by Jacob Born | AHL On The Beat
Every hockey team is a family.
For more than half of a calendar year, a hockey team spends nearly every day together. From workouts to games to travel, teammates see more of each other than they do their own families.
When a player makes it to juniors, college, or even the pro ranks, the opportunities to see family become even more sparse.
That’s why when family and teammate can become the same, you have to make it happen.
For Iowa Wild forward Will Bitten and his brother Sam, that opportunity came at the 2019 NHL Prospect Tournament in Traverse City, Mich., last month.
Will is in his second season with the Minnesota Wild organization and was one of the “veterans” of the team. Sam still plays junior hockey in the Ontario Hockey League. But for the two of them, the four-game tournament represented the first time the two could skate with the same jersey on.
The Bittens grew up playing hockey at a very young age in Ottawa, Ont. Their parents, Mike and Doris, met while both were with competing for Team Canada in badminton in the Summer Olympics: they played together at the 1992 games in Barcelona and then Mike coached Doris at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta.
When Will was born, sports were a way of life, and it continued for Sam when he arrived less than two years later. The two grew up playing every sport they could, from baseball to soccer to hockey and yes, even badminton.
“I didn’t play hockey growing up,” Mike said. “Right at the age of four or five, my wife got them into skating lessons because that’s what you do back home.”
Around the age of 12, Will had to decide what sport he wanted to focus on. He chose hockey and Sam followed suit.
“It was actually really hard to choose,” Will said. “It was just something I really loved doing and I was pretty good at it too. I’d say it’s worked out pretty well so far.”
Being less than two years apart, the two routinely played against each other, and that continued when both were selected in the OHL Priority Draft: Will was chosen seventh overall by the Plymouth Whalers in 2014, and Sam was drafted in the fifth round (92nd overall) by the Ottawa 67’s in 2016.
“Playing against him, it’s just not the same as playing with him,” Will said. “When he got drafted by Ottawa I was like, ‘Wow, he gets to play at home. That’s pretty cool.’ So then I wanted to go to my hometown team too. Things didn’t work out but that’s all right. I got to win a championship with Hamilton.”
Following his OHL career, Will went to development camp and training camp with the Montreal Canadiens, who selected him in the third round (70th overall) of the 2016 NHL Entry Draft.
Meanwhile, Sam, undrafted, accepted an invitation to attend development camp and the 2018 prospects tournament with the Minnesota Wild organization.
Then, on the cusp of the 2018-19 season, Montreal traded Will. His new team? Minnesota.
When Sam heard where Will was headed, he hopped on the phone to give his older brother a scouting report on his new organization.
“I put two and two together after the trade,” Will said. “He actually called me and was like, ‘I know all the guys there because I had already been at camp.’ So that was pretty funny that he had already been here and knew the guys before me. It helped me feel comfortable here.”
Will had a successful rookie season with Iowa, finishing the season with 29 points (13 goals, 16 assists). His 29 points ranked third on the team among rookies and his 13 goals and 16 assists were second. His first goal came when his parents were in Des Moines and after scoring, he pointed to them in the crowd.
“That’s one of my favorite moments in both their hockey careers,” Mike said. “It was crazy. I didn’t even know Will knew where we were sitting. That was one of the biggest highlights, if not the biggest highlight. We saw Will’s first OHL goal and Sam’s first OHL goal, so we’ve seen the big ones. We’re very lucky.”
Following his rookie campaign, Will returned to Ottawa. With him in the Minnesota organization, maybe now there was an opportunity for he and Sam to play together, this time with an NHL franchise.
The two got their wish at the 2019 NHL Prospects Tournament when Minnesota general manager Bill Guerin invited Sam to the tournament.
“Not many people know he and I are really close,” Will said. “Being so close in age, all of his friends are my friends. We’re all in the same group so we’re always together. Getting that chance to go to camp, an NHL camp with the Wild, was something really special and something we always dreamed of.”
Sam and Will shared the ice for two games of the tournament, even being paired together on the penalty kill. Mike drove 12 hours from Ottawa to Michigan to watch his boys play together.
“It was awesome,” Will said. “Just going up there I didn’t know what to expect. Coach put Sam and me together and that was really nice of him. Just playing with him was unbelievable. And to have my dad there, it was awesome. I know him, he wouldn’t miss it for anything, seeing his two boys playing together.”
“It was really exciting,” Mike added. “They’ve been trying for the last few years to play together. Came close a few times but it just didn’t happen. So this was really the first time in an organized game they’ve played together and for it to come in an NHL Prospects Tournament is unbelievable. I wish my wife could have been there.”
Will is now in his second season with the Iowa Wild and is off to a good start with three points (2g, 1a) in six games while playing on the Wild’s top line. Meanwhile, Sam was traded in the offseason from Ottawa to the Sarnia Sting, where he has nine points (4g, 5a) in 11 games.
When Sam’s time in the OHL is up, Will hopes the two can play again together, this time in the NHL.
“Hopefully he ends up here with me one day and then we play together in the NHL,” Will said. “It’s something we’ve always dreamed of.”