DETROIT – In less than a year-and-a-half, Ian White(notes) bounced between five NHL teams. He had to move his young family from Ontario to Alberta to North Carolina to California to Michigan. At one point, he was a healthy scratch for a team that wouldn't even make the playoffs. At another, he won a Game 7, made the conference final and drove to the hospital afterward expecting to meet his wife, only to find out she was still back at the rink, in labor, waiting for him.
By definition, White has become a journeyman – crisscrossing the continent, traveling the peaks and valleys of life as a hockey player, husband and father. Funny thing is, the journey has led him here.
He's playing for the Detroit Red Wings, an Original Six team that has made the playoffs each of the past 20 seasons, winning four Stanley Cups. He's on the top pairing and power-play unit with Nicklas Lidstrom(notes), who just won his seventh Norris Trophy as the league's best defenseman, putting him only one behind all-time leader Bobby Orr. And he has made a quick transition, with two goals, three points and a plus-4 rating as the Wings have started 4-0-0.
How did this happen? Why did this happen?
"It was difficult – very, very difficult," said White, standing next to Lidstrom in the dressing room. "It was tough, obviously, getting adjusted to new cities and new teams. It's part of the business. It's probably one of the uglier sides of our business. But if it didn't happen, I probably wouldn't have gotten the opportunity to be here."
"One trade a year is more than enough," he said, "and two is ridiculous."
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White went through one trade in 2009-10. It was the first of his career. After four-plus seasons in the Toronto organization, he was shipped to the Calgary Flames as part of the deal that brought Dion Phaneuf(notes) and Keith Aulie(notes) to the Maple Leafs.
Then came 2010-11. White played only 16 games for the Flames – and was already minus-10 – before they sent him to the Carolina Hurricanes on Nov. 17. He and his pregnant wife, Tess, packed up their baby boy, Paxton, and all their belongings. They settled into another new home.
"You figure, 'Who's going to get traded twice in a year?' " White said.
At least they rented, because after 39 games in Carolina, they were on the move again. White was plus-4, but he had zero goals and only 10 assists. He ended up in the press box. It was so bad that the Whites actually welcomed a trade to the San Jose Sharks on Feb. 18.
"We were kind of hoping to maybe get an opportunity to go somewhere, because it just didn't seem to be working there," White said. "You never really see it coming. But at some point, when you're not being used …"
The Sharks used him. He had two goals, 10 points and a plus-9 rating in his final 23 regular-season games. While the Hurricanes missed the playoffs, White made the playoffs for the first time in his career and had a goal, nine points and a plus-3 rating in 17 games. He averaged about 20 minutes for a top Cup contender. With a better team, he played better.
Better yet, after the Sharks blew a 3-0 series lead to the Red Wings in the second round, they survived Game 7 in San Jose. He knew his wife was in labor beforehand, so after the final horn, he took off for the hospital not knowing they were supposed to go together.
"Miscommunication," he said with a smile
Her father gave her a ride, and after a long night, the Whites added a baby girl, Gracelyn.
But where would the family live now? After a second straight loss in the Western Conference final, the Sharks bolstered their defense by acquiring Brent Burns(notes) from the Minnesota Wild. White was an unrestricted free agent. Despite a flurry of long-term, big-money signings when the free-agent market opened July 1 – even before July 1 – White was still available July 2.
He looked at his options. They were all in the same range, and one was the Wings. He was looking for the best chance to succeed. He said Detroit was "definitely a no-brainer" and he "just jumped at the chance" to sign a two-year, $5.75 million deal – even though he never considered playing with Lidstrom.
"Who would have thought you would get a chance to play with one of the greatest players of all-time?" he said.
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Lidstrom is so good that he makes his partners look good, too. He has won with all types in recent years – Larry Murphy, Mathieu Dandenault(notes), Fredrik Olausson, Chris Chelios(notes), Andreas Lilja(notes), Brian Rafalski(notes).
Murphy is in the Hall of Fame and deservedly so, but he was booed out of Toronto and the Leafs dumped him at the deadline for future considerations in 1997. He won the Cup with the Red Wings that year and the next, and he extended his career through 2000-01.
Dandenault wasn't even a full-time defenseman. Olausson had left the NHL for Switzerland. He signed with the Wings, won the Cup in 2002, played one more season in the NHL and then went to Sweden. Chelios, a future Hall of Famer, actually didn't play with Lidstrom all that much – mostly on the penalty kill and in crucial situations. Lilja had left the NHL for Sweden. He signed with the Wings, played with Lidstrom for a while, then eventually sank as low as the minors. He is now with the Philadelphia Flyers as a third-pairing guy.
Wings forward Henrik Zetterberg(notes) said Lidstrom is "a pretty good partner to have. But you can't put anyone there, either. You have to put a smart player [with him] so they can understand each other."
Rafalski was a perfect fit. Like Murphy, he was a veteran, a former Cup champion, who had hockey sense, skill and a right-handed shot – allowing for easier passing with the left-handed Lidstrom. He won the Cup in 2008, came within a game of winning it again in '09 and seemed certain to take at least one more shot at it in 2011-12, with one season and $6 million remaining on his contract. But with his body too banged up, he abruptly retired in the summer. Lidstrom was coming back for at least one more season at age 41, but without his partner.
The Wings surveyed the market. Guys like Kevin Bieksa(notes), Christian Ehrhoff(notes) and James Wisniewski(notes) all landed rich contracts before free agency, and Ed Jovanovski(notes) landed one on July 1.
Then there was White. He was only 5-foot-10 and 200 pounds, but Rafalski had been only 5-foot-10 and 194 pounds. White had hockey sense and skill, and he had a right-handed shot. The Wings also had just seen him play for the Sharks – coached by former Detroit assistant Todd McLellan, who runs the same systems with the same terminology – and they liked his competitiveness.
"You go through all the lists," Wings coach Mike Babcock said. "Is he 6-foot-4? No. Is he an elite skater? No. Does he have a bomb for a shot? No. He just knows how to play."
The Wings also liked that White was only 27 and still had some upside entering his prime years. They are notoriously patient with players, and they have struck gold with other well-traveled late-bloomers such as Mikael Samuelsson(notes) and Danny Cleary(notes). To them, if you have the right characteristics, you might fit in Detroit better than you did elsewhere. It can be a positive that you've bounced around, experienced life, grown up.
"To me, that gives you some battle scars," Babcock said. "He understands what it takes. When you talk to him, he's relaxed about it. He's got a family. I mean, he's a man. He's not a kid."
Maybe White was a poor man's Rafalski. But for two years and $5.75 million, that was fine.
Said Wings general manager Ken Holland: "He was a good fit for a lot of reasons."
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The first day of training camp in Traverse City, Mich., White saw his name on a lineup sheet. He was paired with Lidstrom. He said he had to pinch himself.
If White can click with Lidstrom, that means the Red Wings can keep together their strong second pairing of Niklas Kronwall(notes) and Brad Stuart(notes). So far, so good. "Getting familiar with a player takes a little while," Lidstrom said, "but I think it's been an easy transition for both of us."
They keep it simple – getting open for each other, moving the puck up ice, not holding on to it too long. "It's a fun pairing to play with," Zetterberg said. "You always know you'll get the puck on your tape if you're in the right spot, so it's been good. It's what we hoped for, and I think even a little bit more than we hoped for."
As White stood in the Wings' dressing room the other day – his fifth dressing room in a matter of months – he looked comfortable. After so many twists and turns, he seemed to be in a good place. He appeared at peace with the fickleness of the game.
"It's an easy team to fit into," White said. "We've got so many veterans in this locker room. Guys have been through it before. We just play solid hockey. You can see in the games where we turn it up, we just dominate the games. So I think we know that we have that confidence. Even if you're down a pair or whatever, we know that at any moment the tide can turn."