When operating at the American Hockey League level you are always bound to come across some very good stories. Last year, for example, saw two really great stories come out of the Milwaukee Admirals. Scott Darling was able to grasp an opportunity from the organization’s injury woes at the goaltending position and set himself up for the year he has had this season. Darling has made it as an NHL product of his boyhood team growing up, the Chicago Blackhawks, and recently signed a two-year extension. Equally as great of a story was seeing Mark Van Guilder‘s long awaited and deserved first career NHL game after playing 387 career games between the AHL and ECHL before making it to the show.
This season’s feel good story has been the rise of defenseman Anthony Bitetto. It was two years ago when he made his professional playing debut in the Nashville Predators system and he was able to make his NHL debut back in January. What has made Bitetto’s story so great to follow is how greatly it reflects the developmental process of the Nashville system. Bitetto’s career path has seen him go through Milwaukee and Cincinnati en route to logging ice time in the NHL. It says plenty about both the organization and the man himself.
“Tony has matured into a leader on our hockey team, no question,” said Milwaukee Admirals head coach Dean Evason. “He has always had a good presence about him. He’s a confident person. So he has turned into a leader. He doesn’t wear a “C” or an “A” but he is definitely one of the leaders on our team.”
Bitetto’s love for the game started with his family. He was born and raised in New York and was a die-hard Rangers fan growing up. His father played in a recreational league and Anthony, himself, was roller skating at nine-months old. At the age of three he took to the ice for the first time. His idol growing up is a rather obvious one when you consider the connections, his uniform number, and position on the ice: Brian Leetch.
His youth playing career started with the New York Apple Core. He played in his home state for a season and a half before finding himself on the first of his multiple stops en route to becoming a professional hockey player. In 2008-09 he was traded to the Indiana Ice of the United States Hockey League (USHL). For those familiar with the AHL, or hockey community in general, the head coach at the time Bitetto joined the Ice was a rather good one by the name of Jeff Blashill – the current head coach of the Grand Rapids Griffins.
“That was kind of the turning point in my career,” said Bitetto of joining the Indiana Ice. “Because up until then it was more of just have fun with it. I still have fun with it, obviously, but it was more recreational and I wasn’t really planning on taking the game anywhere.”
Blashill encouraged Bitetto that he had a bright future in the game of hockey. It was at that point the focus shifted towards making a career out of the game he loved to play. He was drafted by the Nashville Predators with the one-hundred and sixty-eighth selection in round six of the 2010 NHL draft. When his time with the Ice came to a close he joined Northeastern University where he played college hockey for two seasons before making the leap to the professional playing ranks.
His first career game as a pro was a matter of feet directly to the fire. After spending a few weeks with the Milwaukee Admirals after the completion of his season with Northeastern the Admirals head coach at the time, Ian Herbers, tabbed Bitetto to make his debut during the 2012 AHL Calder Cup Playoffs. If that wasn’t enough pressure, just for good measure, it also happened to be an elimination game on the road. The Abbotsford Heat had beaten the Admirals 6-2 and 4-2 in Milwaukee before the games shifted to Western Canada.
“[Herbers] comes down and is like, “You ready to go?” And I was kind of like shocked that I was going to play,” laughed Bitetto. “I was excited. It’s your first AHL game. The guys really supported me. It was cool. Going into a big game like that.”
In that game the Admirals would fall 4-2 and be officially swept out of the playoffs at the hands of the Heat. Perhaps it was a harsh welcoming to professional hockey but the introduction to the team and the pro game did have it’s benefits.
“It gave me a ton of confidence – especially going into that next year,” said Bitetto. “Just going to camp, already knowing some of the guys from the AHL, I would recommend that to anybody.”
Bitetto’s first full season of pro hockey was 2012-13. While the early introduction the year prior was a bonus it was apparent that he wasn’t quite AHL ready from out the gate. He played in five out of ten games before being sent to the Cincinnati Cyclones of the ECHL.
“I was still in college mode when I got here,” said Bitetto. “I kind of wasn’t really dialed into the everyday bring it. In college you play Friday-Saturday so Monday-Tuesday, as much as you don’t want to say it, you go through the motions a little bit. When I first got here I was still doing that. I didn’t adapt right away and it was a wake up call when I went to Cincinnati. It really helped.”
For the next two months he was clocking in solid minutes of ice time at the ECHL level. He played twenty-three games for the Cyclones. In that time the team went 13-10-0-0 while Bitetto scoring his first points as a pro – one goal and two assists.
“There were some circumstances around it but he needed to figure some stuff out,” said Evason. “As we’ve talked about before, you can sit guys out as coaches here or, one of the things you can do, is send a player down for many reasons: conditioning or an attitude adjustment. Tony needed that to figure out that the game here is pretty good. It was a real good opportunity for us to send a message but, credit to him, he’s the guy that has done it. He’s got in shape. He’s matured on and off the ice. And now he’s in a good spot.”
Upon his return to the Admirals he quickly found his stride. It took him three games before getting his first career AHL point. The rest of that season, from the time of his recall to Milwaukee from Cincinnati, Bitetto produced a goal and five assists.
The start to his 2013-14 season was simply explosive on the offensive side of the puck. He tallied nine goals and ten assists in twenty-nine games. His work on the power-play helped him to six of those nine goals. Part of his success to last season came with an assist from a teammate in the previous off-season.
“Give that credit to Mike Liambas for sure,” smiled Bitetto. “He came up with a whole diet regimen and I followed it pretty much to a T. It worked well. It’s pretty cool to have a teammate help you out in that sense. He pushed me throughout that whole summer. He would call me. And I didn’t have anybody to take my body fat at the time so it was like, going into camp, a little shocked, Then they told me it was at nine percent. It was, wow! This is great! The diet, you feel so much better and it is something that I follow today. It’s been successful.”
The hot scoring rampage that Bitetto started the 2013-14 season off with didn’t quite carry with him when the calendar changed over. In seventy-three games of work his season ended with eleven goals and twenty-five assists. A more important statistic for a defenseman is the plus/minus rating to which, for all his scoring, was a rough minus-thirteen.
In short, as good of a season as it was for him it was more of a foundation to build off of and better himself moving forward. That is precisely what the 2014-15 season has been. His work rate on defense for the Admirals has been among the best all year long. His plus-nine rating is second to only Joe Piskula among all Admiral defensemen. Bitetto has been able to provide a key role on a young Admirals defensive nucleus without sacrificing his offensive game. His twenty-five points this season is second to Taylor Aronson for scoring by a defenseman on the Admirals in 2014-15.
It really came as no surprise then that this level of play was going to get the NHL recognition it deserved. With injuries up-top, the Predators gave Bitetto his first career call up on 17 January, 2015. He made his NHL debut at a place any original six fan growing up would love to play: the Joe Louis Arena in Detroit, Michigan.
“You dream of that as a kid,” said Bitetto. “When you finally get there it’s kind of surreal. You’re still in the awe feeling, you get sent back down that night, called back a week or two later, and then I was up there for two weeks. I wish everybody could get a taste of it because it makes you want to be there so much more.”
In two years time, Bitetto went from getting called back up from the ECHL in Cincinnati to being called up to the NHL with Nashville. He’s had the opportunity this season to study the game up close from the likes of Shea Weber.
“He’s one of the best defensemen in the world,” said Bitetto. “That’s pretty cool to say that I was on the same team as him. Watching him, his work habits, and the little things that he does it’s awesome. It really is. It’s cool to be a part of. It’s special.”
His most recent spell in the NHL included one more highlight moment. On 19 February, 2015 the Predators had a road game against the New York Islanders. It’s the final season that the Islanders will be playing in the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum after 43 years of hockey. Raised in Island Park, less than a half hour away from the Nassau Coliseum, Bitetto had plenty of family and friends in attendance for that game. One better than getting the nod into the lineup was being given the start. He had officially gone from Cincinnati, to Milwaukee, and back home as an NHL caliber player.
“[Colton Sissons] and I both watched every game that he played,” said Mike Liambas of his teammate Bitetto playing in the NHL. “Just seeing somebody like – he’s one of our really good buddies on the team – and if it happened to anyone it would be awesome – but especially a guy like him who has worked his way up from the [ECHL] to the [AHL] to the show now it’s unbelievable. I feel as happy as like I got called up when he did. It’s awesome seeing a guy come so far and work his tail off to get where he was.”
For the time being, Bitetto is back with the Admirals in the AHL looking to help boost his team for a Calder Cup run. His time in Milwaukee, Wisconsin has proved to be something more than just a launch pad for him as well. It’s quickly become a place that he has enjoyed calling home.
“I like it here,” smiled Bitetto. “I think out of all the cities I’ve lived in, besides New York, it’s my favorite city for sure. The people here, the restaurants, and the atmosphere. It’s cool. I spent last summer here pretty much, three out of the four months we were off, and you go to Summerfest and all the festivals that they have. During the winter I got into hunting. I was never a hunter. You can’t really hunt in Long Island.”
Small credit can be given to fellow Antigo native and defensive partner Piskula for getting Bitetto’s Sconnie game up. He has a few more goals to accomplish as far as his Wisconsin experience goes and one of those is to get his first buck. Considering getting to the NHL has been scratched off the bucket list I can’t imagine it’ll be too long before he pulls the trigger on that accomplishment as well.
Anthony Bitetto Feature Interview (14 minutes):