By Matt Mackinder -
Hockey players, like most athletes, learn at an early age how to channel all their focus on the ice and not let off-ice distractions hamper their game.
That said, there are extreme exceptions.
Take Plymouth Whalers’ veteran forward Michael Whaley, who, after being acquired from Windsor at the 2011 Ontario Hockey League trade deadline, immediately brought inspiration to the team when it was learned he was playing with a heavy heart – his father, David, was terminally ill and nobody knew how long he had to live.
David Whaley passed away just prior to the 2011-12 season on Sept. 14, 2011. He was only 48 years old and left behind two children – Michael, now 19, and Laura, 21 – his wife Glenda, parents Reg and Gaye Whaley, brother Doug, and sister Angela.
“I remember rushing home to London from Plymouth early in September because my father had been given only a couple more days,” remembered Whaley. “This was obviously a very difficult time for me spending my last days with him, but I got to spend some beautiful moments in those couple days. I received multiple texts and phone calls from the guys on the team and the staff letting me know I had their support. As hard as those days were, one bright moment I had was when I was waiting to greet family and friends at the funeral and I saw our team bus pull in and 20 of my brothers step off. Everyone was so amazed by the class that the guys and the coaches showed.
“When my dad’s sickness took a turn for the worse, it was during the playoffs of my first year with the team (in 2011). The guys decided to dedicate that year’s playoff run to my father and I. The saying on the back of our playoff shirts read ‘LIVESTRONG13.’ (Plymouth coach and GM) Mike Vellucci understood the situation and went above and beyond anything my family could have asked for. I would not have been able to get through what happened without my Plymouth family.”
Even now, some 18 months later, not a day goes by that Whaley doesn’t reflect on what his father meant to him.
“Before every game I’ve played since I can remember, my father would say the same thing to me – work hard, keep your feet moving and have fun,” said Whaley. “This became such a tradition between the two of us that before his passing, I had him write down this saying on a piece of paper. I took that paper and turned it into a tattoo that will be written over my heart for the rest of my life. In his last days, he explained to me that this saying wasn’t only something to remember before my hockey games, but it was something I should live my life by. He told me every time I feel something touch me there, that will be his way when he’s gone of telling me he’s still right there with me. During every American national anthem before my games, I bow my head and say a little something for him, followed by the saying covering my heart and remind him I’ll be playing that game for him.”
As a third- and fourth-line forward for the Whalers, Whaley recognizes his value to the team in that role and has embraced it wholeheartedly.
“I have learned many things during my four years of junior hockey and the biggest lesson I’ve learned is not to worry about the things that you cannot control,” said Whaley, who won a Memorial Cup with Windsor in 2010. “Everyone in our locker room respects and understands that every decision Mike [Vellucci] makes is best for the team. When I look around at practice and see guys like Stefan Noesen, Tom Wilson and Vince Trocheck, to name a few, you can only notice the obvious talent and watch and learn. I understand that everyone is a piece of a puzzle and no matter where I am in the lineup, I am there for a reason. Mike knows what to expect from me when he puts me on the ice. I am not going to score a highlight goal or make an impossible pass.
“I know my job is to do the little things right. I tend to focus more on the defensive aspect of my game. I take pride in our team’s penalty kill and when our team takes a penalty, I feel like it is my time to shine. When I block a shot for my teammates, it doesn’t hurt anymore – it feels good. Everyone on the bench bangs the boards and when I come off the ice, I get a pat on the back and I love that.”
Scoring goals doesn’t hurt, either.
“My biggest highlight so far in Plymouth was during our 2011 playoff run,” said Whaley. “No one expected us to contend with Kitchener in that series, but we had managed to take it to a Game 7. Rickard Rakell had a high ankle sprain, so I was called up to play on the third line for the last couple games of the series. I don’t score many goals, but in front of my father, I managed to score the first goal of that seventh game. I can’t explain the feeling I got after seeing that puck going into the net and I know it lifted the team. We went on to win that game and that goal was the last goal my dad saw me score.”
Realistically, if not humbly, Whaley knows what his hockey options are moving forward. Like his role in Plymouth, he accepts what is reality. Whaley said he plans on playing Canadian university hockey while working towards a degree when his Plymouth days conclude.
Along with working hard, keeping his feet moving and having fun.