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Author: Jean Wong/Friday, July 8, 2016/Categories: Latest News
William Bitten is due for a break.
After giving his all to become a coveted NHL draft choice this weekend (26th on the final Craig Button list, 47th on Bob McKenzie’s), Bitten is owed a year or two of stability.
That Will, who grew up in Gloucester and turns 18 on July 10, survived a full season with the OHL Flint Firebirds is a feat worthy of praise. One amateur scout told Yahoo.com that Bitten, a talented centre/right wing, deserves a “star beside his name” on NHL team lists after enduring one of the most bizarre episodes in OHL history.
At the recent NHL draft combine, Bitten was interviewed by 27 of 30 NHL clubs (yes, Ottawa was one of them). All 27 asked Bitten what it was like having an owner (Rolf Nilsen) fire coaches John Gruden and Dave Karpa multiple times ostensibly because of the ice-time allotted the owner’s son, Hakon, a defenceman. In protest, the players including Hakon Nilsen set down their jerseys like a scene out of Rudy, the Notre Dame movie.
In April, Nilsen was suspended by OHL commissioner Dave Branch for five years, fined $250,000 and the Firebirds lost their 2016 third overall draft pick. Essentially, the OHL is running the franchise temporarily.
Bitten calls last season “a different year. It was hard. A couple of guys (including Bitten) were in their draft year, and a couple of older guys were trying to get NHL contracts.
“It was hard for everyone, especially our over-agers. They didn’t want to finish like that,” Bitten says. “But we never gave up, right up to the last game.”
A creative player with exceptional hockey sense, the 5-10, 185-pound Bitten finished with 65 points in 67 OHL games, including 30 goals, and then went on to represent Canada at the U-18 tournament in North Dakota. Bitten was a key player for Canada, producing eight points in seven games on a team that finished out of the medals. This summer, he will attend Canada’s world junior camp.
From left, Michael Bitten, hockey brothers Samuel and William Bitten and Doris Piche, right, are photographed in their backyard in Ottawa Wednesday June 15, 2016. William is about to be drafted into the NHL, after a rough season playing in Flint, MI while his brother, Samuel, was just drafted by the Ottawa 67s. Their parents, Michael and Doris or former Olympic badminton players. DARREN BROWN
Taking a break from his grade 12 exam studies, Will is sitting in the living room of his Gloucester home, accompanied by his parents, Michael Bitten and Doris Piche, former Canadian Olympic badminton players, and Will’s brother, Sam, recently drafted by the OHL Ottawa 67’s.
This is a family driven to excel — in the classroom, on the badminton courts and the hockey rinks. Logistics such as William playing out of the country in Michigan, or brother Sam playing for the Mississauga Rebels minor midget AAA team, are part of the family fabric.
Curve balls, like those tossed Will’s way in Flint, and before that, in Plymouth, are trickier.
As if the turmoil with the hockey club wasn’t enough, the city of Flint continues to battle through a contaminated water crisis that has raged for more than two years.
While the Bittens drew comfort in the fact the hockey players stayed with billets outside the affected area, Will felt sympathy for the poorest, hardest-hit neighbourhoods in Flint. Hockey as a diversion can only go so far when the tap water is filled with lead.
“The thing in Flint was to come watch us play,” Will says. “They love hockey there. It was too bad everything happened like that, especially with the water.”
Will’s junior hockey adventures didn’t begin in Flint. He was drafted seventh overall by Plymouth, and had just made arrangements to continue his French schooling while there, when the rug was pulled out from under him. The Whalers, about to be sold to Flint, changed all their staff.
“That was pretty shocking,” says Mike Bitten. “You did the whole deal with the front office, coaches and everything. We drove to the main camp and they were all gone to Carolina. That was tough. There was no coach. No nothing.”
Why Carolina? The NHL Hurricanes owner, Peter Karmanos, also owned the Whalers. Even before he sold the team to Nilsen in January of 2014, Karmanos found jobs for the Plymouth staff, including head coach Mike Vellucci (now AGM in Carolina) with the Hurricanes. Will hoped to play for Vellucci, and then enjoyed Gruden (a former Senators defenceman) in Flint, if only Will’s coaches didn’t keep disappearing. Gruden has moved on from Flint to coach the Hamilton Bulldogs.
FIRST SKATE WOBBLY
Michael Bitten met Doris Piche at a Canadian badminton camp when he was 21, and she was 18. He spoke no French, she, little English. They would compete together, fall head over rackets in love and both represented Canada in badminton at the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona. Four years later, Michael coached his wife at the 1996 Games in Atlanta.
In a strange twist, Michael was born in Senneterre, Que., about an hour and a half from Doris’s hometown of La Sarre.
When their first son, William, was born, there was no doubt he was going to skate, although Michael, the son of a British couple who emigrated to Canada as teens and joined the Canadian army, grew up on soccer, baseball and badminton, not hockey. As a minor league ballplayer living off army bases in Trenton and Kingston among others, Mike would play against the likes of Wayne Gretzky and Marc Crawford.
Not yet four, Will didn’t love skating initially. But Doris, whose nephew, Sebastien Piche, played in the QMJHL and is now a pro in Austria, came from a hockey family and was determined. Unable to take her son to one of his early skating lessons at Sandy Hill Arena, Mike took Will, noted his disinterest, and declared: “Doris, hockey is not for our son.”
Doris was having none of it, and took him right back to the skating sessions.
In a nod to their background, both boys have included badminton as part of their training in sport.
“I believe you’ve got to play badminton to be fit in life,” says Doris, smiling.
Michael, a longtime badminton pro, runs the badminton program at the RA Centre. A recent mystery client who signed up for a lesson, Senators icon Daniel Alfredsson.
Both Bitten boys are committed to French schooling. On Wednesday, William will graduate with his friends at Franco Cite, where Doris teaches. Thursday’s prom celebration will morph into Friday’s six-hour drive to Buffalo for the draft. So determined was Will to graduate with his 2016 class, he took online courses in French while in Flint.
“When you’re an athlete, you can’t forget about family and friends,” Doris says. “It was important.”
Will hopes he might be drafted in the first round on Friday, but will settle for Round 2. From there, an NHL team hopefully rescues him from another Firebirds season.
SAM HAS WILL
Will’s younger, bigger brother, Sam, 16, has his own hockey story. Not to be too cute, but Sam has a strong will. The former Ottawa Jr. 67’s minor hockey star led his teams in scoring for five straight years but a stress fracture issue in his back caused him to miss about a month of his minor midget season in Mississauga.
The tiny fractures, possibly related to a growth spurt, have now healed, although Sam has to visit a specialist at month’s end for the final OK before contact is allowed. He is back skating.
“I’m just happy I’m cleared now,” says Sam, a productive forward like his brother. In bantam, Sam had 44 points in 30 games. “I want to do whatever I can these next few months to be ready for (the 67’s) main camp.”
The Bitten boys dream of one day playing together on the same team. Before then, their hockey journey is bound to have a few twists and turns.
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