Niagara Gazette

Sports

December 24, 2011

What more could Whitmore want for Christmas?

After 272 minor-league games, Rochester native finally called up to join Sabres

TORONTO — In Derek Whitmore, Buffalo Sabres journeyman Matt Ellis saw himself — an undrafted, hardworking and optimistic player poised to earn his longshot chance in the NHL.

Whitmore left Bowling Green State University in 2008 as a non-prospect, a free agent whose path to the big leagues was blocked by a slew of touted youngsters, established veterans and an AHL contract.

“If you work hard enough, your opportunity will come,” Ellis, who cracked the NHL after 318 minor league games, told Whitmore.

Today, following 272 AHL appearances, Whitmore’s playing for the Sabres, living a dream few thought he’d reach. The Sabres’ stunning rash of injuries necessitated Whitmore’s first recall Monday.

“You just try to not think too much about it,” Whitmore said Wednesday inside the Air Canada Centre. “Obviously, it’s the grand stage, the NHL. I’ve worked hard for it my entire life. At the same time, a lot of the guys just said it’s the same game. The game hasn’t changed, just the players are better.”

The 27-year-old Rochester native has progressed each season and paid a lot of dues.

Last year, he quietly scored 27 goals in Portland. This campaign, he’s the glue holding his hometown Americans together. His 13 goals and 20 points lead them. Some say he’s their heart-and-soul player.

“I’ve seen a lot of myself in the way he played and his attitude and the way he approached the game,” Ellis said. “I’m really proud that he got the opportunity to step up in the National Hockey League.”

When Whitmore was an unknown neophyte unsure where his career would head, the advice, the pick-me-ups from Ellis, a waiver-wire addition who began his career in the ECHL, began.

“There’s some times where maybe I’d be down on myself, maybe not playing well,” Whitmore said. “He’d always try to keep me positive and just make sure I always had a good work ethic.”

Making his NHL debut on the left wing beside Ellis on Tuesday in Ottawa thrilled him.

Whitmore shared the night with another influential person. While Marcus Foligno, who also played his first NHL game, needed 30 tickets, Whitmore had just one person watching inside Scotiabank Place, his wife, Sarah.

“For her to make a trip to Ottawa says a lot about her, what it meant to her,” Whitmore said. “After the game, when I was able to spend a little bit of time with her, it was a pretty special feeling.”

It’s unclear how long Whitmore will last in Buffalo. The Sabres, down eight forwards, could get one or two back next week.

Whatever happens, Whitmore’s made a positive first impression.

Following three games in three days and a travel day Monday from Texas, he impressed during 14:02 in the Sabres’ 4-1 loss to the Senators, even getting regular duty on the No. 2 power-play unit.

“It was just nice to be thrown right in the fire,” said Whitmore, who generated a couple of strong scoring chances.

He took a regular shift again Thursday in a 3-2 loss to Toronto.

Whitmore’s possibly in the Sabres’ plans now, even as a depth player. His breakout 2010-11 campaign essentially made him an older prospect, earning him his first two-way contract.

“Every year he finds a way to score 20-plus goals,” Sabres coach Lindy Ruff said. “(Americans coach) Ron (Rolston) has spoken highly of him, just said he finds a way to score key goals at key opportunities. I think that’s how he’s gotten himself on the radar. The year before, same thing, he was able to score a lot of key goals for Portland.”

Whitmore appeared close to receiving a recall heading into the season. Still, the Sabres summoned five forwards before him.

“Sometimes guys get too wrapped up in the, ‘Why is this guy going up and I’m not?’” Whitmore said. “It totally affects how they play, and it doesn’t do anybody any good to have that attitude. It was definitely very hard to not be upset and not be frustrated.

“But at the same time, playing in the American Hockey League for the Rochester Americans was really not that bad of a deal. You got to keep everything in perspective.”

Whitmore realizes he has a special gig playing at home in Rochester. His parents are season-ticket holders. Other family and friends attend each game.

“Every home game I got friends and family calling me, seeing if there’s any extra tickets, stuff like that, which I totally don’t mind,” Whitmore said. “It’s pretty neat after games when I walk to see my wife, my family. I got 10, 12 family members there, too, waiting for me. So it’s pretty neat playing in Rochester.”

Almost as neat as playing in Buffalo.

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