He may be taking off his jersey and helmet, but Derek Whitmore isn’t leaving the rink anytime soon. Travelling the world to play ice hockey, leaving his family at a young age to compete and working through injury after injury, rep after rep, practice after practice, Whitmore’s love for the game never faltered. Now, as the newly appointed assistant women’s ice hockey coach, he is strapping on his skates and stepping into familiar territory in a different leadership role.
Whitmore’s experience, which amounts to decades of playing hockey, is sure to have a large effect on one of Bowdoin’s most iconic sports. He recognizes that coaching a tight knit group of women at a small school such as Bowdoin can come with its challenges, but he is up to the task.
“I’m a guy coaching a bunch of women, and I need them to know that they can approach me with anything, that I’ll try my best to help them in any way I can,” said Whitmore. “I want to coach them as best as I can and help them grow as players, students and individuals.”
Sporting a Bowdoin hockey hat, his eyes light up with enthusiasm as he speaks about hockey. Whitmore appeared to have settled into his new role well.
Whitmore, like so many Bowdoin athletes, has grown up with his sport, gathering quite the resume along the way. That wasn’t always his goal, though.
“I just jumped on the ice when I was two years old and never looked back,” he said. “I fell in love with the game.”
However, that’s not to say that he hasn’t had struggles along his path from little-league to the National Hockey League (NHL). Leaving home at 16, Whitmore moved from New York to Montana to play at a more competitive level and never lived at home again. It was hard, he said, to be that far from home for so many years—away from his friends and loving family for months at a time.
As a result, he understands how hard it can be for students at Bowdoin to leave family to pursue hockey. He knows that student athletes must juggle school, athletics and separation. But he believes that is where he can come in as a resource. In his own hockey career, Whitmore found comfort on the ice and around his coaches and teammates.
“At the end of the day, I always had hockey to fall back and rely on,” he said. “I always had the game. No matter what I might have been feeling or how homesick I was, when I got to the rink for practice or when I was around my teammates, all of that just went away.”
Whitmore has spent most of his life this way—putting on a jersey and hitting the ice with each community he has been a part of.
A promising junior hockey player, Whitmore was scouted for Bowling Green State University in Ohio, a Division I school. There, along with completing a degree in Exercise Science, he grew as a player. In his senior year, professional leagues started to take notice of his potential.
“I didn’t know where life was going to take me,” he said. “I was having a great season—and year—and I thought, ‘Man, maybe I can do this for a career.’ The NHL finally seemed like a possibility.”
That dream came true, and Whitmore went on to play pro after college. The career jump took him to Portland, Maine, where he fell in love with the city and state. However, his journey didn’t stop there. After three seasons with the Portland Pirates, Whitmore left the states with his wife and headed to Europe, where he played in three cities, including Vienna, his personal favorite.
In 2011, after playing professional hockey for four years, Whitmore got the call to make his NHL debut for the Buffalo Sabres. While not a complete surprise to him, it meant the culmination of years of hard work.
“The long hours, extra reps and years had paid off,” he said. “It was such a huge personal accomplishment. It was something I had dreamt about.”
That, still, was not the end for him. Whitmore has given a lot to ice hockey, but he has had countless people support him throughout his journey. When an opportunity opened up to help advance the sport at Bowdoin, he was eager to apply.
When he was notified by Marissa O’Neil, head coach of women’s ice hockey, that he got the position, he was ecstatic. It’s not every day in the sports world when you can take a coaching position without having to relocate.
“I feel like everything happens for a reason. I’m in this position for a reason, and I don’t really know why that is yet, but I’m really excited to offer all I can and help the program,” Whitmore said.
For Whitmore’s family, the prospect of staying in Portland was extremely attractive, making a coaching position a great next step for him. Personally, he always knew he wanted to coach. It was an obvious choice for a person whose life has revolved around—and benefited from—ice hockey.
“I’m excited to see the potential to see what these kids can do,” he said. “If I can see that I had a part in their growth, if I can be of value to these players, that’s what counts.”