he had played with Cam Atkinson, who was in Springfield. I joked and said, ‘What’s the difference between you and him?’ He didn’t really want to hear anything, but Atkinson, he plays with some jam, he plays with some fire. He’s not just an offensive guy. From that point on, and I don’t know whether Joe would admit that flipped the switch, but from that point on, I thought he played with a little more grit in his game.”
Kowalsky lights up when he talks about one hit Whitney dished out this season. He points out although Whitney’s not tall, neither is he small. He’s strong, and apparently fearless.
“He had one down in Norfolk, on Nolan Yonkman, who may be the biggest guy in the league [6-6, 247 pounds], and he absolutely dropped him,” Kowalsky said. “He can certainly use that to his advantage. I think he’s really accepted the fact he’s a top guy on this team and a top guy in this league, and he puts that on himself every night.”
He may be a top guy in this league, but it was a little bit of a shock to be placed on the top line for New Jersey in his first NHL appearance.
“At first, it was a little bit of nerves, but at the end of the day, they’re hockey players, just as I am, and we love to play hockey,” Whitney said. “That was my mindset going in, to have fun and just do the best I can, and if plays are there to be made, to try to make them.”
His welcome-to-the-NHL moment came earlier in the day.
“I was the first one to the rink,” he said. “When you look at your stall and it’s next to Jaromir Jagr, that was a pretty cool moment.”
As the other players filtered into the room later on, one in particular was happy to see Whitney.
“I was pumped because I wasn’t the shortest guy in the locker room anymore,” said 5-7 centerman Stephen Gionta, also a BC product. “I made sure I let him know that, and I’m pretty sure everybody else let him know that, too. I was walking around with a perm-anent smile on my face.
“It was awesome to see Joe get that opportunity. He’s worked really hard for it. I remember when he came into development camp on a tryout out of BC. To make it up and play in his first game . . . I walked into the locker room and saw him in the morning, and he just had a huge smile. I was pumped to see him get that opportunity.”
Another undrafted BC forward whose stature belies his talent, Gionta blazed a trail for Whitney to follow.
After finishing up at BC, Gionta played three games at the end of the 2005-06 season with the Albany River Rats, then played with the Lowell Devils for four full seasons before getting his first taste of the NHL. He played 110 games with Albany the next two seasons, also seeing time with New Jersey, and spent 11 games with Albany last season while the lockout shortened the NHL campaign.
In 371 games with the franchise, he owns the record for career goals (58) and points (140), and with 82 assists was one shy of Matt Anderson’s record 83.
Whitney is threatening to take all three records in the near future. He has 57 goals and 75 assists in 180 games with Albany.
“And in half the amount of games,” Gionta said with a laugh. “It was the better part of a decade I built that up, and he’s done it in two or three years.”
Gionta was never a player to show too much excitement over personal achievements, but he admits being the top guy has been nice.
“It’s something that’s a huge honor to hold any rec-ord, whether it’s most games played or most points in franchise history,” Gionta said. “It’s a record for the organization and something you can hold close to you.
“Whit’s a great kid. He works hard, he has a great sense for the game. I’m more than happy and thrilled to see him do that. It’s awesome for him, and to have a fellow BC guy do it is pretty cool.”
And as a memento of what has been a crazy week for Whitney, he has his bobblehead. He’ll hold on to one of his plastic likenesses so it can nod at him years from now when he asks it if this all really happened the way he remembers it.
He can also look at it and revel in its representation of him as the top guy, even among all the Devils’ bobbleheads.
“I think he’s a pretty good-looking guy,” Whitney said. “Also, [trainer] Scotty Stanhibel has a collection of all of them, and I’m the tallest bobblehead.”