Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

White to join top talent in Europe

Steinbach boy skating for Team Canada

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So you've lost your position with one of the most prestigious organizations in the nation. The bosses don't think you're good enough anymore. Days pass and nobody seems to even notice you're there.You feel, well, invisible.

What's a guy supposed to do?

Ian White turned to his inner Burt Reynolds: facial hair.

That's right, the Toronto Maple Leafs' plucky defenceman, banished to the press box at the start of the 2008-09 season and reaching the nadir of his professional hockey career, decided to embark on what could arguably be considered the most unusual and seemingly innocuous attempt at civil disobedience in NHL history.

He grew a moustache.

"I started growing it at the start of the season somewhat as a sign of protest for getting sat out," White related, from Toronto. "I figure maybe they forgot I was on the team or not available to play. I thought if I grew a moustache maybe they'd find me."

White wasn't kidding. But here's the really weird part: He was, indeed, found. After 11 games in the press box to start the Leafs' season -- and after a pre-season that had new Leafs head coach Ron Wilson experiment with White as a forward -- the Steinbach native was eventually, if not reluctantly, summoned from the pine and returned to the blue-line.

So did a moustache save Ian White's career? We'll guess no. But at least he wasn't so invisible anymore.

"I don't know if that (the moustache) is what worked," White noted, "but they finally gave me an opportunity to play. And I got some good comments. People enjoyed it."

My, how things can change. Just a handful of months ago, White, just 24, was practically a ghost in Toronto. After two seasons establishing himself as an everyday NHL defenceman, the diminutive rearguard thought his days with the Leafs could be over.

"It was very difficult," he conceded. "I didn't quite know at that time what direction my career was going. Obviously, no one wants to sit out, but I just bided my time. I knew I'd get an opportunity sooner or later and made the best of it."

In fact, the phrase "made the best of it," in White's case, could be considered a gross understatement. Not only did the ultimate trier earn back his spot in the lineup, but he was one of the few feel-good stories in an otherwise forgettable (join the club, 2008-09) Leafs season.

White tied his career-high points total (10 goals, 16 assists) and in the process played his 200th NHL game late in the season.

Or as White somewhat ruefully commented, when congratulated by a Toronto assistant coach: "It should be 211." But the milestones didn't stop there. White was nominated by the Leafs for the Bill Masterton Trophy, emblematic of "perseverance, sportsmanship and dedication."

And this week the highest honour in White's still-young career, being named to the Team Canada roster for the upcoming 2009 IIHF World Hockey Championship in Switzerland, a roster that includes the finest young talent in the nation excluded from the Stanley Cup tournament.

The Canucks, who leave Sunday for the tournament, which begins April 24, have a lineup littered with youngsters on defence, with Los Angeles Kings' impressive rookie Drew Doughty, Toronto's Luke Schenn and Nashville's Shea Weber to work alongside relative veterans Dan Hamhuis (Nashville) and Chris Phillips (Ottawa).

Trust us, after a few seasons in Leafville, that's pretty heady company. Up front, Team Canada will be led by Olympic veterans Shane Doan, Martin St. Louis and Dany Heatley, along with Jason Spezza, who was an alternate in Turin. The likes of Shawn Horcoff (Edmonton), Derek Roy (Buffalo), Mike Fisher (Ottawa) and next generation phenom Steven Stamkos (Tampa) will also be in Switzerland, no doubt trying to earn an outside shot at a spot on Canada's Olympic team in 2010.

Regardless, White acknowledges just getting an invitation to wear the Maple Leaf at an international event (White starred for Team Canada's World 2003 junior silver-medal team in Halifax) is well worth a shortened summer.

"It's obviously the world stage," he said, "so it's huge."

It didn't hurt, either, that the guy lobbying hard to Hockey Canada on White's behalf was none other than Leafs GM Brian Burke. Acknowledged White: "When you have someone like that rooting for you, pulling for you, it adds some weight for sure."

So to review: White began the season with his career in limbo. He supposedly wasn't even good enough for the woeful Leafs, if you please. Now he's a Bill Masterton nominee playing on Team Canada. Go figure.

But White, an undersized defenceman who's never been given so much as a scrap in his hockey career, keeps the recent past in perspective.

"It was obviously something I didn't expect," he reasoned, of his benching. "I'd played two-and-a-half years (with the Leafs) and I figured I definitely had a spot. I thought I'd earned it. But that wasn't the case, so I had to reprove myself. Nothing wrong with having to earn it."

Nothing wrong, indeed.

And to think it all began with a moustache.

But, breaking news: Hair today, gone tomorrow.

"It's probably going to come off sometime (before the world championship)," White revealed in a Free Press exclusive. "It might just be a seasonal thing. A legacy. Who knows."

Somewhere, Wendel Clark is smiling.

randy.turner@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 17, 2009 C1

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About Randy Turner

While attending Boissevain High School in the late 1970’s, Randy Turner one day read an account of a Winnipeg Jets game in the Free Press when it dawned on him: "Really, you can get paid to watch sports?"

Turner later graduated with a spectacularly mediocre 2.3 GPA from Red River Community College’s Creative Communications program. 

After jobs at the Stonewall Argus and Selkirk Journal, he began working on the Rural page for the Free Press in 1987. Several years later, he realized his dream of watching sports for a living covering the Winnipeg Goldeyes and Bombers.

In 2001, Turner became a general sports columnist, where he watched Canada win its first Olympic gold medal in men’s hockey in 50 years at Salt Lake, then watched them win again in Vancouver in 2010.

He also watched everything from high school hockey and volleyball championship to several Grey Cups, NHL finals and World Junior hockey tournaments.

In the fall of 2011, Turner became a general features writer for the paper. But he still watches way too much sports.

Turner has been nominated for three National Newspaper Awards in sports writing.

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