Growing up in Upper Darby, Pennsylvania, David Whitfield lived only five minutes from the Laura Sims Skate House. Whitfield, who is entering his senior year as a track and field athlete at Virginia Tech, still recalls his first exposure to hockey and the Snider Foundation.
On his 7th birthday, Whitfield was eating breakfast and looking at brochures of different sports teams in the area. His eye happened to fall on one from the Philadelphia Flyers’ minor league team, now known as the Lehigh Valley Phantoms of the American Hockey League.
“That might be a cool thing to watch for my birthday,” Whitfield told his mom Kysha.
The next day, Kysha took things a step further. She decided to register her son to play for Snider Hockey, a nonprofit foundation dedicated to educating under-resourced kids in the Philadelphia area. The program is named for local entrepreneur Ed Snider, founder of the Flyers. He was also a driving force behind the success of the Spectrum, iconic home of the Flyers and the NBA’s 76ers.
Whitfield was shocked. But it turned out to be one of the best birthday surprises he ever received. It took some time to learn the fundamentals of the game. But he credits several Snider coaches for believing in him and keeping him motivated.
“I developed a little quicker than a lot of other kids, and that’s when I started playing travel hockey,” Whitfield explained.
As a lefthanded shooter, Whitfield primarily played left wing, but would occasionally fill in at center.
“He would block shots, kill penalties, go hard to the net, do the little things to break the puck out of the zone,” recalled Gil Schaffer, who coached Whitfield at 16U and serves as the program’s life skills manager. “He played multiple positions if you needed him to. It was nice having him on the wing. He had good size and speed.”
Thanks to a partnership with the Give Something Back Foundation, Snider Hockey also provides full and partial scholarships for its athletes. Whitfield, who graduated from Monsignor Bonner High, was a recipient of the program, known as Goals and Assists.
“When you’re a college student, that goes a long way,” Whitfield said of the scholarship. “It has allowed me to have more experiences with my friends at college that I wouldn’t have had.”
Besides hockey development, the foundation strives to guide its athletes to achieve academic success, make healthy life choices, and serve as role models. Whitfield checks all those boxes according to Schaffer, a former center who played at Rutgers from 2007-11.
“With David, it was treating people with respect, being kind, someone people wanted to be around, working really hard,” Schaffer said. “He was so consistent in those elements. We’re not surprised to see success continually follow him.”
It was during his junior year of high school that Whitfield faced a tough decision. He began having great success as a track and field and cross-country athlete, qualifying for the state meet seven times. He earned all-state honors in the 800 meters, and was part of his school’s 4x400-meter relay team that finished third at the Penn Relays. Whitfield began to wonder if his success on the track might be his ticket to college.
“My junior year in the spring was my breakout year,” Whitfield explained. “I was like, ‘Maybe I need to reconsider what my options are.’ I continued to play hockey my senior year for my high school because they needed the help.”
When Whitfield saw the strength of Virginia Tech’s track program and the school’s high academic standards, he realized it was the best fit for him. As a junior, he won the 800 meters at the Virginia Tech Challenge indoor event, posting a time of 1:52.88. The previous year, he finished second in the 1,000 with a time of 2:27.43, a personal best.
While many college athletes were disappointed the coronavirus pandemic forced the cancellation of spring sports, Whitfield chose to look at the layoff as a chance to renew himself physically and emotionally.
“The fall of my junior year, I probably had the best cross-country season ever,” he said. “But that winter, I had the worst track season in my career. I just wasn’t running to the level of my competition. So when the coronavirus happened, I wanted to redeem myself. But it was better that I give myself a mental break to rekindle my flame and get ready for what’s next.”
As he prepares for his senior year, Whitfield isn’t about to let the uncertainties of the pandemic slow him down. He hopes to end his collegiate athletic career on a high note, and study sports psychology in the school’s graduate department. But hockey is never far from his thoughts. He still plays when he gets the chance. He offers some sage advice for current and future players coming through the Snider program.
“Always listen and be coachable,” Whitfield said. “If you can be coachable, you’re going to reap the benefits.”
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.