by Caroline Greene || AHL On The Beat Archive
In what is widely touted as the fastest game on earth, a game-changing play can be made in a split second, sending one team into an exuberant celebration and the other hanging their heads in disbelief.
Just as quickly as the tempo of a hockey game changes, a split second was all it took to derail Trent Whitfield’s 13th season before he even hit the ice.
Braving the hot, humid, sultry weather in the early days of August, Whitfield was training hard for the upcoming season, one he hoped would be spent in Boston. However, Whitfield’s season was cut short before it started when he ruptured his Achilles’ tendon while doing shuttle runs.
“I was running full speed one way, stopped to go the other way and it just popped,” Whitfield said.
In an instant, Whitfield’s training, his season and his spot in Boston was put on hold and in question as he found himself in unfamiliar territory: watching from the stands.
“It’s tough,” he reflected. “This is my 13th year and my first time missing any kind of time at all. I’ve missed two or three games here of there before, but those are pretty easy to get past mentally.”
Whitfield had surgery to repair his ruptured Achilles’ in mid-August and began the slow and tedious rehabilitation process immediately after. Working with the Providence Bruins trainer, Mark Grotzinger, and strength and conditioning coach Mike Macchioni, Whitfield spends hours at the rink every day, doing hundreds of repetitions of strengthening and flexibility exercises to get him back in game-ready condition.
His hard work hasn’t gone unnoticed by head coach Rob Murray, either.
“I know that Mike Macchioni had said that he’ll work out forever if you want him to. He’ll just keep going with ‘What’s next, what’s next,’” said Murray. “So he’s not cutting any corners that way, that’s for sure, and he wants to make sure that when he comes back he’s ready to go.”
The captain of last year’s Providence squad, Whitfield is widely praised for his work ethic, both on and off the ice.
“He is a tireless worker and you see that in the games. He is tenacious, he never quits on a puck,” praised Murray. “He was probably the hardest worker in practice last season on a daily basis.”
Murray said that he looks to the veteran as a leader and role model to the younger players to demonstrate what it takes to have a long, successful career in professional hockey.
“It’s good to have your captain or best players lead by example in that fashion. If they’re (young players) looking at the captain saying, ‘Well, he’s not doing it. Why do I need to do it?’ It’s pretty hard for me to get the message across,” Murray said. “But you get a guy like Whit and [Jeremy Reich], that day-in-day-out are our hardest workers, it makes the job easier for me to make sure that nobody can take the easy way out because these guys are working the hardest and they’re the leaders.”
While sitting in the stands can’t compare to being on the bench and in the game, Whitfield is able see the game from a different perspective and offer his feedback to a very young P-Bruins team.
“Obviously, I’ve got a bird’s eye view from up in the stands, so I come down and give them a little feedback after games and just throughout the week, try to steer them in the right direction,” Whitfield said.
With over half of the team having less than five professional seasons under their belts, Whitfield realizes how his experience in the AHL and NHL can aid in his role to help develop the young talent.
“We’ve got a really young group of guys that are in a learning process. There is a learning curve for these kids and the coaching staff has relied on me a little bit for feedback,” said Whitfield.
As a spectator, Whitfield is able to give the players a different perspective than what the coaches give them and let them know what he sees as opposed to what they may be feeling on the ice. Most of all, Whitfield aims to give the young guys positive reinforcement.
“The coaching staff tends to give you a little bit more criticism, where I try to reinforce the good things that (the players) are doing and just little things they might need to work on.”
As his rehab goes into overdrive and he prepares to rejoin the team for practices in the coming weeks, Whitfield is glad to finally see a light at the end of the tunnel after a long and sometimes mentally weary, road to recovery.
“It’s like Groundhog Day. You come in and do the same things over and over again,” reflected Whitfield. “You just kind of tell yourself that it is going to pay off in the end.”
While he spends countless hours working out at the rink, Whitfield credits his home life when citing the importance of getting away from the rink occasionally.
“Obviously being married with kids helps. I go home and they don’t care what I’ve been through at the rink and it helps me get my mind off the rink,” said Whitfield. “I just kind of forget about everything and then get re-focused to come back the next day.”
Skating after every team practice for a few weeks and now fully participating in practices with his teammates, Whitfield is slowly getting his legs and hands back in game condition, but he quickly points out that it is still going to be a little while longer.
“It’s more so just coming to terms with that it’s going to be a while. That’s the hardest part, I think,” Whitfield said. “Especially now, I feel like I’m almost ready to get out there, but reality is, I’m not there yet.”
“I’m out there skating almost full-speed now, but just knowing that it’s not strong enough to get into that competitive battle that you’re going to be in at that high level, just mentally knowing that is a huge step,” Whitfield reflected.
The captain and third-leading scorer on last year’s squad (17g, 26a), Whitfield said he is looking to return to the lineup in early to mid-January.
“I would say between January 1 and January 10 would kind of be our goal right now. Depending on how things respond over the next couple weeks, we’ll know more.”
Life can change in an instant. Trent Whitfield knows that better than most. While it took months and hundreds of hours to rehabilitate an injury that sidelined him for the first half of the season, it will only take his first shift during his first game back to know that the long journey was worth it.