The Capitals first-round choice (11th overall) in the 1993 Entry Draft, Brendan Witt spent 10 seasons of his NHL career with the Washington Capitals. His span with the team included a year as co-captain, 20 goals and 63 assists. A defenseman, the former No. 19 also ranks fifth all-time among Capitals in penalty minutes (1,035). Witt, who relocated from Florida to Montana with his family this spring, recently shared highlights from his decade in the district.
WashingtonCaps.com: During the 1993 Entry Draft, you were the team’s first selection. What were your thoughts when the team drafted you in the first round?
A native of Humboldt, Sask., Witt spent four seasons with the Western Hockey League’s Seattle Thunderbirds and helped Canada win a gold medal during the 1994 World Junior Championships before his first season with the Washington Capitals.
Brendan Witt: “[The draft was] in Quebec City in the arena with no air conditioning. It was hot in there. It was nerve wracking. You’ve got scouting saying where you rank, but you just don’t know what other teams will do. [The thought process is] kind of like, ‘Which direction will I get pulled now?’ [When selected by the Capitals] my heart went into my throat. What a privilege to be able to be called on stage next to the general manager and to be able to put on a Capitals jersey.”
WC.com: You played in nearly 900 regular season NHL games throughout your career, but what do you remember most about suiting up for your first game as a Capital during the 1995-96 season?
Witt’s first game with Washington was against the St. Louis Blues. Witnessed by his parents, he considers the night his most memorable experience as a Washington Capital besides making it to the Stanley Cup finals in 1998. Witt credits former Capitals coach Dale Hunter among the teammates who prepared him for the Capitals 4-1 victory over the Blues.
BW: On the teammates who had an impact on him: “Just how Dale Hunter, Craig Berube and Calle Johansson really took me in as the new kid. They showed me how it’s done and [said] ‘stick with us.’ They showed me the ropes. They [had already gone] through a whole regular season schedule – they had a bunch of experience underneath their belt already and they taught me their ways. Mark [Tinordi] - he was there and he gave me some pointers. Getting to play with Calle Johansson was just a great honor, and he gave me a lot of pointers here and there.”
On the team atmosphere: “If anything it was camaraderie. We had a good group of guys in the room that communicated to each other well. In the late nineties we had a lot of success in the Southeast Division, and we prided ourselves on defensive hockey. It made us a tough team to play against. That was kind of ingrained within me with those guys because Dale’s got that reputation of being a hard-nose - no matter what the score is you’ve got to be the same type of player even if you’re losing - you’ve still got to play the same way and I learned a lot from that kind of work ethic.”
WC.com: You served as captain with Steve Konowalchuk during the 2001-02 season. What do you recall about your experiences in that role?
As one of 17 players in the team’s history to fulfill the role of captain, Witt took pride in serving as a mentor not just in Washington, but throughout his career. He attributes part of the approach he took as leader to lessons he learned from Hunter, who served in the same capacity from the 1994-95 season to the 1998-99 season.
BW: On being selected as captain: “I was really honored because what happened was we had a team vote, and you never know what your peers are saying. Steve Konowalchuk and I shared it, and I thought that was such a great honor to even have that on my jersey. I had it in Seattle, but I think having it on an NHL level is a whole different responsibility. You get voted by your peers and it was just a great honor to wear it for a season. I still have my jersey with the ‘C’ on it and I’ll never forget that. It was humbling but it also came with a lot of responsibility on how to handle guys in the room and stuff - which I was up for the task and I enjoyed it.”
On the impact the role had on him throughout his career: “I think it helped me down the road, even. It helped me a bit with the younger kids, saying – kind of like what Dale did to me – ‘You’ve got to do it this way. As much as you may not like working on little extra things after practice, you have to act professionally on the ice and off the ice.’ Whatever team you play for, you are representing that team and you try to represent that team to the highest standard.”
WC.com: Overall how would you say you developed as a defenseman throughout your career with the Capitals? What had an impact on how you developed your role with the team?
Based upon guidance from a coach, Witt adopted a style of play that reflected a tough mentality, from how he blocked shots to how he interacted with players on the opposing team. He also understood his role as a defenseman and how he needed to fit into the team for a successful season.
BW: On the role of the defenseman: “I had a coach that I’ll never forget that said if you ever get fourteen points in an NHL season that would be your career high. You’re not here to chip in offensively. You’re a defenseman – you’re going to be known for being tough. Tough defensemen play against top lines and penalty killing. So, I kind of knew that role and I kind of became a shot blocker and a defenseman that tried to make other teams top lines’ night a living hell, just a tough night on them. And a lot of that was playing mental games and trying to get under players’ skin – getting punched in the head and trying to keep my composure and not swing back.”
On his role with the Capitals: “I just prided a lot of myself in my defensive zone because I was the type of player who [knew he] was never going to get 10 goals and 30 assists. I just wasn’t that type of player. Every team, each player plays a role and it’s important because it’s all like glue – if everyone plays their role properly, the team should have success. We had success and we had success in winning the Southeast Division [during the 1999-00 and 2000-01 seasons]. Unfortunately we got knocked out by Pittsburgh [during the Eastern Conference quarterfinals], but that was always a good rivalry playing against Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr during the regular season and come playoff time.”
WC.com: For a while you played alongside Jeff Halpern, who recently returned to the Capitals. What was it like playing together?
Among others, Witt played alongside teammates including Jeff Halpern, who returned to the Capitals locker room at the beginning of the 2011-12 season. Witt reconnected with Halpern, Hunter, assistant coach Jim Johnson and head athletic trainer Greg Smith earlier this year in Florida.
BW: “Halpy was good – I loved Halpy. I still have contact with him. I saw him recently about a month ago when [the Capitals] were in Florida. I saw Dale, Jimmie Johnson, Smitty – all the training staff that I still know very well. It was good to see Halpy. Born and raised in the D.C. area, he was a homegrown kid that played for the team that he rooted for as a kid and to see him have the success that he had is great. He was the captain there and then he went to Dallas for a bit, then to Tampa, and to see him back in the Capitals jersey is good. He’s a very smart player. I would actually consider him kind of old school, because he was kind of in the old school era how we all were. He’s a great man and I love him to death. He’s got a real big heart. He just wants to win and he comes to play every night.
WC.com: Can you tell about what you’ve been doing recently?
During the 2005-06 season, Witt was traded to the Nashville Predators for Kris Beech and Nashville’s first choice in the 2006 Entry Draft (Semyon Varlamov). He completed the season with the Predators before being traded to the New York Islanders. He remained in New York from the 2006-07 season through the 2009-10 season, where he reached an NHL total of 890 games played. Recently the Witt family moved west after being based out of Florida for nearly a decade.
BW: “[Following the 2009-10 season] I wanted a quieter life. We just moved out to Montana [in March]. I own a ranch out here. It’s a quiet life, just enjoying every day with my girls. I’ve been gone since they were babies so it’s nice to be home and be a really active dad with them. They love to be outdoors. We see wildlife every day from elk and deer to bald eagles and golden eagles. We’ve got everything here. It’s nice. I always tell them, ‘You never know what you’re going to see on the ranch,’ so it’s good. I’m just enjoying my life.”