Jon Bittner finishes his career as Pirate boys' hockey head coach with the 2nd best win percentage in program history
There's not a whole lot the Crookston community doesn't already know about longtime head boys' hockey coach and CHS social studies teacher Jon Bittner.
But don't call him coach anymore. From now on it's Father Jon.
Looking for someone to officiate your wedding this summer? Well, Father Jon is your man. He is marrying his best friend's daughter this summer after becoming ordained online.
After nearly 40 years of coaching hockey at various levels, including 14 seasons as head coach of the Pirates, Father Jon is walking away from the game he loves. He leaves with a mark of 153-207-10 in his 14 seasons, which is the second best winning percentage (.425) in Crookston Boys' Hockey history.
Bittner still has a lot on his plate even without being in charge of the boys' hockey program. Two of his sons, Mark and Paul, are playing hockey on the west coast, while Ryan, who will graduate from CHS this spring will surely continue his playing career somewhere.
"I think mom (his wife, Jo) and I will be dating more," Father Jon said. "We'll go to games together and be cuddled up by each other. I'll enjoy watching the children, watching their skill level and watching the systems that they use and see how they go about doing their business. See how they change throughout the course of the year, throughout the course of their career. It's coming soon that the teaching career will be done soon. That time has gone fast too. I'm not going to garden or anything like that. I'd love to jump back into racing."
Bittner raced dirt late models for ten seasons during his hiatus from the Pirate boys' hockey program from 1995-2006. He opened up about the gap in between his coaching stints with the Pirates and more in an interview with the Times.
Bittner grew up in Duluth and attended Duluth East High School. The original campus of the University of Minnesota Duluth, then known as Duluth State Teachers College, was in his backyard.
"You literally walked up hill every way you went," he said of his old stomping ground. "Going home down hill was a rush. I mean you were going smoking fast. If you didn't have a bike you'd hitchhike with a couple of buddies. I wouldn't let my kids do that now."
Bittner played hockey, football and basketball growing up.
"I was one of two kids on the hockey team that wasn't Catholic, " he remembered. "Your basketball coaches were your teachers. So you had basketball games and practice right after school then go home for supper and when the dads came home from work then you had hockey practice and they were coaching your hockey team."
During his sophomore year Bittner had to decide between basketball and hockey. He obviously chose hockey and was a four-sport letterman in football, baseball and track.
In his sophomore season, Bittner and the Duluth East boys' hockey team was ranked in the top ten for most of the season before being upset by Virginia in the region tournament. In his junior season (1973) Duluth East was good again.
"We were ahead of Hibbing in the third period at Eveleth in the Hippodrome in the semifinals to go to state and we lost," he recalled. "That was a crushing defeat. Hibbing goes on and loses in the finals of Region 7 to International Falls. They meet in the first game of the state tournament at the Met Center, because Hibbing went through the backdoor, old Region 3, which was the loser of Region 8 and Region 7 and they would playoff because Region 3 didn't have any hockey-playing schools. Hibbing ended up beating International Falls and became state champions."
Duluth East was a young team for Bittner's senior season and they hovered around the .500 mark. But in 1975 Duluth East went on to win the state consolation championship with Phil Verchota, who went on to win a gold medal in the 1980 Olympics.
Bittner went on to play football and club hockey at Iowa State. The club hockey team nearly made the jump to Division I during Bittner's time. The school had approved the move but a vote by other Big 8 Conference members shot it down.
From there Bittner transferred to University of North Dakota where he finished his college years. In Grand Forks he had the chance to coach with Dick Compton at Schroeder Junior High. Then he coached bantam B hockey in East Grand Forks.
Bittner played with the Grand Forks Wheatkings in the old Northwest League, which is where he started his Crookston connections, playing against the likes of Scott Kleven, Mike Lundby, Jim Gunnerson, Verne Demarais, Tony Schmitz, Eddie Derosier, Eddie Metzer, Wally Bakken, Kenny Epema, who all played for the old Senior Pirates.
"That was a great league," Bittner recalled. "I remember I got a phone call from the Pirates one time when they were playing the Sioux, who had a JV hockey team at the time. Crookston gave a couple of us Wheatkings a call to play against the Sioux JV team."
In 1979 Bittner got his first high school head coaching gig with Hallock. In 1983 he became the head coach at Warroad before coming to Crookston in 1986.
"I started helping with a bantam team in 1974,"Bittner said. "It's been 39 years in the hockey field. I've coached from the littlest kids right on up through people looking at Olympic teams and NHL or AHL players. I've been district director, I've sat on USA Hockey high school section and been President of Section 8 Coaches Association. I've been the section rep to Minnesota Coaches Association and executive secretary to high school hockey coaches association. I was runner-up to become president of the state coaches association and I was a representative at the assembly for high school league. I was a chief negotiator for the coaches for the two tier system. I've been around, done a lot."
Going into teaching and coaching was not something that Bittner dreamed about as a little kid. In fact, with his father being a teacher and the athletic director at Duluth East he shied away from it.
"I remember not wanting to be a teacher because I didn't want to get teased about being like my dad," he recalled. "When you're young the peer pressure gets to you. I finally got to the point my junior year, 'What do you like? I like kids, I like sports. Where do you find that? I guess I'm going to be a teacher.' I think the coaching just went along with it."
Bittner loved his time coaching at Hallock.
"Hallock was a wonderful palce to start," he said. "Great people and a lot of people are still involved or their next generations are involved. With the help of many people we put artificial ice up there with lots of help from the Christians and Marvins. We put a lot of work into the program and by the time we were done we had some pretty good hockey players coming through. The program took off and was successful and has been ever since."
During his time at Warroad it was the time of expansion for the whole community.
"Marvin Windows was expanding, they were looking at a new school and building the Olympic Arena first and the new Gardens way after that," he said. "The growth of the community, because of the growth of the window company, was huge. Kids in that transition were very good hockey players that are the basis of the solid programs that Warroad has had. Their kids are now involved as players or taking over the program from those of us, like myself, that are getting older and it's now time for us to go on the backburner."
The Crookston years
Bittner was part of two major transitions in Crookston and he gave everything he had to Crookston hockey. He often calls coaches the "caretakers" of their programs.
"Crookston too was in a period of transition," he said, talking about when he arrived in 1986. "We only had five seniors my first year here. There was a lot of animosity about how the new old rink was built. We just couldn't get through that and around that. We had plans at one time to put new locker rooms in on the dike side of the parking lot where the girls locker room was. Then we were going to finish off the seating and maybe host one of the subsection games or section games. At that time it was just one class. We had lots of ideas and good kids coming through."
Changing and adapting, Bittner believes, is essential for every hockey program and sometimes it was difficult to spur change in a small community like Crookston.
"To get up to what current day standards are, to get up to what the rest of the hockey world is doing, it's still hard for people up here to understand and accept that," he said. "I don't like doing all the things we're doing either. I'm never home. In order to do right by the program, to give our kids every advantage we can, we try to do more for less."
Bittner credits all the coaches that laid the foundation before him.
"There was a lot done before I got there," he said. "At one time they had summer ice, I think it was in the old rink. Guys like Mike Lundby, Jim Gunnerson and Scott Kleven and those guys did a lot of work with the program, the youth level and they did a lot with the high school team so that when I came in there it was just a carry on. It wasn't starting over. They are great coaches...they still are today. And they're dear friends. When I came in here the cupboard wasn't bare."
Advancing his coaching career to a larger program was something Bittner contemplated but the pressures and responsibilities of a high-profile program was not appealing to him and his family.
"We thought this was a stepping stone but the game of high school hockey changed at that time too," he said. "We were looking at the Duluth East, Edina, Hill-Murray, Hibbing and moving up the ladder so to speak. At that time too we were playing some some very good hockey programs. We had really good teams. And, like Jeff Whisler at Hill Murray, he had a ton of success and he got his windows busted out, tires slashed at the arena, threats at home. And here he is winning state tournaments. It kind of blew a person's mind. Just because you're in the limelight doesn't mean you're having any more fun."
Even with some struggles in Crookston, Bittner loves the community and people. He wouldn't have finished his career here if he didn't.
"It has everything that you need," he said. "We have a beautiful facility. We had great facilities with the old rinks. We could've made them work. The idea that we needed a new facility, we didn't need a new facility, but we were so close to the river. Look at that dike out there and think of what you needed to put up there in that elbow in the river in order to protect the town and also save those arenas. I don't think that would've worked. We got that great gift and we have everything we need here. We have ice and stores that sell equipment. I don't think it can get any better. The only thing we need now is a resurrection of numbers. If you'd bring back all the athletes that now have children, we'd whoop up on people. We'd really whoop up on people. We pumped some good athletes through here. I love my job. I really love my job."
Bittner can't get enough of the small tight-knit community where people are eager to help each other.
"You can go to Hugo's and reach in your pocket thinking you have money or your credit cards with you and you forgot them," he said. "And they let you walk out with $150 worth of groceries and you tell them, 'I'll be right back to pay for it.' Or the gas station, or you call Tommy Proulx at three in the morning, 'Gee, Tommy, I don't think the furnace is working.' Or go to Buddy Salem, 'I need a truck to haul some stuff to the recycling center.' 'OK, here's the keys.' So you put $10 of gas in it, 'Oh, you didn't have to do that.' Or you go up the hospital and they say, 'Hi, Derek.' May be it's somebody that delivered you and now they're delivering your kids. There's a lot to like about that. There's a lot to be scared about when you move away from that."
Blessing in disguise
It's not something he likes to talk about, but Bittner's hiatus from the Pirate boys' hockey program, although it was devastating and an awkward situation at the time, was a blessing looking back at it today. During his time away Bittner got into car racing and found a new passion.
"It was pretty ugly," Bittner said of leaving the program. "We had lost a daughter. I should have probably taken some time off. It was our first kid and she was full term. It was a week before the due date and Doc Winjum couldn't find the heartbeat. It was devastating to us. I had taken the fall off from football so I could be with Jo the whole time. You go from planning baptisms and getting sponsors and making one of the rooms ready for the baby, then you come home and Jo is still at the hospital. And you're getting a cemetery plot and a headstone. So, I should have really taken some time off. I wish somebody would've just come up to me and said, 'You know, Bitts, you're not quite right. You're not your happy self. You're not who you are, you should take a few years off.'"
"But at that time you're young, and you got a lot of pride for your program and pride in what you're doing," explained Bittner. "You fight like hell for a $4,000 job. How dumb is that? There were people that wanted more from their coach than what their coach was giving and more for their kids. And they were right. And hopefully time heals all wounds. It was just a sad state of affairs."
But just because he wasn't the head coach anymore didn't mean hockey went away. Bittner was still heavily involved in the game he loves. During the time away from the stresses and responsibilities as a head coach, Bittner flourished, racing cars and spending more time with his three boys and teaching them the game of hockey.
"What was good was I got a chance to go back into the youth program," he said. "So, I got a chance to work in the youth program with all three boys. And I was home every day after school and I flooded the backyard and we had the time of our lives. We played hockey all day every day, all night, all weekend with the Heppners, the Edevolds, Taylor Brierly, the Andersons next door. God, we had games in the backyard. We put up lights so we could play at night, they would shovel the rink. We would flood the rink in the mornings. We put music out there, the kids would play to polka. They still know all the verses to those songs."
Bittner remained executive secretary of high school coaches and became director of District 16. He had the time of his life racing cars.
"I raced for ten years, ten full seasons," he said. "We went all over the place racing dirt late models. Not one regret. I had never even sat in one before that. I jumped in something that had 600 horsepower and went really fast. I just wish I could keep on racing because we had a ton of fun."
Bittner wasn't looking to become the head coach of the Pirates again after Jeff Perreault resigned in 2007.
"They were looking for a coach," he said. "Steve Biermaier said, 'I'll take it if no one else wants it.' Yogi (Jeremy Yeager) was the same way. Otherwise nobody else wanted it. It is tough to coach in your own hometown."
The second go around was a blast for the veteran coach.
"It was terrific coming back," he said. "We are in a huge area of change. Not just a change from the old rinks to the new rinks, the flood protection, that's the essential thing, but also a change in the direction of the program to keep up with the way other people are doing things. If we still stay the same hockey-wise we're falling behind. Things have changed, it's not the way it used to be. We can not stay where we're at."
Advocating for change is not something you hear too often from a grizzled coach. But Bittner embraces and welcomes change to the game of hockey.
"Having the boys exposed to the AAA hockey and them having opportunities down in the metro and other places and up in the Duluth area really opened our eyes up," Bittner said. "Being involved state-wide with our coaches association, Minnesota Hockey and USA Hockey, you get a chance to see what's out there and what the successful programs are doing."
Helping Bittner bring about that change were his assistants over the years.
"With Yogi, Jake (Abrams), Jay Visger, Matt Steinmetz, Steve Biermaier, Scotty Kleven and Joel Gasper now, they've been great," he said. "These young guys have just been a ton of fun. They're fun to be around. I'm hoping they stick around because they are so good with those kids."
Mark, Ryan and Paul were all key pieces to their respective Pirate teams. Mark and Ryan, both defensemen, were great puck handlers and fantastic skaters. They were masters at handling the puck in the Crookston zone and in the neutral zone. Who can forget them blasting a slap shot from the point? Paul, in his lone season with the Pirates, was a phenom. A freshman with his size is a gift and he used it to create scoring opportunities for himself and teammates, recording 15 goals and six assists and 25 games.
Mark and Paul have moved on to further their playing careers and Ryan will most certainly be playing somewhere next season.
"It's hard to talk about your own kids," dad said. "I can't separate being a dad and being a coach. Their actions and their play and their continued play, that will speak for itself. I want people, the young kids growing up, to know you can come out of Crookston and do whatever you want to do. Mike Hastings is an example. We've got a number of kids that have come through our program. We want to continue to connect to the past with the present and with the future so that we got this deal running on its own momentum."