LAKE PLACID, N.Y. -- Paul Bittner, the Blue Jackets’ second-round pick in the 2015 NHL Draft, made quite an impression at the United States’ World Junior Evaluation Camp in Lake Placid earlier this month.
The 6-foot-4, 205-pound left wing was a one-man wrecking crew for the U.S., using his imposing size and strength to bully opponents and his lethal shot to score goals and create chances seemingly at will. In every way imaginable, Bittner looked as if he’s well on his way to becoming the power forward that Blue Jackets GM Jarmo Kekalainen’s staff believed he could be when Columbus drafted him this past June.
Bittner, a Minnesota native, gives a lot of the credit for the player he’s developing into to his coaches the last three years with the Western Hockey League’s Portland Winterhawks: Jamie Kompon, Mike Johnston (now with the Pittsburgh Penguins) and Travis Green (now coaching the AHL's Utica Comets).
“It’s given me a broader aspect of what I can be as a player,” Bittner said of his time in Portland. “Back home, I never really had to hit anybody because I was always four, five or maybe even 10 inches taller than some kids. Nobody really wanted to go in the corners with me. I needed to learn how to battle and compete in the corners, and really earn respect to become that big-bodied power forward that I know I can be. My coaches in Portland have been teaching me well.”
As much as Bittner’s immense physical abilities have enabled him to become a scoring ace in Portland and establish himself as a bona fide NHL prospect, his mental strength and the conviction he has in his beliefs also deserve recognition.
You see, Bittner hails from Crookston, a small town of about 7,800 nestled into northwestern Minnesota. In Crookston, locals think of their hockey stars the way many Texans think of their area’s top high school football players, with the expectation being that they’ll one day suit up for Crookston High School’s Pirates. After he used a superb freshman season at Crookston in 2011-12 to establish himself as one of Minnesota’s top young hockey prospects, Bittner was a local hero.
Then, all of a sudden, Bittner was not a hero.
When Bittner elected to leave his hometown for the Western Hockey League – a nearly sacrilegious decision in Minnesota, where high school hockey is king – after his freshman year in high school, he and his family became pariahs in Crookston.
Bittner had broken an unwritten rule of sorts in Minnesota, that local kids develop as hockey players through the programs in their local communities and eventually play collegiate hockey, rather than leave for the Canadian junior ranks.
“I want to be in the NHL,” Bittner said. “The NHL is the goal. Not college hockey. It’s not about being a Sioux, a Gopher or a Bulldog; that’s not the goal. Winning the Stanley Cup and being in the NHL is my goal.”
For Bittner’s hockey-mad hometown, however, winning a high school state championship was the goal. These plans were effectively ruined when Bittner left Crookston for the Canadian Hockey League. The blowback on Bittner and his family was severe.
“My dad kind of took most of the heat,” Bittner said of his father, Jon, who was pressured to resign his position on the executive board of the coaches’ association in Minnesota after his son joined the Winterhawks.
“He took it and didn’t really even tell me about it – I was in Portland. He didn’t want me to feel bad. I heard it from my brother. I felt kind of bad for my dad. I called my dad up right away and he said to me: ‘I’ve had my fun, I’ve done my due diligence. This is your time. You go have fun and make your dreams become a reality.’
“My dad always taught me to be true to myself. I’m truly thankful.”
So in addition to the normal pressures that teenage prospects face when trying to follow their dreams to professional hockey, Bittner, at age 16, was playing for more. He was not only playing for himself, but he was pursuing his dream of being a professional hockey player on behalf of his father, who lost a respected position in the community based on his decision, and of his older brothers, Mark and Ryan, who both played collegiately but never reached pro hockey.
And while the sacrifices that Bittner and his family made were very real, his decision to join the Winterhawks – considered one of the elite organizations in junior hockey – seems to be paying off.
At 18, he already seems like a fairly safe bet to play for the United States at the World Junior Championships in Helsinki, Finland this winter. And with probably one more junior season with the Winterhawks, he seems to be a shoo-in to turn pro in the next year.
From there, the NHL isn’t far off.
“I think people are starting to realize that I can make this dream happen,” Bittner said. “People are starting to realize that maybe a small-town kid like me can play in the NHL.”