Crookston's Paul Bittner off to Sweden to play hockey

He has a little more than 20 games between now and April to raise some eyebrows, whether in Europe or in the United States

Mike Christopherson
Above left, Paul Bittner is pictured as a freshman with the Crookston Pirates in 2012. Above right, he's pictured in 2019 with the NHL's Columbus Bluejackets' AHL affiliate, the Cleveland Monsters.

After the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the 2020 American Hockey League season and in the process nixed perhaps the most pivotal season in Crookston native Paul Bittner’s hockey life and left his playing career largely in limbo, the 24-year-old 2015 second round draft pick of the NHL’s Columbus Bluejackets has inked a deal to play professional hockey in Sweden.

Bittner, son of Jon and Jo Bittner and a member of the Crookston High School Class of 2015, left for Sweden on Tuesday. He reached out to the Times Monday night while preparing for his departure.

He’ll skate for the Väsby IK in the Swedish HockeyAllsvanskan league. The team is currently in a somewhat strange situation that means Bittner will have around three months’ worth of games to make a positive impression and in the process catch someone’s eye, whether that’s in Sweden, somewhere else in Europe, or an NHL franchise back in the United States looking to the give the 6’4”, 205-pound winger a second chance to pursue his NHL dreams.

Bittner signed a one-year deal with Väsby IK, and he has a somewhat narrow window to showcase his skills. But there’s definitely a unique window of opportunity for him to do just that.

To make a long story short, there are multiple levels in the HockeyAllsvanskan league, and teams that play well rise and teams that don’t are relegated to lesser divisions. The pandemic hit at an especially inopportune time for the team, Bittner explained, but when it looked like they’d be playing in the league’s third division, a window has opened up to remaining in the second division. But Väsby IK needs to replenish their roster with players, and Bittner is one of those players.

There are a little more than 20 games remaining in the HockeyAllsvanskan league regular season, and then the playoffs start. Between now and April, it’s Bittner’s goal to raise some eyebrows. Between now and then, he’ll be sharing a vehicle and staying in a hotel in Sweden.

Bittner says the league he’ll be playing in is considered “second-level” in Sweden, but is still high-quality hockey. Asked for something to compare it to, Bittner, who, after being drafted by Columbus played on their AHL affiliate, the Cleveland Monsters, said his agents told him HockeyAllsvanskan’s reputation regarding level of play is considered significantly better than the New Jersey-based East Coast Hockey League (ECHL), which is a tier below the AHL.

A winding road

After a strong season as a freshman for the Crookston Pirates in 2012, Bittner began his NHL pursuit by leaving Crookston for Oregon to play major junior hockey for the Western Hockey League’s Portland Winterhawks. The 2015 NHL Entry Draft was Bittner’s first year as draft-eligible and Columbus took him with the #38 pick early in the second round of that draft. As expected, they signed him to a standard rookie contract and then sent him back to Portland to continue his development.

When healthy, Bittner put up numbers for the Winterhawks. He scored 34 goals and added 37 assists in in 66 regular-season games in 2014-15, and added 12 more points in the playoffs that season. But he then began to be plagued by a variety of injuries – a concussion, a broken thumb, hip and knee ailments – and in 2015-16 Bittner played in only 25 games for Portland, scoring 10 goals and notching 11 assists. He then moved onto the AHL’s Monsters, where he played in 31 games in 2016-17, carding a trio of assists, and 52 games in 2017-18, scoring 9 goals and 9 assists. In 2018-19, still battling injuries, he played in 50 games, scoring 9 goals and adding 22 assists.

He was also a hit with Cleveland’s enthusiastic fan base. Bittner, sometimes growing a conversation-starter mustache and always one of the team’s most boisterous personalities, was one of the Monsters’ most high-profile players. But he knew if his hockey career was going to continue to advance, what mattered most was what he did on the ice, not off it.

Considered a “late” birthday – Bittner was born in November – his contract with Columbus included a fourth “slide” year if he did not play in 10 NHL games. He didn’t, so Columbus waived him, he cleared waivers, and Columbus brought him back to play another season in Cleveland. In the process, he did suit up for the Bluejackets in a fall 2019 preseason game, a 4-3 win in which he assisted on the Bluejackets first goal. He logged more than 14 minutes of ice time, delivered some hits, got some shots on net, and felt confident heading into a critical, make-or-break 2020 season for him in Cleveland.

COVID-19 had other ideas, however, and when the AHL season was shuttered, Bittner spent time in Crookston, Duluth and in Fargo, N.D., all the while training to stay in playing shape for when the next opportunity might come knocking.

It just did.

“If I do my job well, it’ll open doors not only back here on American soil, but in Europe as well in their top leagues,” Bittner says.