Thursday, October 20, 2011

HB interview: Goaltender Chris Whitley of the EIHL

photo by Derek Black / Dundee Stars

Today, we're pleased to bring you an interview with goaltender Chris Whitley, who is playing his first year for the Dundee Stars of the UK's Elite Ice Hockey League (EIHL). 

Player stats:

Chris Whitley - #83
Dundee Stars 2011-12
born: Feb 21, 1983 - Oshawa, Ontario
6'1", 215 pounds
Catches: Left

Allen Americans (CHL) 2009-2011
Lake Erie Monsters (AHL) 2009-10 
– nominated for Rookie of the Year and Goalie of the Year his rookie season (2009-10). 
- Set 3 CHL league records in the playoffs for games played, minutes played and saves.

Who was your favorite team and player while growing up?

My favorite team growing up was the Toronto Maple Leafs, and still will be till the day I die. However, I do have a small place for the Red Wings because they were the only team in the NHL to give me a chance to prove myself.

I loved watching Marty Brodeur as a kid. I loved being able to watch his entire career right from his start. He will be the guy I tell my kids was the best of all time!

Which current pro goalies, if any, do you admire or try to study?

I love watching Henrik Lundqvist! He is very good positionally and just an exciting goalie to watch in my eyes.

What was the funniest chirp you've ever gotten?

When I played for Lake Erie some guy asked me how the hell I got called up from the Southern Pro League. I don’t know why but it was just out of the blue in the game, and I thought it was hilarious even though it probably wouldn’t be to most people.

Let's talk about your journey to the pros first. You played college throughout hockey, a couple years in the CHL, attended a Detroit training camp, and then now the EIHL.  How did you get to where you are, and where do you hope/plan to go from here?

Well, I went to Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, Ontario, for five years and got lucky enough to play in two national championships. I set every major goalie record at that school during my 5 years there. I was the OUA MVP, Goalie of the year and CIS All-Canadian my senior season. I really wasn’t sure if I wanted to play pro, or was going get any interest to play pro for that matter, once my career at Lakehead was finished. I was more focused on getting my teaching degree and looking for a job. 

In my fifth year at the nationals, I ended up playing two excellent games in front of a lot of scouts who contacted my coach and just asked what my plans were after hockey. I really didn’t know at the time, and from the end of the season I didn’t have another thought until I got a call from Jim Nill, the assistant GM of the Red Wings, in July asking if I wanted to attend the prospects tournament in Traverse City. At first I thought it was a joke from a number of my friends who are big Red Wing fans, but I didn’t recognize the area code so I thought it might be real. We talked for a bit and I gladly accepted the invitation to my first NHL camp.

photo by Derek Black / Dundee Stars
The next few weeks, I got offers from Allen and a team in Norway, and that was it. Allen offered me a spot if nothing worked out with Detroit, so I signed with them to make sure I had a place to play if nothing worked out. I had a good camp in Traverse City and continued on to the main camp for a few days, and then got released to Allen.  The camp in Detroit was an unbelievable experience and something I will cherish as the high point in my hockey career.

From there, I played the next two seasons in Allen, and came very close to two championships, but eventually lost in the final and Conference final. I’m very thankful for the time I spent in Allen, because it helped me get two AHL call-ups as well as a lot of playing time that aided my career for the better.

Finally, I had a very busy summer after I got traded from Allen to Wichita. I really wasn’t thrilled with the trade, and just took a few days to reflect on a decision to keep playing, or maybe decide to move on and get into teaching. Over the next week, I had a few offers in the ECHL as well as Europe, and had a tough decision to make. During the week, I got a call from Brent Hughes, the player/assistant coach in Dundee, whom I knew and played against in junior hockey. He knew I got traded and asked me if I would be interested in playing in Scotland. I thought it might be interesting but still wanted to know more, so over the next few days I talked to him as well as head coach Dan Ceman, and we worked out a deal and now I am in Scotland playing my third year of pro hockey.

I really don’t have a set timetable on when I want to retire. I have a degree and a job waiting for me when I finish, so I will keep playing until I don’t have the desire or no team wants me. I graduated with a Junior/Intermediate teaching degree, which means I can teach grades 4-10 when I’m done with hockey.

How has the adjustment to life abroad been for you?

Well this is my first time out of North America, so it was a pretty big change for me and my lifestyle. I’m a pretty simple guy and have never liked big change, and this was a BIG change. I have been here about seven weeks now, and have got adjusted to Dundee quite nicely. It did take a few weeks to get used to the driving and accents on some of the people here. Everyone I have met has been very nice and welcoming to me as well as the rest of the team. I have tried haggis and it wasn’t bad… but I think the next thing is to sample a few whiskies around town. I’m actually very happy I made the decision to come across to Scotland and play a different style game, as well as sample a different country and a way of life.

Most North American hockey fans aren't really familiar with the EIHL (Elite Ice Hockey League) - except, perhaps, those who saw last year's Belfast Giants & their Christmas video. It's a much smaller league, just 10 teams across the UK. From a player's perspective, what's different about pro ice hockey in the UK?

It is becoming a bit more popular, but nothing major quite yet. The league has been around for almost 10 years and attracts players in a few different situations. The league restricts each team to no more than 10 “imports” that aren’t born in the UK, which is different than the US, because players can come from anywhere. Some players come here and finish a master’s degree while playing, and some just come for the experience and to see a different part of the world. 

The rink size and quality of the arenas are a little different than playing in the US. A few rinks will seat around 2,000, and then you have others that seat 6,000-8,000 people. The widths of the rinks are a little wider than in the States, and results in more puck possession and free space for the more skilled players in the league. Our rink, for instance, is a curling rink two days a week, and made it a little interesting the first few games looking at the rings and lines all over the ice, but I don’t even notice it anymore.

photo by Derek Black / Dundee Stars
One other thing that's different than hockey in the US: after games, both teams shake hands, then line up on the blue line for a “Man of the Match” presentation, which is the best player on each team for the game, rather than a “3 stars” selection. The reward for this is a case of beer to each player to basically share with the boys after the game. 

After the MOM presentation, both teams skate around the rink and salute the fans by clapping and respecting their efforts in traveling to the game as well as cheering. It is a nice gesture, and pretty cool to see.

What's your home crowd like? Any particularly memorable fans yet?

Our home crowd is great! They have drums and chants for all the players and it’s always a constant buzz in the rink during a game. I haven’t met any memorable fans (in a bad way) but most that have approached me are very nice and easy to talk to.

What are fans like on the road? European sports fans tend to be pretty competitive - do fans follow the teams on the road like they do here? How's the experience as a visiting player?

The fans are pretty similar all over the league in the sense that they are very passionate about their own teams and they support them to the fullest. Some teams have different chants and taunts, but I find it amusing to see what each team does. We have a great fan club that travels to pretty much every game! We have played in Sheffield and Coventry, and we have had 50-60 people make the trip, which was amazing to see! The personal chirps from fans aren’t as bad here as in the States - don’t get me wrong, you still get chirped, just not as bad; and sometimes they talk so fast I don’t even understand what they said.

What do you think would help hockey's visibility in the UK?

I think the visibility is getting more attention by the year in the UK, but could still use more local and national media for awareness. Hockey players know about the UK Elite league, but I think most North American fans are unfamiliar with it unless they know someone who played over here.  I knew about this league for a few years now and am glad I got the opportunity to play in it. I know I have had a good experience so far, and would recommend guys to come over try the league out if the opportunity arises.

photo by Derek Black / Dundee Stars

Last question: tell us about your mask design.

My old mask designs usually revolved around a Batman theme because he is my favorite super hero. But this time I was trying something new, and figured I would gear it more towards the city of Dundee. So I tweeted with some people I had connected with from Dundee, and got them to throw some ideas out at me. 

photo courtesy of Chris Whitley
One common thing was Desperate Dan, who was a comic book hero who originated in Dundee. (see picture, right) I thought it might be cool to do it, so I got my artist, Rob Zuback, to incorporate it on my mask. The rest I left up to Rob. 

We came up with a few ideas for what I wanted on the mask, such as history and landmarks in Dundee and Scotland. So I have Robbie Burns (a famous poet), the war memorial on Law Hill, as well as the Royal Arch in Dundee.  On the back plate, Rob threw in a Batman picture as well as a Canadian flag. I also threw in a LU symbol as a shout-out to my old university, which I have done on my pro masks.

I usually give him the mask, and just say call me when it's done! But he is great and sends me pics of things he finished to make sure I like it. I was really happy with the outcome of the mask.

You can follow Chris Whitley on Twitter at @ChrisWhitley83.

1 comment:

  1. Love it! It's nice to hear that he has settled in to our Bonnie Dundee, the team are always a great pleasure to watch and they have the fans behind them no matter what. Chris is a great goal tender and we hope that he will remain for another season :).


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