by Brandon Kisker | AHL On The Beat
With a John B. Sollenberger Trophy, a Spengler Cup and two Swiss league championships to his name, Domenic Pittis has had quite the hockey career.
Pittis played 309 games in the American Hockey League with Syracuse, Rochester and Milwaukee in addition to 86 NHL games and 348 games in Switzerland’s top league.
He’s been around the world, achieved the pinnacle of his sport at both the international and club level, and torched the leagues he played in, including an AHL scoring title in 1998-99 and trips to the Calder Cup Finals in 1999 and 2000.
However now, the once-prolific scorer has traded his career on the ice for one behind the bench.
“As you get closer to the end of your career you start thinking about ultimately what you’re going to do,” Pittis said. “You have that in the back of your mind, but I wasn’t sure about coaching.
“I always thought of it as a possibility but I didn’t really know how it would come to fruition.”
Oddly enough, his opportunity within coaching would come thanks to an old coach.
On May 31, 2012, the Calgary Flames, Pittis’ hometown team, hired Bob Hartley as head coach. The veteran coach had won a Stanley Cup with the Colorado Avalanche and coached in the NHL for 10 seasons, but he’d had most recently been the head coach in Zurich, Switzerland with the ZSC Lions.
A month prior to Hartley being named head coach of the Flames, he and Pittis would be part of a seven-game upset of the heavily favored SC Bern to claim the Swiss Championship, something that eluded Pittis while with his first Swiss club in Kloten.
The familiarity with Pittis was there once Hartley moved back to North America. But as far as a deep connection between the pair, it wasn’t there, at least not initially.
“There were some nights where he probably didn’t like me too much, and there were some nights I felt the same, but at the end of the day, when you end up winning together and go through what you have to, to win, it becomes a mutual respect,” Pittis said. “I really had no idea that he thought of me enough to want me on his staff. When he approached me to work in Calgary I was shocked, to be honest. He never mentioned anything to me, but he must’ve liked the way I worked, my attention to detail, and thought I could be a part of the culture in Calgary.”
But Pittis wasn’t quite ready to give up his playing career after Hartley took over in Calgary, so he played another season, splitting time between the first and second divisions in Switzerland. It was only after that season that Pittis decided a change might be in his best interest.
“Bob approached me for an opportunity to work with young guys in the summer on a consultant basis, taking guys through some of the off-ice things they have to do and some on-ice skills stuff” Pittis said. “September came around and they asked if I wanted to stay on and be with Calgary to fill in, in a bunch of different capacities, skating the injured guys, doing some on-ice skills stuff and just generally be around and see what I’d like to pursue.
“That evolved into my second year where I started to take trips down to Adirondack in more of a development role while still spending time with the Flames.”
Development was a huge interest of Pittis’ as well. A second-round selection in the 1993 NHL Entry Draft by the Pittsburgh Penguins, Pittis made his NHL debut in October 1996 after two full years in the minors.
He would play nearly two more years before he’d get his next NHL stint.
Developing as a young player into an NHLer isn’t easy, so with Pittis, when the opportunity presented itself to get away from the Flames and have more of a hands-on role with the Flames AHL affiliate, he was excited to pursue it.
After spending nearly all of his time in 2014-15 with the Flames, the club would end up entrusting him with the farm, sending Pittis to Adirondack to join the Adirondack Flames once per month and directly work with the Flames’ top prospects. It was there that Pittis knew what he wanted to do.
Get behind the bench.
“I came to the realization that part of development is being there on a daily basis and being able to see what guys need over the year in their improvements that guys made,” Pittis said. “In my opinion, the guys make those daily, and it’s tough to have someone come in a week out of the month and expect results.
“So I told Calgary that I want to be a part of development, and in my eyes, that’s being a coach and being on the bench. That was my next step.”
The following year, Pittis joined coach Ryan Huska’s staff as an assistant coach with the Stockton Heat, the new affiliate of the Calgary Flames.
Since then, Pittis has helped mold the future Flames. Whether he’s running a skills practice, out playing a little three-on-three after practice concludes, or helping guys off the ice, Pittis knows the type of coach he wants to be.
He wants to be the coach that helps players achieve the dreams he set out to achieve in his own playing days.
“Coming from being a player, you don’t always realize what goes into coaching,” Pittis explains. “We’re learning here at this level as much as the players are as far as I’m concerned. I constantly try to put myself in their shoes and see what they’re feeling. So, I draw upon my experience as a player to better help them achieve the highest levels, going through their successes and failures with them.”
“I think that’s one of the joys of coaching. To help guys achieve their goals and help them to get to the next level.”
So nearly six years ago, as his career was winding down, Pittis had not only found his mission but now has more clarity now on what he’d like to become.
If it wasn’t for Hartley, Pittis may not be where he is today. What came as a genuine surprise of Hartley taking an interest in one of his former pupils working on his staff, has now blossomed into a passion.
And while Hartley no longer is with the Calgary Flames, now overseas with the Latvian National Team, he still finds time to give Pittis a call and check on how things are going.
“That’s what happens with winning,” Pittis said. “Everyone wants to win, but it’s a tough thing to do. When you share that experience, you definitely have a bond with them. Now as a coach myself, I see Bob’s ability to stay on message and constantly preach that. It speaks to his drive, willingness and belief into what he’s doing.
“There’s a reason he’s won at every level, and it’s his relentless pursuit of his details.”
Now 10 years after their Swiss League victory in which Pittis scored the cup-clinching goal, he draws on his own playing experience, what he’s learned from Hartley, and what he’s learned from his Stockton and Calgary colleagues to help set up young players with a chance to find the success he had as a player.
“I would like to get into a situation where I could become a head coach, to control the culture and be able to form your group and team together,” Pittis said, “but as it stands right now, I love being a part of this team. If it turns out that way, and the opportunity presents itself, it’d be something to look at.
“But right now, I enjoy what I’m doing, and I enjoy being part of the Stockton Heat.”