WILL BITTEN KEEPS STRONG FAMILY ROOTS IN ROOKIE SEASONDec 27, 2018
By Tom Witosky
Two things happened when Will Bitten and his family learned he’d been traded from the Montreal Canadians to the Minnesota Wild and he was on his way to Des Moines.
The 20-year-old Gloucester, ONT native called his brother, Sam, who participated in the Wild’s development camp in July and played for Iowa Coach Tim Army in the Traverse City Prospect Tournament in September.
“He just said it was a wonderful organization and that they treat the players right,” the older Bitten brother said. “He got to see everything. He told me about the players who were here so I knew them before I got here.”
Meanwhile, Will’s father, Mike, and his mother, Doris – two world-class Olympic badminton players in the 1990s – were busy looking at the Iowa Wild schedule, specifically, where the team would be at Christmas.
“There was no doubt in my wife’s mind that we were going to be together for Christmas,” said Mike Bitten as he and Sam watched a recent morning skate at Wells Fargo Arena in downtown Des Moines. “We booked flights immediately after seeing the schedule because we knew we wanted all of to be together.”
The trip from Ottawa was well worth it as Bitten notched his first AHL goal on Wednesday with his family in the stands. He redirected a Brennan Menell shot to give the Wild a 3-0 third-period lead that would later become a 4-0 victory.
As the horn blasted, Bitten looked up into the stands and pointed to his parents with a smile.
“I was waiting until they came down,” he said after the game. “I was really happy for that. I got a nice bounce and tipped it in.”
Since Bitten’s arrival in Des Moines two months ago, the forward has been impressive enough to earn a regular playing spot along with six other rookies who have helped Iowa off to its best start in franchise history.
“He brings speed,” Army said. “He is on the forecheck, goes after loose pucks and transitions quickly. He helps to give a good attack with speed into the offensive zone.”
Army also said his initial role on the same line with rookies Mason Shaw and Gerry Fitzgerald has given the club so much flexibility that very little distinguishes the Wild’s lines in quality.
“They were the best line we had in San Antonio,” Army said of the line he calls “Fitzy-Bitsy-Shawsy.”
“They created the most scoring chances,” he recalled. “During the game, I thought they were good, but looking at the tape, they were really good.”
Bitten, who was drafted in the third round by Montreal in 2016 NHL Entry Draft, has become quite comfortable in Des Moines despite the shock of being part of the trade that sent defenseman Gustav Olafsson to the Habs.
“I was really happy with them and I was playing second line with Laval at the start of the year,” he said, adding that he learned of the trade in a surprise telephone call from Montreal’s general manager, Marc Bergevin. “He said that it was a business and that they really, really liked me, but that they needed a defenseman and Minnesota was only willing to make the trade if they got me.”
The shock of being traded from Montreal hit pretty hard, according to Bitten’s father.
“It really shook him up a bit. His first language is French and having been drafted by Montreal was a dream come true. Montreal was his favorite team growing up and a lot of his family lives in Montreal,” Mike said.
Still, Bitten’s parents knew he would adjust to new surroundings just as they did when the two played professional badminton, as well as qualifying for the Canadian Olympic team in the sport. Mike played in the 1992 Olympics; Doris in 1992 and 1996.
“We had to live in Europe and Asia back then to make a living,” Mike said. “It was hard at times, but it also made us decide that once we had children, we’d be staying in one place while they grew up.”
Born in 1998, Bitten started exhibiting athletic talent almost from the cradle. At first, his parents guessed his sport might be golf. Almost from the time he could walk, Bitten had a club in hand and was hitting golf balls in the house.
“We had holes in the walls from him swinging a club and hitting balls,” Mike said with a laugh.
Around that time, Mike took Will to a local skating rink for his first time on the ice. After 15 minutes, Mike decided to return home with his son who wasn’t too keen on skating at that point. That’s when Doris, a native of Quebec, took over. Back to the ice they went and Will finished his first day of skating.
“Mom says she should get the credit for me becoming a professional hockey player because of that day,” Bitten said.
Since then, Bitten has been committed to his hockey, though he acknowledges learning to play competitive badminton has helped him become a better hockey player.
“It helped my hockey game without a doubt,” he said. “It requires quick feet and good hand-eye coordination. It has helped me be successful.”
Army agreed his speed and tenacity is what has helped cement his position in the line-up. Even before Bitten scored his first pro goal on Wednesday, Army knew it was coming.
“He had a lot of chances and clanked a few,” Army said. “He is still sorting out his game to a degree. He needs to keep it simpler, but as he gains experience it should come out, and it did.”
Off the ice, Army said Bitten is reserved, but not reticent to ask questions.
“He wants to learn and has a good mind,” Army said. “When he sits down with you, the conversation with him is healthy and of good substance.”
Bitten understands he is a work in progress, but that’s fine with him right now. He likes the Wild organization and where he is at with them.
“I know at 20 that I am a bit ahead of the game and what’s really nice because we have a really good team here,” he said, adding that getting time to learn from veterans like center Cal O’Reilly is a huge asset. “It is great to be able to learn to play this game from guys like Cal. He is a great guy to look after and I really like his style.”
Plus, Bitten has one more goal he hopes the Wild can help him to achieve – playing on the same team with his brother, Sam.
“I’ve never had a chance to play with him because he is two years younger than me,” Bitten said. “I did play against him in the OHL which was cool. I’ve always wanted to play with him on the same team.”
Sam, undrafted so far as a center for the Ottawa 67s, agreed he’d like to be his brother’s teammate. Bitten has 19 points in 35 games with the 67s, which right now has the best record among the 20 teams in the OHL.
“That would be great, it really would, if it could happen in the next couple years,” Sam said.