Lance Pitlick was a player who brought his lunch bucket to work every night that he was in the lineup for the Ottawa Senators. What he lacked in pure skill he made up for in heart and work ethic. If every player had his effort level, there would be no complaints about players taking nights off or having a bad game.
Pitlick played parts of 5 seasons with the Senators between 1995 and 1999. He played 228 games, netting 11 goals and 25 assists in his Ottawa career.
In the first of what I hope will be an ongoing series this summer, I had the opportunity to speak with Lance Pitlick about his time growing up, his NHL memories and what he is up to now. I managed to catch him just after he had returned to his Minnesota home from the Brick Atom hockey tournament in Edmonton. (My questions and comments are in red, Lance’s answers are in black).
Lance, how was the Edmonton Tournament?
It is a once in a lifetime experience for the kids. It is like no other tournament, it is by far the best 10 year old tournament out there. It is for one birth year, and all the games are at the (West Edmonton) Mall there. Everything is a pressure cooker, if you don’t bring a good team you don’t get asked back. Even if you bring a good team it is so hard to win. The Championship game was the Toronto Bulldogs and a Saskatchewan team. Mike Sillinger was the coach of the Saskatchewan team, I played with him in Florida. It 1-1 game, 10 minutes 5 on 5 overtime followed by 5 minute 4-on-4 and the same for 3-on-3 and then it went to 2-on-2. I’ve never seen 10 year olds play that type of hockey. They are so disciplined and don’t make mistakes. It is really cool.
Were you coaching in the tournament, or just there as a hockey dad?
Yes, I coach a AAA program here, the Minnesota Blades. I coached my 97’s, Rem, my older son, for 5 years, before I switched to my younger boy. So I have a few more years of coaching and then we’ll re-evaluate, to find out what the heck we’re doing. Its is a sickness is what it is.
You grew up in Minnesota and got drafted by the North Stars. Were they your team growing up?
Things have changed now, my parents weren’t big sports people, and we didn’t have the TV coverage that you have in Canada. I bet you I went to 2 North Stars games growing up, and it wasn’t in my hopes and dreams to one day play in the NHL. When I got to high school age and started getting letters from different colleges that I thought “OK, maybe I could play college somewhere” but the NHL was never a dream and then when I did get drafted my senior year, it really didn’t mean much, I was a late draft pick. And then in my sophomore year some agents started approaching me and I thought “Geez, maybe this is a possibility”
You played 4 years for the University of Minnesota. Was the NHL the goal in University, since as back then it wasn’t the traditional route to the NHL it is today?
Minnesota was the only school that invited me out for a recruiting trip, and they offered me a half scholarship, and I thought “If someone is giving me money to go to school I will take it.” It worked out that I ended up getting a full ride every year. I thought “Boy, if you can get an education and still play hockey, why not?”
You weren’t exactly known as an offensive defenseman. How would you describe your game and your style of play?
At every level, it doesn’t matter if it’s the NHL, the minors or college hockey, every player on those teams at one time during their youth hockey career was the best player on their team. And I was told by a coach that roles become very important and you have to find something that makes you special over everyone else and you can do on a consistent basis that other players won’t do that and for me it was being a physical, stay-at-home defenseman. So I really tried to have an impact on the game by having a couple big hits and just to be a consistent player that when I got the puck I tried to make good first passes and not cough it up.
So in your coaching, do you have systems in place at that (10 year old) level, or do you just let them go out and use their skills?
Its very similar to that, but even more difficult at 10 years old, because everyone is the best player in each association. You pluck kids from within a couple hours radius. When they are the top offensive players it is tough to get them to (realize) that “you need to play defense”. We do have some systems in place, but in Minnesota its different than a lot of places, especially up in Canada. Some of the higher end teams these kids are not pigeonholed, but they are slotted into positions based on ability or size. I mean some of the defensemen that were up at the Brick Tournament were doing things that you don’t see at the bantam level, they just look like such seasoned hockey players, I couldn’t believe it.
There is a big difference, in terms of skill level, than when you or I were growing up.
I would say that the internet has broadened everyone’s horizons. If I didn’t see the Highlight of the Night on ESPN, I never saw (hockey). Now, they can go on YouTube and they can see every cool goal, and they can watch it over and over, and they can see what is possible. You know, you never saw anyone picking the puck up with their stick blade off the ice and throwing it in the net. You see that all the time. And now you are seeing kids pull it between their legs and roof it. The skill level and the exposure of what’s possible is such a great thing. Coaches are much more educated nowadays and you see all these training facilities popping up all over North America, its gone from being a winter sport to a year round sport. Kids are really focusing on one sport at such a young age, a much younger age than when I was a kid.
You got 16 goals in your NHL career. Do you remember your first NHL goal, and how many of the 16 do you remember?
I can remember every one of them. My first one was against Mike Richter in Madison Square Garden, so that was pretty cool. It bounced off about two of their players and found its way into the net.
That’s pretty honest of you to not say it was a top-shelf wrister.
No, no, scoring wasn’t my deal, I barely knew where it was going off my stick. I just didn’t want to get it blocked. Funny story, when I played high school hockey, I was on the power play. And then I never played the power play in college, and never played in Ottawa, and I got a shift when I was playing in Florida. We were playing Tampa Bay, we had a 5-on-3 power play, and the coach said “Hey, get out there Pitter”. So I went out there and I ended up coughing up the puck and they scored a short-hander. So I come back to the bench and he goes “Now do you see why you aren’t on the power play?” and I go “Yep, I got it!”
What is your favourite NHL memory?
For me, my first game in the NHL was pretty special. I was in Prince Edward Island (AHL Senators). It was right after the lockout and things got going again. My wife suggested “Maybe if you fight more they might give you an opportunity.” I was having a pretty good year in the minors, and I said “you know what, if I can’t make it playing the way I do, then its just not going to happen. So I end up just (messing) around for a couple more hours and then I get the call up from Ottawa. The only way to get on and off the Island was the ferry, so my wife asked “Can I come” and I said “I have no idea. Why don’t you let me get there and feel it out and see what happens.” So I fly out and the next morning do the pre-game skate. Actually when I got there I called her and she is usually pretty happy, but she was very short and said “glad you got there, you must be tired and I will talk to you tomorrow, OK, Bye”. So I do the pregame skate and meal and I take my nap and get up. She knows I leave three and a half hours before the game and all of a sudden a knock on the door and its her. I go “what the hell are you doing here?” and she says “It’s my first game too, and I don’t want to miss it.” So what she did, was when I talked to her the night before, she had to rush to get to the last ferry, drove all the way to Ottawa from PEI through a snowstorm, drove 18 hours straight and got there, and she was there for the first game with me. That was pretty cool.
Really, all the years in Ottawa were just fantastic. The first year the team made the playoffs was just so magical. We went on such a huge run at the end of the season, and beat Buffalo in the last game of the season to make the playoffs. Those memories are just ingrained and my wife and I always say that if we weren’t living in Minnesota, we would be living in Ottawa.
How many Pitlick jerseys did you see around the city during your time in Ottawa?
Heh heh, I give Bruce Garrioch (from the Ottawa Sun) and a few other writers (credit). They built me up and I got to have a name in that city. There weren’t a ton of them (jerseys), but the ones that had them on, they were big fans.
I asked that because a good friend of mine has a Pitlick jersey, and he still wears it with pride.
Its funny, during the playoffs, I think it was the second round, and all of a sudden I get a call on my business 1-800 number and they go “Is this Lance Pitlick?” I go “Yeah”, and he goes “this is so-and-so from Ottawa and we’re watching the playoffs, and we remember you and you were f%@$ing awesome.” They were shit-faced, but to have those moments, and be remembered is pretty cool.
Do you have any regrets from your NHL career?
I’m lucky that I don’t. All I wanted was one game in the NHL and a hockey card. I ended up playing 12 years pro and met some really nice, cool people along the way and enjoyed every city that we played in. We felt very fortunate, my wife and I and family to have had the opportunity. So no, I don’t (have regrets), I ended on my terms and I wish I could have played another year or two but my body just wouldn’t allow me to do so. When I retired, it was crystal clear for me, I had nothing else to accomplish.
Your nephew Tyler was drafted last summer in the second round by the Oilers. Does he come to you for advice, and if so what do you tell him?
That’s the difficult part about being a player. You are in town for three months of the year and then you are gone for 8-10 months. Everything he has accomplished he has earned on his own, and he has done a great job. He actually signed with them a couple of months ago. He still needs time to physically mature but he will be a player. I have talked to him, given him some things about what it is to be a player, and its more than just playing the game of hockey, and how to conduct yourself on and off the ice and with the public. Every day you have to put time in to being a player.
Does he pattern his game after you at all?
He is an offensive player. He is like 6’3”, has good skill and good lateral movement and can finish. So he will be the one that gets the points and the glory, but with that comes the pressure too.
So other than coaching, what are you up to now?
I remodeled some cabins that I bought they were kind of run down, and did that for a couple of years when I retired. They always say it takes you about two years to figure out how you are going to fit into the world when you retire from the game and that’s what happened.
Then I got into coaching and I ended up getting hired by the youth hockey program that my kid plays in to work with the novice kids doing skills clinics. So I would divide the ice into 5 or 6 stations, each station would have a skill set that they would be working on. The stickhandling stations I would get really frustrated, (because) after about 4 weeks because I couldn’t really see a noticeable change, because I couldn’t keep their attention long enough to do anything substantial. I remembered as a kid that I would line up a bunch of pucks a foot apart and stickhandle through them, and I would spend more time lining up the pucks than actually stickhandling. So I built something where I elevated where the pucks would be and then connected them all. So they can slide the puck through the opening but they had to lift their stick up and over it. The kids just ate it up and I ended up manufacturing our first product called the Sweet Hands Stickhandling Trainer, and now we have a full product line, and basically we are in the business of giving kids the opportunity to get better and set up their own stickhandling and shooting training facility in their garage or basement.
The thing about coaching, is that a lot of people take it for granted that if you played at a high level that you’re going to be a good coach. That’s not the case, and I was totally out of my element. I could teach some skating and some stickhandling, but it was freaking hard. I have done a lot of research over the last 8 years on teaching techniques, not just in the US & Canada, but Europe. We would give our teams stickhandling homework assignments and my kid just ate it up and got to the point where he could do stuff that I couldn’t even do, and wanted more. So I was introduced to a guy named Sean Skinner who had a DVD series on stickhandling and I actually went to the rink I grew up in for about 7 months, about 4 times a week and I would bring a little DVD player out there and I would do the drills and exercises. I was just amazed at how much content there was out there. I remember every year that I was playing, at the end of the year meetings with the coaches the would say that “you gotta work on those hands” and I would say “OK, what would you like me to do?” but there was nothing in terms of drills. So I partnered up with Sean Skinner and we came up with stickhandling protocols and homework assignments. So we have 4 different 10 week programs we offer now, and once a kid signs up they will have access to weekly homework assignments, every drill in the homework assignment has a short video clip where the drill is explained and then we demonstrate it. They watch the videos and print out the plan and they do that for the week.
So they can do this online?
Yep, they can do it online and can access it from most hand-held devices, so we are trying to get it into their world, the technology world, for the delivery of it. We are in our third year and things are going great. I have yet to have one parent call up and say “You know what, my kid did the program, put the time in to it and he still sucks.”
Where can people go to find the program?
Its Sweethockeytraining.com and the program is called Online Stickhandling. Basically we are in the education business. We are teaching players and kids how to get better, and showing them, because most players don’t know how to get better at it. There is a structured way that you have to go through the steps in order to get the stickhandling ability.
How old is your oldest son now?
My oldest is 14, and my youngest is 10.
So will we be seeing another Pitlick on the way to the NHL?
He is very passionate about the game and works his ass off. He is a smaller kid but is very gifted with the hands. He is the total opposite of me. But every once in a while he’ll throw a hipcheck that makes his dad proud!
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I encourage you to check out some of Sweet Hockeys products and online programs, especially if you have a budding young hockey player in your household. Tell them SenShot sent you!
I would like to thank Lance Pitlick for agreeing to take some time to talk with SenShot, and wish him all the best in the future.
Thanks for reading and as always, comments are welcomed.
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