Right around the time Sean Whitney was cut from his high school hockey team for the second year in a row, his brother, Ryan, cracked his first NHL roster.
Sean, a Scituate, Mass. native, says he started to question his hockey future as a sophomore in 2005 when he was cut from the Thayer Academy (Braintree, Mass.) squad for the second time. Meanwhile, Ryan — a former standout at Thayer, Boston University and the fifth overall selection in the 2002 NHL draft — was starting his rookie season with the Pittsburgh Penguins.
“It was definitely really tough,” Sean Whitney said. “I was kind of big and slow. I knew I wouldn’t have a big role, but I thought I’d make the team. That was tough on me.”
Six years later, Whitney is a senior leader on a Cornell hockey team looking to make an NCAA tournament appearance for the third time in four years. Prior to the start of the regular season, Cornell coach Mike Schafer said he expected Whitney, a 6-foot-4, 210-pound defenseman, to have a significant role on his team’s power play and defensive rotation.
“As Sean’s matured over the years, he’s much more comfortable as a player and as a person,” Schafer said. “I know he has tremendous pride in what his brother has accomplished. Still, he works hard at his own game to be a success for himself.”
Upon his second failed attempt to make the Thayer Academy squad, Sean learned he would have to travel a different path than his brother. He transferred to Cushing Academy in Ashburnham, Mass., after his sophomore year, which he then repeated. By his junior season, he worked his way onto the ice when then-Cushing teammate and current Winnipeg Jets defenseman Zach Bogosian suffered an injury.
Whitney said he encountered the most dramatic period of improvement in his hockey career over next two years at Cushing. Steve Jacobs, who coached at Cushing from 1985 to 2007, believes Whitney benefited from the tutelage of Bruins icon and Hall of Fame defenseman Ray Bourque (Boxford, Mass.), who was a volunteer assistant while his own son, Ryan, was at the school.
“When Sean got to Cushing, he was like anyone else who hadn’t been given confidence from his previous coach,” Jacobs said. “It was hard because Ryan (Whitney) had so much success early. I told him he didn’t need to compare himself, but I think it meant more coming from Ray.”
As someone who watched his own sons, current NHL players Chris and Ryan Bourque, struggle under the pressure of lofty expectations, Ray Bourque certainly could sympathize with Whitney’s struggle.
“It’s something the kids know will come — unfair expectations from other people,” Ray Bourque said. “It’s never fair to compare brothers to each other, or a son to a dad. With Sean, I always knew he was playing for the right reasons. He enjoyed playing hockey.”
An offensive-minded defenseman, Whitney tallied 10 goals and 12 assists over two seasons at Cushing. Still, unlike his brother, recruiters from Hockey East schools weren’t exactly knocking down his door.
Sean took the process into his own hands and reached out to
Schafer, who had recently recruited twins Joe and Mike Devin from
“I sent the coach an email and took a visit,” Whitney said. “I loved it up there, and the Devin twins were good friends. The fans, the tradition, the academics; it was a no-brainer for me.”
Schafer viewed Whitney as a project — one with great size, hockey sense and stick skills, but lacking in lacking in strength and conditioning. By his sophomore season, Whitney had worked his way onto the power play. In each of his three seasons, he has increased his games played and ice time. Last winter, he scored the game-winning goal during Cornell’s ECAC Hockey semifinal victory over Dartmouth.
“He’s coming off his best summer of strength and conditioning,” Schafer said. “I have five older brothers myself, and I know sometimes that’s as much of a hindrance as a help. Sean is trying to cut out his own niche, and he’s figured out a way to survive at this level.”
The youngest of three brothers, Sean always has been the low man on the totem pole in a hockey family. His father, Dan Whitney, has coached hockey for more than 30 years, most recently with the South Shore Kings. Ryan is currently an assistant captain with the Edmonton Oilers. There was a time when Sean thought his hockey career might be over, long before his days in Ithaca.
“It’s crazy how things change over a six-year period,” Sean Whitney says. “It’s fun being a senior, but at the same time, it’s bittersweet. This could be the last close-knit team I’ll ever be on. I guess when I think about it, I never imagined I’d be a senior hockey player here anyway.”
This article originally appeared in the November 2011 issue of New England Hockey Journal. Dan Guttenplan can be reached at email@example.com.