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Whitfield embracing leadership role in Peoria

by Ryan Dixon || AHL On The Beat Archive

whitfieldSome might call him a role player. Others may well refer to him as a journeyman. The Peoria Rivermen know him as their captain.

Trent Whitfield’s passion for hockey started as soon as he was able to lace up his skates. The Estevan, Sask., native’s father and friends actually helped Whitfield view hockey as more of a livelihood than a sport.

Whitfield, whose favorite team growing up was the Edmonton Oilers, parlayed his passion into his profession during the 1998 season on the American Hockey League’s Portland Pirates. Fast forward 11 years and the 31-year-old center is working harder than ever as a team leader.

“It’s one of those things when you get up in age and you haven’t made it permanently to the NHL, you just kind of become that guy,” Whitfield said. “That you go down to the minors and you teach young kids how to prepare, how to be better pros. You just become more of a teacher and help the organization develop young talent.”

Whitfield was originally drafted as the 100th overall pick by the Boston Bruins in 1996, but it wasn’t until four years later that he made his NHL debut. In April of 2000, Whitfield appeared in three playoff games after his call-up to the Washington Capitals. The Rivermen captain’s longest NHL run would be the very next season when he appeared in 61 games for the Caps, registering two goals and four assists.

After bouncing back and forth between the Portland Pirates and the Capitals for the good part of six seasons, Whitfield landed in Peoria in 2005. Whitfield has only seen a handful of NHL action during his stint with the Rivermen, but he acknowledged and embraced his duties as the captain.

“It’s kind of been a role of mine the past couple years,” Whitfield said. “That doesn’t mean that you give up trying to make it – it’s just one of those roles that you accept. You come down here and be a captain and a leader to these young kids, and hopefully you can pass some of the things that you learned onto them and it will help them have a successful career – hopefully in the NHL.”

Whitfield certainly hasn’t given up on his dream of a more substantial NHL career. Whitfield, who had not been summoned by the Blues since the 2005-06 season, was stunned when the big club called on him on Jan. 14.

“It’s been two and a half years since I was called up and I got the call here in the last couple weeks a couple times,” Whitfield said. “And it was a bit of a surprise.”

whitfield09a_200.jpgPeoria’s veteran said he felt such astonishment because he knows rebuilding teams, like this season’s St. Louis Blues, tend to call up younger players and high draft picks to obtain some NHL experience.

Whitfield skated for St. Louis against the Blackhawks and the Avalanche in mid-January. He even tallied an assist in the 5-2 win over Colorado. With 30 points (14g, 16a) already this season, he ranks second on the Rivermen in scoring and is on pace to put up at least 50 points for the fifth consecutive season in the AHL.

In 785 regular season games between the AHL, NHL, and even a brief stint in the ECHL during his rookie year, Whitfield has posted 521 points (214g, 307a). He is just 32 points shy of joining the AHL’s exclusive 500-point club.

“I still obviously feel like I can play and help the Blues,” Whitfield said. “But at the same time, they got to look at their future and they’re in rebuilding right now so that’s something I got to understand. It’s something that I try and teach these young kids – that you never know when your time’s going to come. You just got to make sure you’re ready for it.”

Whitfield’s biggest advice for the younger guys is the same value he said his parents instilled in him at a young age: Give it your all.

The father of two also emphasized how vital it is to constantly remain prepared and to play hard every single day.

As for his post-playing days, Whitfield isn’t tempted to leave the rink. His leadership qualities might just transfer from the ice to behind the bench. Whitfield said he would love to stay involved with the sport by working his way up the coaching ranks.

“I think, in general, it’s better for a coach to start off coaching at the younger levels,” Whitfield said. “It just benefits you just to get that experience, get the basics of coaching down before you come in.”

But Trent Whitfield fans probably don’t have to worry about that transition for quite a while. The seasoned veteran said he’s hoping to play for at least five more seasons…or as long as his body will allow him.

“I’m going to play as long as there’s someone out there that’s going to give me a contract or allow me to play.”