After playing high school hockey for one year in Crookston, Bittner traveled to Portland to begin his career.
Paul Bittner - Hockey player for the Cleveland Monsters
Lake Erie/Cleveland Monsters
Describe your high school career
It was very short. I played one year in Crookston for my dad my ninth grade year. We didn’t go far in sections, but it was a good year. I learned a lot from my dad and the other players on the team. It was a fun year.
Describe your move to junior hockey and your career there
I signed a contract with the Portland Winterhawks and I moved out there when I was 15 and then I turned 16 that fall. It’s Major Junior Hockey so pretty good hockey. I’d be playing against a first round draft pick almost every night so it’s a very high level of competition. It was dog-eat-dog world and anybody could win. It was just like the NHL in that even the bad teams are really good teams. It’s hard to get wins in the league and it teaches you how to become a pro. I played there for three and a half years and had hip surgery unfortunately my fourth year. Then I moved up to the pro ranks after that.
How did you reach the decision to play for Portland?
There were other teams looking at me, but they put me on their 50 man roster so they basically claimed my rights after the bantam draft. I wasn’t picked up by anybody, but a Minnesota scout saw me and told Portland about me. Then they came out and saw me and decided to put me on the 50 man roster at the end of my freshman season.
Was it a hard decision to leave Crookston?
For sure. It didn’t seem hard at the time because all I wanted to do was play in the NHL. That was my only concern. It was almost like I didn’t even think about it. I just thought it was a great opportunity and I could go to a beautiful city with great hockey and play with awesome guys. Then a couple of years down the road, I realized I miss playing with Doug Larson, Dane Anderson, Ethan Christopherson and the names go on. I really missed that. But it was really cool because Doug would tell me I need to be in Portland and I don’t need to be in Crookston. I didn’t really think about it at the time. I just wanted to play in the NHL and this seemed like the best way.
Did the experience seem to be a bit much for a 15-year-old?
Not at the time. I didn’t really know what I was getting into. I just wanted to play hockey. I wasn’t really worried about where I was going or what I was doing. It was all about hockey. I wanted to make the NHL and I thought that was the best way to get there.
How did you go about doing school while in junior hockey?
We had tutors available to us. I used them a lot towards the end of the season to catch up to help me understand because I wasn’t in classes as much during playoff runs and we had a lot of long playoff runs. It was tough to keep up with because of the travel, but our tutors did a good job helping us understand the materials.
What were your living arrangements in Portland?
They put me up with a billet family. They were good families. The first year, the family had two kids, Victoria and William and they were great. Then I moved in with another family who had been billeting for 30 years and they were really cool too.
What was something that surprised you in your first year of junior hockey?
It was the slow pace I didn’t really understand. Back at home, I’d just step into the next year and be better than I was the year before. I really had to work at it. In my first game, I just got railed by this 20-year-old defenseman. That was my first shift when I realized it would be very tough.
When did it occur to you that you had a good chance to play professionally?
I always thought I could. I was probably naïve and arrogant, but I never really thought I couldn’t. I never had that mentality until I moved to Portland my first year. I really started having doubts my first year wondering if this was really for me. I was a young guy not playing much and when I did, I didn’t feel useful. I really started to figure it out when about five or six guys left for World Juniors. That gave me an opportunity to step into a first line role. I was playing with Nick Petan who’s played in the NHL and Brendan Leipsic who was with Vegas and then traded to Vancouver and he played in the NHL all season. I played with them and I had about 12 points in like five or six games and that’s when I figured out I could do this.
What happened when you were drafted?
I was drafted in 2015 in the NHL Entry Draft by the Columbus Bluejackets in the second round 38th overall. I signed a contract that fall, played my last year of juniors, had hip surgery and went to Cleveland to rehab. Cleveland is Columbus’ affiliate team. I’m now working my way up trying to make it to the NHL.
What was your reaction to being drafted?
It was just a really happy feeling. Having someone call my name and wanting me to play for them is pretty special. I just looked at my parents and said, “This is it. Let’s go.” I was excited to get going.
Describe the process of going through your injuries?
It was tough. I was coming off of six months of doing nothing. I didn’t feel in shape and I was sucking gas as we say. I just wasn’t in the right shape or frame of mind to be playing. I had never been injured like that. Maybe a week or two, but never six months. It was a bit of a reality check, but it taught me how to be a pro. It was still tough because I was worried if I’d be able to be the player I was before and so many other things. I had to stay positive and look at the big picture. It took me about a year before I was able to play decent hockey.
How were your first months in Cleveland?
They were good. My first year was pretty tough. I got a lot of opportunities, but I wasn’t really producing. So I fizzled down the lineup and eventually found myself out of the lineup. I didn’t play much down the backstretch so it was a pretty tough learning curve. It was a lot different from juniors. It was a reality shock being on my own and learning the ins and outs. But it was fun.
What adjustments did you need to make to adapt to playing in Cleveland?
I just needed to be more independent. Be more disciplined in eating, sleeping and become a pro.
What are your living arrangements in Cleveland?
We get apartments. Last year I roomed with two teammates and this year, I live by myself. I’m about 20 minutes from downtown and 20 minutes from our practice arena. There’s about 10 of us in the same complex.
What is your daily routine while in season?
We’ll have practice at 10:30 a.m. and I usually get there around 8:30 a.m. We’ll either practice or just stretch depending on when we have a game. On a game day, we skate at 10 a.m. and be there by 8:30 a.m. We’d get a twirl, get a touch and then get out of there as early as possible. I’ll come home and relax, watch a movie, eat some food and then go to the rink about 4:30 p.m. We’ll have meetings, go through our routines and then it’s the game.
How do you like playing at The Q?
It’s a great venue. We have a great locker room and a great weight room that the Cavs use. It’s top notch. I’ll do my stretches right in front of the Cavs locker room so that’s pretty cool.
Who would you say is your favorite coach across all your teams?
It’s tough to say. Travis Green who’s now the head coach at Vancouver was a very good teacher. I like him a lot. He did a really good job and brought me along.
What is something Green did or told you that has stuck with you?
He always said to give it your all and what do you have to lose to give it your all.
What would you tell your 15-year-old self who is just starting juniors?
Work harder. Work a lot harder than you have and commit yourself earlier than later.
What do you miss about playing in Crookston?
I thought about it a lot when I was juniors. Playing in front of the family and friends I’ve known for my whole life. The people who brought you to the tournaments when you couldn’t drive. It’s a bond that sticks with you. I still talk to my four best buddies all the time. It made the game a lot more fun playing for your home time.
Do you still have fun playing?
Absolutely. I’m getting paid to play hockey and it’s unreal. In warmups, I’ll sit down or take a knee and just look around and think this is pretty cool. Kids tap on the glass wanting your attention or a wave. It’s really cool.
Where will you be next season?
I have another year on my contract and we’ll see what happens.
What do you hope to do once you’re all finished playing hockey?
I hope I make enough money to retire on it. I haven’t given it much thought. I don’t want to. I’m young and I have this drive to be the best hockey player I can be and make the NHL. For now, I’m going to focus on hockey and not worry about that.
What memory sticks out from playing with Cleveland?
I was here for the last months of the season when they made a playoff run. I was watching the guys battle and finish second in the division I think. They were sixth with a month and a half to go and then went 15-2 to win the Calder Cup. They lost two games the entire run which was absurd. Watching that was pretty special and then I got a ring. That was pretty special.
What is some advice you would give to a kid with aspirations of playing professional hockey?
Commit and give it everything you’ve got. If you’re going to do it, then do it. Don’t think about what if and think about why not. Commit yourself and commit early.