It wasn’t the way Jackson Whistle had planned to bid farewell to his Western Hockey League career.
The 20-year-old goaltender will undergo surgery on his damaged hips twice in the next month and will miss the balance of the 2015-16 season.
Whistle had been experiencing ongoing hip problems since last season, but still managed to backstop the Rockets to both a WHL title and a berth Memorial Cup championship last May.
But the injuries grew progressively worse, before finally coming to a head this season on Dec. 30, during a 2-1 loss to the Everett Silvertips at Prospera Place.
“After the Everett game, I was in so much pain, I was almost in tears,” said Whistle, who will be in Vancouver Tuesday for the first of two procedures. “I couldn’t move or walk right…I knew then it wasn’t looking so good.”
Over the following weeks, the Rockets performed extensive rehab and therapy on Whistle, but the injury—torn labrum cartilage and bone wear in both hips—was well beyond treatment.
Whistle said all the years of using the butterfly style of goaltending is believed to be largely responsible for the severity of the injury.
“It’s happening to quite a few goalies now, it’s a new era where goalies are using the butterfly from a young age,” said Whistle. “When you practise and play games, sometimes you’re up and down 100 times and it’s a position that puts a lot of stress on that part of your body. All the wear and tear took its toll on me.”
As much as the Rockets would have liked to see Whistle back in the lineup for another run at a WHL title, GM Bruce Hamilton said, in the end, it wasn’t an option.
“He fought through the pain for a long time, but it got the point for him and us where we needed to shut him down for a month and see what came of it,” said Hamilton. “But we were pretty sure, even back then, that it wasn’t good.
“He needs to be looked after now because he’s got a long life ahead of him and hopefully a good hockey career.”
With Whistle shelved and Nick Merkley finished for the season with a knee injury, the Rockets will be without their No. 1 goaltender and last season’s top scorer for the stretch run.
Hamilton said the Rockets will rely on their depth to carry them through.
“(Whistle) is a huge loss, but now we look to (Michael) Herringer to have a great run,” Hamilton said of the 20-year-old goaltender who has carried the load in Whistle’s absence. “He’s played very well and we have the utmost of confidence in him.
“We’ve played most of the year without either Chartier or Merkley, so I think our team has shown it can play without all of our best guys in the lineup.”
Whistle, who came to the Rockets prior to the 2012-13 campaign in a trade with the Vancouver Giants, assumed the starting role after two seasons as backup to Jordon Cooke.
The 6-foot-1, 192-pound Whistle posted an 87-29-8-3 record with nine shutouts in 141 regular season games.
In last season’s playoffs, the West Kelowna product was 13-2-1 with four shutouts and 2.52 goals against average.
Whistle then shone at the Memorial Cup in Quebec City, backstopping the Rockets to within a goal of the CHL title.
“We had a great run last year, that was special for me and the team, so it doesn’t feel very good not being able to be part of it, and see where we can take it this year,” he said. “We have a good group of leaders and young players and I think we can get there again.
“I’m still going to be around supporting the guys, doing what I can to help out.”
As for his three-plus seasons in a Rockets uniform, Whistle couldn’t have asked a better environment to play in.
“Ever since I was traded from Vancouver, the Rockets have meant everything to me. It’s been such a great experience, the success we’ve had as a team and the friends I’ve made.
“Living at home and playing with this team, you can’t beat that.”
Whistle will have surgery on one hip this Tuesday, then the other in early April.
If all goes as planned and his recovery is successful, Whistle will be back on the ice for training camp next season.
“I’m going to prepare myself the best I can for this. Recovery time is about six months, so I’m hoping to be ready in the fall and maybe get an invite to an NHL camp. I really want to come back and play again.”
The Rockets, who are in a battle for first place overall with the Victoria Royals, return to action this weekend with a home-and-home set against the Blazers—Friday in Kamloops and Saturday at Prospera Place.