Sedins find missing Bitz to puzzle
Power forward has fit in nicely alongside superstar twins since call- up from AHL
CALGARY ear the end of the Vancouver Canucks’ practice here Friday, Daniel and Henrik Sedin quietly explained to Byron Bitz how the National Hockey League’s top- ranked power play operates and what it would require from the winger.
Bitz has had innumerable conversations about hockey over the last two years.
Sometimes the talks were about his confounding injury issues or whether his fourth surgery would be his last or maybe even what he might do if he never played again because, although Bitz has an Ivy League business degree, the only thing he really likes besides hockey is working on his uncle’s farm outside Saskatoon.
But we can safely say that Friday’s briefing was the first time the 27- year- old winger has been counselled by a pair of NHL scoring champions about what to do on the Canucks’ power play.
A week ago, Bitz was in the minors. A month before that, he was unsure if his pro career could really be restarted.
And tonight, against the Calgary Flames, Bitz will skate again on the top line beside the Sedins as the Canucks try to sweep a four- game road trip.
“I guess you never know,” Bitz said.
“I thought I had a career going two years ago and that got thrown off the tracks. You just take it day by day.”
Major surgeries on his hip, groin and abdomen caused Bitz to go more than 21 months between games. After a September sports hernia operation that Bitz figures will have to be his last if he is to salvage a career in hockey, the 6- foot5, 215- pound forward was assigned last month to the Chicago Wolves of the American Hockey League.
Due to ongoing health issues with winger Chris Higgins, the Canucks recalled Bitz before their road trip began last Saturday in Denver. In three games — all wins — Bitz has one goal, two assists, a plus- three rating and an impressive fight against Colorado Avalanche enforcer Cody Mcleod.
NHe looks like the capable power forward the Canucks have been missing.
Some creative and sleepdeprived media members have already created a ditty for Bitz that echoes the 1970s hit The Ballroom Blitz. “Are you ready Hank? Aha. Daniel? Yeah. All right fellas, let’s go!” Okay, so nobody’s quitting his night job, but if Bitz keeps scoring he’ll soon be Lord Byron in Vancouver.
Few who remember him from the B. C. Hockey League a decade ago would be much surprised by Bitz this week.
“I think Byron’s skill set is very understated because of his physical presence,” former Nanaimo Clippers’ coach Bill Bestwick said in a telephone interview. “You just think of him as one of those big bodies. But his skill set was very evident to us — his ability and his hockey sense. He had all the intangibles.
“I think what he has that a lot of people don’t have is the capacity to play the game in a lot of different ways.”
As an 18- year- old, Bitz had 27 goals and 73 points in 58 games for Nanaimo and was named the BCHL’S top rookie. It earned Bitz a scholarship to Cornell University and a fourthround selection by the Boston Bruins in the 2003 NHL entry draft.
“I’m under no illusions; longterm I know this is probably not going to be my role,” Bitz said of playing with the Sedins. “[ But] I put up a lot of points in junior and put up decent numbers at Cornell. People pencilled me in more as a grinder, and that’s fine. But I do think I have a little bit of skill to mix in it with it.
“I can make plays if given the opportunity. I was pigeonholed into that [ grinder] role a little bit, but that happens with a lot of guys.”
At the NHL trade deadline two years ago, the Bruins packaged Bitz in the deal for Florida Panther defenceman Dennis Seidenberg. Bitz played only seven games with Florida before the first of his surgeries.
He missed all of last season before the Canucks, one of the few teams that believed Bitz could recover and play, signed him as a free agent in July.
“They could have easily said: ‘ You’ve had so many surgeries and it’s a lost cause,’ ” Bitz said of the Canucks.
“And I wouldn’t have blamed them. But the training staff and [ general manager] Mike Gillis ... every time I’d see Mike he’d say: ‘ We’re going to figure this out; there’s got to be an answer.’ And they did find an answer and I’m playing again. They committed to me and stuck with me and I’m committed to helping them any way I can.”
His darkest time was only a few months ago when Bitz had to undergo yet another hernia operation.
He had the same injury at college, where Bitz also had surgery on his back.
He did his most recent rehabilitation in Vancouver. Bitz’s wife, Christina, and baby, Wyatt, were home in Saskatoon.
“They came out for a few days here and there, but basically I was apart from my family and apart from my little boy and missing some of the big moments of his first year,” Byron said. “That made it more difficult than not playing.”
Wyatt had his first birthday on Feb. 2. Bitz made it home during the NHL all- star break two weeks ago. Wyatt is now walking.
And so, too, figuratively, is his dad.
“He comes from a great family,” Bestwick, Bitz’s old junior coach, said. “It’s a large Catholic family where both parents were teachers. When Byron fought Mcleod, I could just see Louise Bitz [ Byron’s mom] sitting across from us in Section 7 when Byron had his first fight in Nanaimo. His dad was kind of on the edge of his seat, but his mom had her face buried in her hands.
“I coached his brother for three years, too. There’s a resilience and toughness about them.”
Everyone can see that now.