Reputation brings Whitfield back to B’s

by Adam Kaufman || AHL On The Beat Archive 

After practice, he can usually be found sitting on the couch in the player’s lounge in the back of the Providence Bruins locker room, quiet and unassuming as he does a USA Today crossword puzzle.

If he needs help, he’ll ask those sitting around him watching reruns of Home Improvement.

A finished puzzle gives him a feeling of satisfaction and accomplishment. A puzzle left with several unanswered clues still allows him the ability to walk away, content that he made his best attempt.

In a simplistic, yet profound way, the crossword puzzles are symbolic of the way he carries himself in his daily life.

His name is Trent Whitfield, and he is the newest captain of the P-Bruins.

Whitfield, now in his 12th professional season, was selected by the Boston Bruins 100th overall in round four of the 1996 National Hockey League Entry Draft. Ironically, he didn’t play his first game in the Bruins organization until the 2009-10 season after spending his first 11 pro seasons bouncing between the NHL and AHL.

From rookie to veteran, his career has come full circle.

“I’m excited, it’s a fresh start for me,” said Whitfield back in October upon his return to the Boston organization. “It was unfortunate things didn’t work out (with the Bruins) back in the mid-90’s. It was just one of those things where they didn’t see me, I guess, as a top prospect at the time. They weren’t willing to give me an NHL contract so I decided to go back to juniors (in Spokane). But, you know, I’m here now and I’m excited for the opportunity to play for the Bruins and we’ll see where it goes from here.”

His journey began in Rhode Island. After seven seasons in the Washington Capitals organization and the last four in the St. Louis Blues system, the 32-year-old Whitfield inked a free-agent contract with Boston on July 13, 2009, that will keep him in New England for two years.

The coaching staff in Providence, as well as Whitfield, credit Bruins assistant general manager Don Sweeney for being one of the main cogs in getting the deal done at a time when roster turnover was expected to be significant.

After a successful 2008-09 season resulted in a trip to the Eastern Conference Finals, many Bruins prospects were targeted for a return to Providence. However, the same could not be said for last season’s veterans. That left Bruins GM Peter Chiarelli and Sweeney, among others, with the task of replacing leaders like Jeremy Reich, Peter Schaefer and Martin St. Pierre with new faces that could seamlessly come in and develop Boston’s young talent.

To many, Whitfield was a logical choice. To P-Bruins coach Rob Murray, he was a perfect choice.

“Everybody I’ve ever talked to about him, and this dates back to even talking to (former assistant coach) Brent Thompson in Peoria about their team, he couldn’t say enough about Trent Whitfield,” said Murray.

“This is last year and prior years – their leadership and work ethic all came from him. Doing my due diligence this past summer and checking around about him, I didn’t hear any different.”

Murray didn’t have to look far for encouragement. Providence assistant coach Bruce Cassidy had Whitfield on his roster when he ran the bench in Washington from 2002-03.

“We brought him up (from Portland) I remember specifically in the playoffs,” Cassidy recalled. “He’d been up and down a little bit and did a really good job for us with face-offs and the penalty kill, just a reliable two-way player.

“(Whitfield’s) a guy who had a great work ethic and good intangibles in terms of leadership in the locker room,” Cassidy continued. “Here, he’s developing guys like Zach Hamill, Brad Marchand, Jamie Arniel – a number of forwards he can sort of take under his wing.”

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While Whitfield’s top priority is to one day become a regular contributor on Causeway Street (where he’s already enjoyed 14 games for Boston over two lengthy recalls), being relied upon to aid the development of young talent is not new for the veteran captain.

“This role is something that I’ve been accustomed to the past four or five years,” said Whitfield. “Coming in here, I’m an older veteran guy that can lead the young guys and teach them what it’s like to be a pro and how to play hard every night.”

Of course, the art of teaching is a science. Few successful professors of their craft start out by walking into a room full of 25 new faces and barking orders. The first skill involves getting a feel for the room, something Whitfield shows great comfort with according teammate and new P-Bruin Andy Wozniewski.

“Obviously you get a lot of changes throughout a year in the American Hockey League,” said Wozniewski, who was also captained by Whitfield last season in Peoria. “Guys go up, guys get sent down and young guys come in, so you’ve got to be careful and make everybody feel comfortable because sometimes those young guys need a little extra. You’ve got to tell them when they do a good job and just kind of get their confidence up.”

Sometimes, Wozniewski said, all that takes is being there.

“He’s good, you know, he gives them the time of day. I’ve seen a lot of older guys kind of just come in, do their job and then leave, not really caring about the rest of the team. (Trent) pulls guys aside and lets them know how everything is going.”

“He leads by example,” said third-year Providence center Zach Hamill of Whitfield. “He shows some of us younger guys the ropes, how to do things on and off the ice. He’s definitely a guy, not just me, that guys look up to.”

The connection is more significant for the 21-year-old Hamill than it may be for most guys in the room. Whitfield is a center who has had success at the NHL level and Hamill is a pivot the Bruins selected eighth overall in 2007 with hopes they will see him up the middle for years to come in the TD Garden.

“I pick his brain a little bit and try to do things he does,” Hamill said. “He’s awesome at face-offs, probably one of the best I’ve seen in the NHL or AHL. It’s his hard work and attitude. Everything he does he works hard at. Those are good attributes to have, some I like to think I have now or will down the road.”

Based on the observations of Wozniewski, Hamill and a host of other players surveyed around the room, Whitfield would probably say he’s doing his job just as he always intends – the right way.

“When you come to the rink, it’s time to put your work boots on,” said Whitfield. “You’re playing hard for everyone in this locker room and not just for yourself. You don’t come and take days off. You’re not going to have your best everyday but you work hard. That’s something you can control and that’s something you’ve got to teach these young kids – some of them have it and some of them are still learning it.”

A father of two young children (three-year-old Colton and two-year-old Alstyn) and a captain for the third time (Portland in 2004-05 and Peoria in 2008-09), Whitfield has learned at this point that leading a room isn’t much different than sitting quietly and doing a crossword puzzle. More than anything, you just need patience.

“You gotta come in, relax, unwind and get yourself mentally prepared,” he said. “With preparation, you have to take a step back sometimes. Sometimes you want to go out there and score a goal every shift and (eventually) you just learn that’s not possible.”

“When I was 20, I came in and I was gung-ho flying around,” Whitfield continued. “I’d just go as fast as I could from one side of the ice to the other. It’s okay to do that when you’re young because you’ve got that little bit of extra energy. But as you mature, you realize that less is more sometimes. I think that’s the biggest key for these young guys. Less is more sometimes and when they figure that out the game just becomes that much easier.”

After 890 career professional games between the regular season and postseason, 205 in the NHL, and 583 points, his teammates, be it in Providence or Boston, are bound to listen when he speaks up. And, though he may be doing crosswords while some others are playing video games, Whitfield is closing in on 20 goals or better for a fifth straight season, indicating he’s not ready to use a cane to get around the room just yet.

“I may be old but it’s just a number,” Whitfield laughed. “I feel young at heart, my body and everything feels good, and I can go out and play with these young kids and maybe teach them a few things.”

It sounds like he already has.