The Summer of T-Birds: A Chat w/ Will BittenAug 30, 2023
Voice of the T-Birds Ryan Smith will be checking in periodically with some of your favorite players throughout the summer months in a series called The Summer of T-Birds.
In this installment, Ryan is chatting with Will Bitten, who recounted his best season as a pro and an incredible first-hand account of his first 24 hours in the NHL.
Questions and answers have occasionally been edited for clarity.
RS: How has this longer offseason been treating you?
WB: Obviously you want to go far in the playoffs, but last summer was so short (after going to the Finals). My body was banged up a bit. You get to focus on training and other things, see family, and do stuff you couldn’t necessarily do last summer, so it was kind of nice to have a little bit more time. Don’t get me wrong, though, I want to win.
RS: So, where’s summer home base and what’s a day in the life of Will Bitten away from hockey season?
WB: I spend my summers in Ottawa, which is where my family lives. I am really close with my brother Sam, and he’s my training partner so we have the same schedule every day. He keeps me motivated and wants the best out of me. It’s been a super exciting summer for us. We train about two and a half hours every morning in the gym, and then we skate about five times a week. Outside of training, I love going to Florida with my family; we all love to play golf.
RS: When you found out from your brother Sam that he was going to be signing with Springfield, how much recruiting did you do, or did the stars happen to align?
WB: It was a dream come true. I’ve never had the chance to play with Sam on the same team. Our chemistry is off the charts. He’s been playing in Europe for three years. With COVID, he missed out on his overage year in the Ontario Hockey League, which screwed up timing and opportunities for a lot of guys. For guys like him, where you’re trying to get a pro contract, it didn’t help. At the end of last season, I had good conversations with the coaching staff, St. Louis, and (T-Birds GM Kevin Maxwell). I mentioned that I knew a guy who brings more than a little energy and is a great locker room guy. I thought we were missing a bit of grit, and I told them I have a guy in my backyard that can fill that role. I guess (Sam) fit the bill, and I’m so excited for him to have that opportunity. I know what he can bring and what he can do. I’m happy that St. Louis and Kevin gave him an opportunity to show what he’s got at the AHL level.
RS: I will tell you, when I touched base with his European club, they told me on more than one occasion how much we were going to love Sam. People in this area are already fully accustomed to your style of play, and you mean to tell me Sam’s got a motor that’s bigger than yours? What’s the scouting report?
WB: We’re completely different players. I know the fans like my energy and the drive I bring, but Springy better watch out, they’re going to love this guy. He is a horse out there. He’s 6-2, 220 right now. He’s ready to go and fired up. I’m excited to see what he can do, especially in our building. His game is one where he brings a lot of energy. He’s really good on the penalty kill and wins a lot of his draws. He’s a faceoff specialist, and if something happens to one of our top guys, he won’t shy away to get in there. Off the ice, he’s a teddy bear. With Bitsy’s Army, we really relate to a lot of fans and we want to give back. We were brought up that way by our parents. If it’s meeting fans or stopping for an autograph, we want to give them the time, and it makes their day as well, and that’s cool to see.
RS: You got to check off getting an NHL debut under your belt. Take me back through the timeline of your first NHL call-up and how all of it came to be.
WB: It was a dream come true. It was my fifth year in the AHL and I knew I needed to make a splash. I thought right from training camp, I had a big main camp and got into a lot of exhibition games and did really well. I played the style of play that I needed to in order to fill a role on (the Blues) if they needed me. That was actually my first training camp with the Blues, so it was kind of the first time that (Craig Berube) and (Doug Armstrong) could lay eyes on me. I’m a high-energy guy with my speed, and it’s something I can bring to the table. I thought I started the season really well and tried to be one of the best players on the ice every night, playing the St. Louis Blues way. When I got that call, I believe it was December 3rd. It’s a funny story, you’ll like this one.
At 10 a.m., Kevin (Maxwell) called me and said “St. Louis is calling you up. You’re heading to Pittsburgh. They play there tonight, and your flight is in about an hour. You have to hurry up, go to the rink and catch your flight.” I believe it was a day off, too. We had just finished a weekend of games, so I’m thinking that maybe I can rest up a bit, but getting that call was crazy, a dream come true. All that hard work I had done wasn’t for nothing, it’s going to pay off.
So, I’m rushing, packing my bags, and trying to get a hold of my parents. No one is picking up, they’re at work. I call my brother, but he’s also eight hours ahead of me. I’m sweating as I’m packing. I ended up calling my girlfriend back home (in Ottawa), and she asked if my parents knew about it, and I said no, they aren’t picking up. She actually drove over and told them in person, and I thought that was a really cool, special moment. They ended up calling me afterward.
My flight was Springfield-to-Washington, Washington-to-Pittsburgh, and the rink is about 40 minutes from the airport. I think it was a 7:30 game, with warmups around 7:10 or something. I arrived at the airport in Pittsburgh at 5:30, which wasn’t terrible. It almost worked out a little better because I wasn’t there all day, so it’s not like I was nervous. I was thinking I just have to get there.
I realized I was cutting it close, but what can you do? I just had to make sure I was dialed in. I didn’t know if I was playing yet (at this point), so I knew I had to be ready because who knows? They had a nice limo pick me up, and that’s how you know you’re in the National League. We’re heading onto the highway and I see all these red lights and I’m like, ‘Oh no.’
The highway is not moving, and the driver goes, ‘Yeah, the GPS says you’re going to arrive at like 6:50 or 7:00.’ I’m freaking out, I don’t know if I’m playing, I don’t know what’s going on. So I’m saying maybe it’ll open up.
As time goes by, it’s 6:30 now, and I’m like ‘Oh my God.’ So, Doug (Armstrong) and Chief (Craig Berube) call me and asked where I was. I said I was stuck in traffic and that I’ll be there in 20-30 minutes. And they say, ‘Well, you’re in, you’re playing.’ Now it’s settling in and I know I have got to get there.
I’m calling all my family and friends in the limo, saying I’m playing tonight against the Pittsburgh Penguins, playing against Sidney Crosby and the boys. It was a pretty special deal, a guy you look up to when you’re younger, Captain Canada. I tap on the window at the front of the limo and I say to the driver, ‘Hey, I know we’re stuck in traffic, but I’m playing my first NHL game tonight, and we need to do something. I gotta get there. I’m not missing my first NHL game.’
He called the cops and told them ‘I’ve got this guy who’s supposed to play tonight,’ so I got a police escort, and I was actually stretching in the back with my suit on, doing a couple of squats, I tried to take a band out of my bag, and I was laughing. We’re on the side of the highway and they brought us as far as they could up the left side, and it might’ve saved us maybe 20 minutes. I walked into the rink at 6:55 or 7:00, just rushing in there. I had maybe 10 minutes to get everything ready, and the training staff and everyone did well. I needed new stickers on the helmets, skates, you name it. All the boys are chuckling and welcoming me, but it was great. I have a lot of buddies (in St. Louis) that I had played with in the past. I played with (Jordan Kyrou) and Robert Thomas was my linemate in juniors, so I felt really comfortable already. I think the best part was the rookie lap. Before I stepped on, I was looking up to the sky and living the dream, for sure. Being alone on that ice and taking it all in, seeing (Evgeni) Malkin, (Kris) Letang, and all these guys staring at you doing your solo lap was something I’ll never forget.
The other really cool part of my call-up is I was there for about a month, so I got to live the life a bit. I got to hang out with the guys, went on a couple of road trips, and was there around Christmas time, so (Ryan) O’Reilly had a big party with all the team and families, so I got to know a lot of nice people. It was a lot of fun for me to experience that and gain experience to bring with me to Springfield. The main goal this year is to make the team, and now I know a little bit more about St. Louis.
RS: You have to have one of the best NHL debut stories of all time, and I’ve driven in Pittsburgh and I know it’s a nightmare. That city has more bridges and tunnels than anywhere I’ve ever been.
WB: The limo driver was telling me, yeah, we just have to get over this bridge, and then another bridge. I’m like ‘How many bridges are there here? What’s going on?’
RS: Hopefully you’re back in the (NHL) and you get to be in Pittsburgh on an off-day next time!
WB: For sure, the city is great. They treated me well up there; it was a really good experience.