Thursday, February 9, 2012

The White Way

In the pantheon of little-boy dreams, overtime in Game Seven of the Stanley Cup playoffs is the pinnacle of glory. In dreams, little boys always score the goal that beats the hated rival and wins the Stanley Cup. Dreams, they think, have no limit. Nobody loses in a dream. When dreams really do come true, though, sometimes they're not quite the same.

Ryan White learned that bit of wisdom last spring, when he played only 3:32 of a dream game in which the hated Boston Bruins scored the winner in Game Seven of the first round of the playoffs. In overtime, no less. Some other little boy's dream came true, while the Canadiens went home.

Not White. He got another shot at winning when he joined AHL's Hamilton Bulldogs in the third round of their playoffs. The 'Dogs were down three games to none and it looked like they'd be an easy out. Instead, they pushed and clawed and sweated and made it to Game Seven. In the end, they lost anyway. For Ryan White, last playoff season was a "be careful what you wish for" kind of dream.

"It was tough," he admits now. "Both situations were a little bit different. In Montreal I wasn't playing as much, but I thought we really had a chance to win and we were playing pretty well. Especially when you're up in the series and you lose the game, it's a bit different. The second time when I was down in Hamilton, it was different again. We were down three-nothing and I was playing quite a bit. We came back in the series and that one almost hurt a bit more, just because of how much work we did to come back."

Everyone who's been there says nobody emerges from the playoffs without some kind of bump or bruise or chronic injury. It follows then, that if you double the playoffs, you double the pain. White emerged from the fight last May with more than his share of battle scars.

"It was huge. I couldn't get into the shape I wanted to be in to come to camp, and by the time I got to camp things weren't looking very good for me. Things weren't going the way I wanted them to go," he reflects. "When you're hurt and you're dealing with minor injuries that become big injuries, it's not very fun. This year has been a pretty big learning experience for me just in the sense of rehabbing and the work I have to put in every day for my body to feel good. It's been a longer year that way, but it's been good for me."

It wasn't so good back in the fall, on the September day when team doctors told him the injury he'd been fighting all summer was serious enough to require surgery.

"That was a tough day," he recalls. "I knew something was wrong, and I was really hoping it was something I could rehab or something I could get through. I just wanted to know what was going on because I really didn't have a full diagnosis. I didn't know exactly what was happening. Once I found out it was a torn hernia, in one sense it was a little bit relieving but at the same time, it was tough to hear my season was pretty much over. It was something I had to persevere through and I'm better for it now. It's just too bad I had to miss so much of the season."

He's philosophical about it now, but at the time, he says, he felt like the doctors were taking his whole life away from him.

"Hockey's everything I've ever known and everything I love to do. My life revolves around it and it always has. Once they take that away from you...I didn't really know what else to do. I tried to stay around the rink as much as possible and be a part of the team, but it's tough when you're not contributing on the ice and you're not going to war with the guys. It was a tough season in that sense."

The daily grind of rehab wasn't something White, a spitfire on every shift on the ice, had ever had to face before. In the summer, before the operation limited his activity, he fished sockeye with friends to help him relax and forget that his body wasn't doing what it was supposed to do. After surgery, he spent a lot of down time watching TV and reading. He heard Tampa Bay Lightning coach Guy Boucher told his team to read the World War II hero epic "Unbroken," so he picked up and enjoyed the audio book. Mostly, though, the days were a predictable grind.

"I was usually in the rink by 8:00 in the morning," he says. "I'd have treatment with one of the trainers there. I'd be working with either my exact injury or something that goes along with it. Just rehabbing, trying to get that moving better, and I'd go from there. I'd get into the gym and have an hour workout. Then a little break, and in the last two months, an hour skate after that. Then, after practice, another rehab and then just try to get ready for the next day. I worked with Pierre Allard, the strength coach, in Montreal for a couple of weeks. He was in full gear every single day for a couple of weeks and we were battling with each other every day. That was big for me to get my confidence back. I'm a physical player, and when you're coming back from injury, that's a tough thing to get back into. It's great when you have guys like him who can compete with you every day and make it tough on you."

Some of his teammates helped too. In an organization in which players are drafted together, train together and develop together, bonds are formed and they last even when one of their number is out of action.

"I've got good guys I've come through the system with. Desharnais, Weber, Subban, those guys. Pacioretty. We all grew up together in the system and we know each other pretty well," he explains, then continues, "Of the older guys, Scotty Gomez was big for me this year. He was always reaching out and making sure I was part of the group. Guys like that, who make you feel part of the group, that goes a long way."

While the support of friends might go a long way in helping relieve the tedium of rehab and making an injured player feel like part of the team, it can't entirely erase the sense of solitude that player endures. White says this has been a lonely year; not easy for a person who plays for the team before himself and thrives on the comradeship of a bunch of guys striving together for a common cause.

"It's my first year living alone. I didn't have any roommates, which is different because I'm used to living with a couple of guys and feeling like part of the team all the time," he says. "You're not around the team as much as you want to be, and when you are at the rink, you're often by yourself doing your own thing. It was lonely at times, but on a personal level, I've found out a lot about myself this year. I have a lot more to offer my team."

The Canadiens will soon find out how much more White can offer. He says he learned a lot about his game by watching others play, a luxury afforded only those who have the time and bird's-eye view injury provides. He's seen what makes other players good and tried to think of how he can incorporate those observations into the way he plays.

So far, so good. In his first real game back, in a conditioning stint with the Bulldogs, White played nearly 18 minutes, scored two goals and threw his weight around. It was a big step for a player who, more than many, relies on the resilience of his body to be successful on the ice. That body will be significantly tested in his first weekend back in action, with three games in three nights. It's all part of the long, difficult journey he's undertaken in an effort to get back into the Canadiens lineup before the season ends.

Still, he brushes aside the very thought that the loneliness, hard work and pain of this season might change him or the way he plays. On the contrary, he says he feels mentally stronger and has learned how to prepare physically for games in a way he never did before. He declares himself ready to pick up the threads of the dream that seemed to unravel for him last spring.

"There's always pressure to play up there. I don't change my game. I play the same way down here as I do up there. That's my game. I have to play that way. That's the way I've always played. It's a tough job some nights, but some nights I see that our team needs that and I hope I can bring that," he vows in a voice ringing with conviction.

With his boyish exuberance and his gap-toothed smile, there's still a lot of kid in Ryan White. These days, though, he's emerging as a man who's lived through the disappointment of childhood dreams gone wrong. He's learned about hardship and endurance, and he's discovered a dream that's worth anything doesn't come true by itself. He's coming back a more determined player, one who's focused just a little more sharply on making the dream come true for real.


Anonymous said...

So lonely making all that money...

Anonymous said...

hey JT - great piece on White - i have always liked this guy from junior and your take is insightful as always

have to say though that your tweets have nothing on the old format of post period comments - always looked forward to those every game, and the exquisite hyperbole therein...

darcy said...

great read as always JT! hope Ryan comes back to the big club soon!

Unknown said...

A wonderful article. Thanks for the great read.

Can't wait for this kid to come back for us down the stretch. His energy and hustle is going to compliment Cunnyworth's style very well.

Michael. B said...

Great piece. Good kid. The more u hear bout Gomez. This quote. The stuff with ak46. Stubbs article. Others. Good citizen

whistlerfan said...

Thanks a lot for this update on Ryan. I've been looking for this kind of info on what he's been doing and how he's been rehabbing, very informative.

V said...

Great piece.

UK3X said...

I think he will provide the Habs with a huge spark when he gets called back up. They will need his battling as the end of the season gets closer. Lovely read JT!!

soperman said...

"The White Way"? Great post but didn't Darren Panger lose his job for saying that?

G said...

Old time hockey column Leigh Ann. Mainstream could do with more of that. Thanks for the read.

Ian Cobb said...

Thanks for the White article J.T.
Sure hope he is good to go soon.

Ian Cobb

moeman said...

Excellent article.

Anonymous said...

Super read, Thanks. Ryan has always been an impressive asset but when he joined the Habs he was more of a fringe player. I think his refocus and drive as well as his maturity will take him to the next level. If so, Ryan will be a key spark plug in the NHL for many years to come. He was a score in Jr who liked the tough zones in front of the net. Size and the desire to muck at the net is the way to win in the NHL. Ryan is fearless by the net. He continues to Montreal's new found pluckiness. Can't wait to see him back with the big team.