Hockey in Minnesota can be traced back to 1883 when Frank Barron introduced the game of ice polo to the town of St. Paul. 15 years later, the first hockey game in Minnesota would be played under the lights of Athletic Park in Minneapolis. The entire state quickly fell in love with the game and to help aid its growing popularity, communities all over the Gopher State began putting up their own ice rinks.
The small town of Crookston, located a little over five hours from Minneapolis, was not exempt from this hockey craze. With a population of fewer than 10,000, community pride runs deep in the heart of all its residents. So, when native son Paul Bittner left Minnesota to play hockey for the Portland Winterhawks 1,500 miles away in Oregon, it created controversy. To complicate matters, Bittner’s father, Jon Bittner, was the Crookston High School varsity hockey coach as well as a member of the Minnesota Hockey Coaches Association Hall of Fame.
For years, Minnesota has seen its top young talents leave for CHL teams with promises of an express route to the NHL. With no major junior club of their own, the majority of Minnesota would agree that they would rather see their homegrown players play in the NCAA where they can both develop as hockey players and pursue a college degree.
As a high school freshman, Bittner not only made his high school’s varsity team but he also led his team in goals scored and was second overall in total points. In April of 2012, almost two months after being eliminated in the Section 8A quarterfinals by the Park Rapids Panthers, Bittner made the announcement that he would be playing hockey for the Winterhawks the next season.
“It’s a great city and a great fanbase,” says Bittner. “The professionalism they have throughout the organization is top notch. They want to be the best and they push us every day.”
The Winterhawks finished the 2011-12 season with a record of 49-19-3-1 which gave them the third seed in the WHL playoffs. They would eventually make it all the way to the WHL finals but were eliminated by the Edmonton Oil Kings in a hard fought seven games. While they may have been disappointed with their finish, the Winterhawks were happy to have Bittner signed on as they got ready for another run at the Memorial Cup.
At 6’4” and 190 pounds, Bittner had the size and strength to withstand the rigors of playing against the older players in the WHL, but he was still only 15 years old when the 2012-13 season began. To help aid his transition from Minnesota high school hockey to major junior, head coach Mike Johnston decided it would be best if Bittner started as a depth player on the bottom-six. In his first 20 games before the WHL’s December break, Bittner scored two goals and assisted on four others.
“I started out pretty rough at the beginning of the season. The speed and physicality was so much more than high school hockey. It wasn’t until after Christmas break that I really felt comfortable,” admits Bittner.
When Bittner came back from the break, he exploded for 10 points in five games including two two-goal games, against the Tri-City Americans and Everett Silvertips. Bittner would be unable to sustain that scoring pace for the remainder of the season and went cold for the rest of the season, but it was that brief stretch that really showed what Bittner was capable of. He would end the season with 23 points in 45 games as Bittner and the Winterhawks prepared for the WHL playoffs and, ultimately, a shot at the Memorial Cup.
The regular season champion Winterhawks were heavily favored to represent the WHL in the Memorial Cup playoffs and they did not disappoint. Led by prolific scorers Brendan Leipsic, Nic Petan, and Ty Rattie, who were also the top three scorers in the league, the Winterhawks would win the WHL championship while only sustaining a combined three losses and sweeping their first two opponents. As fate would have it, the WHL championship was a rematch of the previous year. This time, though, the results were reversed and the Winterhawks won the league championship for the third time in team history.
After winning two of their first three round robin games, the Winterhawks would defeat the London Knights in the semi-finals. With that victory, the championship was set between the Halifax Mooseheads and Winterhawks. In a hard fought 60 minutes, the Mooseheads' offense would prove to be too much for the Winterhawks as the Mooseheads skated away with a 6-4 victory at the Credit Union Centre in Saskatoon.
In 19 playoff games, Bittner would be held scoreless, but the experience he got out of it would be invaluable.
“It was a great experience, I had an idea of what the Memorial Cup was but I had no idea really. The guys told me it was a huge deal in Canada but I had no idea until I got there with the media attention and stuff,” says Bittner.
With a full year of WHL play and a deep playoff run under his belt, Bittner used his short summer to prepare for the 2013-14 season. But before the season got started, Bittner was chosen to represent Team USA in the Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament held annually every August. While unsanctioned by the IIHF, the tournament features the best U18 teams in the world. In five tournament games, Bittner contributed two goals and one assist as the US took home silver.
When asked how he felt about his first taste of international play, Bittner expressed his excitement at the opportunity.
“It was a lot fun. I got to play against world class players. It was a great experience playing on a bigger ice sheet and playing with a group of guys I at first didn’t know all that well.”
When the WHL began its regular season play, Bittner, a left winger, found himself on a line with Brendan Leipsic and Nic Petan, two of the Winterhawks’ top scorers from the season before.
Bittner once again had a slow start to the season and after October ended he had only found the back of the net once. In November, he recorded his first WHL hat trick in a four-point game against the Seattle Thunderbirds and also had a three assist night against the Spokane Chiefs a few weeks later. It was in January that Bittner would really turn up his scoring with seven goals and nine assists for 16 points in 14 games.
“My season is going really well. I’m battling hard and I’m playing better and better each game. My physicality still needs to be bumped up a little bit – finishing checks and protecting the puck better, going to the net and getting to the dirty areas,” says Bittner.
With just four games left before the WHL playoffs get underway, Bittner has 47 points in 59 games.
Robby Jackson is second in team scoring for the Chicago Steel with 33 points in 50 games. On February 22nd, against the Muskegon Lumberjacks, Jackson recorded his first hat trick and had a total of five points in a 7-3 victory.
Jansen Harkins had 22 points in 25 games in the months of January and February. Harkins and the Prince George Cougars will look to finish out the season strong.
Jordan Greenway has five points in his last five games for the U.S. national program team. Their next game will be against the Lincoln Stars on March 15th at the Lincoln Ice Box.
Next Time in Beyond Tomorrow
The next feature will shift to the OHL and Peterborough Petes defenseman Matthew Spencer. Spencer, an Oakville native, played minor hockey for his hometown Rangers midget organization and three games for the Oakville Blades of the OJHL last season. This is his first season playing for the Petes.
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