MONTREAL — You can still see Ryan White sitting in the Canadiens’ penalty box wearing his goofy, gap-toothed grin, laughing heartily, a bag of ice on his knuckles, his wild mane flying in all directions, looking like he’d combed it with a pitchfork.
The missing tooth was his right incisor; it sacrificed itself to a puck during a 2010 Hamilton Bulldogs playoff game, White sliding to block a shot and effectively using his mouth to do it.
He says to this day that, every now and then, he “dusts off” the tooth that was made to fill the gap — but only for very special occasions.
Amid the big-name departures from the Canadiens at the opening of free agency on July 1, Ryan White slipped off the roster almost invisibly.
And that is unfair to this friendly 26-year-old plugger from the prairies, who gave heart and soul and at least one tooth to the Habs organization during 141 regular-season games and another 10 in the playoffs, spread over five seasons.
A restricted free agent, White was not given a qualifying offer by the Canadiens last Tuesday, the team cutting him loose to sign with any club that might be interested.
On Friday, chatting from his home in Brandon, Man., White said he’s waiting to see what might come along.
“My agent is doing most of the due diligence. I’m waiting by the phone and seeing what’s going on,” he said. “As of now, we’re just patiently waiting to see what the best opportunity is going to be.”
White says a handful of teams have been kicking his tires, and neither he nor agent Craig Oster of Don Meehan’s Newport stable have a date circled on a calendar before a wider net might be cast for work in Europe or Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League.
A few, he says, have been dangling two-way contracts — one paycheque should he play in the NHL, one much smaller should he be farmed to the minors.
“I’m kind of waiting to see if I can get myself a one-way and get an opportunity to play some more minutes in the league,” White said.
“I want to give myself an opportunity to play in the NHL. Even if it means I have to take a two-way somewhere, I’m confident that I can go to another team and show them what I can do. Hopefully, they like what they see.”
He spoke graciously and effusively about the rich experience it was to play in the Canadiens family, the Calgary Hitmen forward tapped as the Habs’ fourth pick (66th overall) in the 2006 NHL entry draft.
White remembers the anxiety of not being called until the third round at that draft in Vancouver, then the ecstasy he felt going to Montreal.
“You see a lot of guys leaving the building and you don’t want to be the last guy in there,” he joked of the players chosen ahead of himself. “It was a fresh start going to Montreal, a new beginning.”
White’s 141 NHL games are in fact 91 more than the other five Canadiens draftees that year, combined. His five career goals and 12 assists are not the best gauge of the lunch pail work ethic he brought to the rink every day and for how ferociously he played for the crest on the front of his jersey.
“I had a great time in Montreal and in Hamilton,” White said, having played 179 games on the Bulldogs farm. “I met a lot of good people and made some great friends.”
His end in Montreal came about an hour before the July 1 noon opening of free agency, a qualifying offer not tabled. Right up until the final hour, White had a strong feeling about the team’s plans but wasn’t certain about them.
“There were some tough phone calls from teammates at the end,” he said. “But we all know it’s a business, that’s the bottom line. The friends I made will be friends for a long time.
“Moving forward, the team and I kind of realized that parting ways would be beneficial — mostly for me. I need an opportunity to play and get some minutes and prove that I can play a little bit more of a role in this league.
“The way the team was going, how well we were playing with the young guys coming up, I just didn’t think I was going to be in the cards in Montreal and obviously they felt the same way, too. I’m taking being let go as an opportunity.”
White’s hunch about not returning to Montreal was strong enough that, a week after season’s end, he threw everything he had in the dressing room into his truck for his long drive home to Brandon.
“I was prepared to come back,” he said, “and I was prepared to go somewhere else.
“Every year in the pros now you know it’s not going to be the same team the next year. Younger guys are taking over the core minutes. Davey (Desharnais) and Patch (Max Pacioretty) had big seasons. They can rely on those guys more now.
“The team is evolving. Pricey has become a big leader in the locker room,” White said of goalie Carey Price. “That team will keep rolling and I think they’ll be a good team again next year for sure.”
He is bound to again be a fourth-line winger wherever he winds up, skating every second of his ice time with much more sandpaper than silk in his game. But he’ll give his team quality minutes and hopes he has the confidence of his coach, which wasn’t always the case in Montreal.
Famously, White took two costly penalties a week apart during the 2012-13 season, the Canadiens losing both games. Coach Michel Therrien scratched him for three matches after the first infraction, four after the second.
“I’ve always played with emotions on my sleeve, played with a lot of heart, and sometimes it kind of boils over, I guess,” White said, looking back. “It’s tough that I took penalties and our team lost the games but I don’t really, truly regret that.
“For most of my life, I’ve played for coaches who almost encouraged that type of camaraderie on the team. It’s tough to get penalized and for us to lose those games and maybe get punished the way I did. But I was sticking up for myself and my teammates. On the nights I did that and things went fine, no one ever said anything about it.”
White missed 14 games last season with a torn right pectoral muscle, then returned to action to score his two goals of the season in consecutive games. But he was scratched for five of the season’s final 15 games, then didn’t get a sniff of playoff action in 17 games over three series.
“I was told before the playoffs started that maybe I wouldn’t start and just to be patient, work hard and wait for my opportunity. There are injuries and ups and downs in series,” he said. “It shows how deep our team was, it was tough to get into the lineup. But it was fun to be part of it, to be in the Eastern Conference final, and I never wanted to take that for granted.
“I worked hard and was ready for any opportunity that I’d get — but it just didn’t come. It’s a tough learning process. But sometimes being a professional isn’t fun. You just have to bite the bullet and work harder.”
And White has never been afraid of getting his hands dirty. He cherishes every day he spent in Montreal and Hamilton before that, and as he drove home to Brandon, eager to begin the next chapter of his hockey life, he had warm thoughts of the experience he was leaving behind.
“I just want to say thanks to the fans for a lot of great memories, and for how special it was playing in Mecca of the hockey world,” he said. “The Canadiens treated me and my family with nothing but respect and I loved every minute of it.
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