Paul Bittner grew up in Minnesota playing hockey with two older brothers and a father who coached the high school team in his hometown of Crookston.
Hockey was a huge part of his life, and he knew at an early age he wanted to play in the National Hockey League and for Team USA.
By 15, Bittner had already drawn plenty of attention. As one of two freshmen playing on his dad’s varsity team, he had 15 goals and 19 points in 20 games, and he was a standout at USA Hockey’s National Team Development Program Under-17 evaluation camp.
He decided to continue his development with the Portland Winterhawks of the Western Hockey League, but he also knew it would take him away from his family, his friends and his home.
“It was a really hard decision for sure,” says Bittner, now 17 and entering his third season with Portland. “There was a lot of thought going into it that myself and my parents and my family made with me. I mean, my parents were really supportive. They were like, ‘If you want to go this way or this way, we’ll support you 100 percent. It’s up to you, but we’re here to give you our guidance.’ ”
Bittner, a 6-foot-4, 204-pound left-shooting forward, has become one of the top American prospects eligible for the 2015 NHL Entry Draft. He is one of 42 players invited to play in the CCM/USA Hockey All-American Prospects Game on Thursday in Buffalo, N.Y.
After playing 45 games for Portland in 2012-13, he played in 63 in 2013-14 and increased his scoring totals from 23 (12 goals, 11 assists) to 49 (22 goals, 27 assists).
He admits that first season was difficult. He was playing with and against players who were older, stronger and more experienced.
“It was a tough transition for me,” he said. “It was really hard. I was really down on myself a little bit there.”
Every day, he’d see teammates such as Derek Pouliot and Ty Rattie and wonder how he could compete with them. But he credits his coaches for bringing him along at the right pace, giving him opportunities and gradually working him in further.
“They wanted me to earn it and want it more as the season went on,” he said. “And I showed that I did and I wanted it more. But it was a huge transition period. I had to adapt to the physicality of it. It was a huge thing. There’s some big guys in this league and they like to hit you hard and they don’t have any remorse.”
Bittner laughs now about that first season and the lumps he took.
But by his second season, he was playing a much bigger role, playing more physically and learning from his mistakes.
“I had a better knowledge of the league and what I had to do to get the puck to the net and get scoring chances for myself and my linemates,” he said. “I felt I had a much better handle. This year is even better. I feel even more confident.”
Bittner also got the chance last year to play for the U.S. Under-18 select team in the Ivan Hlinka Memorial Cup tournament in the Czech Republic and Slovakia. He helped the U.S. win silver.
This season in Portland, he hopes to raise the level of his defense — he wants to play smarter — and raise the level of his physical play on the ice.
The NHL draft next year is in the back of his mind, but the Winterhawks’ season comes first. He’s excited to go after a championship and see what he and his teammates can experience if things come together.
Plus, he knows if he wants to open eyes in the NHL, he can do it by playing well this season and also by practicing and playing hard in Buffalo for the All-American Prospects Game.
The chance to meet new players and reunite with friends and acquaintances in Buffalo while getting the chance to prove himself is an opportunity worth its weight in gold.
Just like the one he had when he was 15.
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.