By Andrew Vitalis, Special to WCHA.com
The number on the back of his jersey pretty much says it all.
In coffee houses and watering holes across the WCHA landscape there is always plenty of topics that are routinely debated when it comes to college hockey. One of the areas that is not subject to debate is this one….Michael Bitzer is the best goaltender the Bemidji State men's hockey program has ever seen. Actually, head coach Tom Serratore will even take it a step further. Bitzer is the best hockey player who has ever come through the program.
"I think he's the best player we've had at the Division One level since I've been here; he's the best player we've had," explained Serratore. "He's been the most impactful player, but a goaltender can do that. He's played in around 140 games and his statistics are off the charts. I think we can honestly say he's the best player we've had."
High praise, but completely justified. And if there is someone who can make that statement, it's him. Now in his 17th season as head coach, Serratore has been behind the Beavers' bench since the 2001-02 season and arrived on scene shortly after BSU moved to Division One. Over that time, the Bemidji State alumnus has coached over 600 games, so when he says Michael Bitzer is the best Division One hockey player who has put on a Bemidji State uniform; the statement does not go unnoticed.
Even though he does his best to avoid the spotlight, Bitzer's play doesn't go unnoticed either. Now a senior and poised for the final stretch run of his college hockey career, when you look at his career numbers it's hard to argue with Serratore's assessment. After arriving on campus to kick off his college hockey career in 2014- fresh off two quality seasons in the USHL playing for the Lincoln Stars- Bitzer knew he was going to get an opportunity to compete for the starting spot. When he looks back on that period of his life now, at the time, that's all he wanted.
"The big thing for me was the excitement and the tradition. Coach Serratore preached tradition and winning. They talked about how important that tradition was and how they wanted to keep that moving forward. That was big. I also wanted an opportunity and I was told I would get one here, it just depended on what I was going to do with it. That was really all I could ask for," recalled Bitzer. "I just wanted an opportunity to play and I also wanted to play somewhere where they took a lot of pride in winning."
"You don't know how high-end the kids are going to get. I knew we had a good goaltender coming in; I watched him play against my son growing up. so I watched him a lot as he played peewee's, bantam's and high school," continued Serratore. "He would always win tight games; he would always win the close ones. He was always the difference. He would make that big save at the right time, so we knew what we were getting. I saw enough of him, so I knew what we were getting, but to what degree, you never know."
If there is one word that has been used time and time again when it comes to summing up Michael Bitzer, it is consistency. Serratore saw that consistency right away. In Bitzer's first collegiate start against North Dakota, the Moorhead, Minn. native had a ho-hum performance; allowing just one goal on 26 shots, propelling the Beavers to a 5-1 road win. Everyone paying attention knew you weren't supposed to beat North Dakota in their barn- especially during the first series of the season! Right from the very beginning, Beaver fans saw that Bitzer was going to be a game-changer who embraced the challenge of performing in big games against big-time teams. From there, after sharing the goaltending duties with then-senior Andrew Walsh through the first part of December, Bitzer officially took the keys to the program on December 12th, 2014 against Northern Michigan. After leading the Beavers to a 4-2 win, Bitzer started the next night….then the next weekend….and the weekend after. By the time he completed his freshman season, the former Frank Brimsek winner (Minnesota senior goalie of the year in 2011-12) had compiled a rookie campaign consisting of a 14-11-3 record and a goals-against average of 1.80. He also finished that year with a save percentage of .929 to go along with four shutouts. For his efforts, Bitzer was named WCHA Rookie of the Year. From a statistical standpoint, one of the most impressive numbers surrounding Bitzer's freshman season might be this; when he played, the Beavers were 14-11-3. When he didn't play, BSU's record that season was 2-6-2.
"I knew that I was going to get an opportunity the first four games that season. My plan was to go in and give our team a chance to win and just take what I could from the older guys and develop every day," stated Bitzer. "I thought if I took care of those things and did things the right way, everything else would take care of itself. Just go in and do the things you are supposed to do day in and day out."
That's the thing about Michael Bitzer; that's what he has always done. If you are looking for an outgoing personality dominated by one-liners and intense slogans, you're not going to get it. He lets his game do the talking….always has and always will. After a dominating freshman season he could have let the surge of success change who he was and the goalie he was striving to be. He could have, but that's not his style.
Instead, he quietly turned one career season into another. As a sophomore, despite finishing with a season record below the .500 mark, Bitzer posted a goals-against average of 2.16 and a save percentage of 91 percent. In addition, over the span of 34 games, Bitzer grabbed six shutouts. Along with being named WCHA Defensive Player of the Week twice, he also excelled away from the ice and was named to the All-WCHA Academic Team. Still, as his résumé grew, Bitzer remained calm. He remained quiet. He remained consistent.
"When your best player is your goaltender, it allows you to sleep a lot better. If you are going to have a tough night; if you are struggling a little bit, he's there and he's going to step up to the plate for you," mentioned Serratore. "Same thing when it comes to your special teams, on our penalty kill, you have him there to bail you out. He's a guy that you really rely on. When you have someone like him, you probably take him for granted a little bit, but you definitely realize how much you are going to miss him when he's gone. He's just so consistent; he's so steady back there. He has been a calming influence for us, that's for sure."
If you had to pick a season to illustrate what Serratore and others are referring to when talking about Bitzer's influence, all you need to do is put the Beavers' 2016-17 season under the microscope. Last season, the stars aligned for Bemidji State and Michael Bitzer was the architect.
Every coach knows that first and foremost, if you are going to hoist the hardware at the end of the year, it starts and ends with goaltending. With that in mind, Bitzer and the Beavers won their first four games of the season by a combined score of 10-2. During that stretch, the then-junior made 84 saves and posted two shutouts. As the season rolled on, so did Bitzer. In 39 games he allowed two-or-less goals in a game 29 times, including four more shutouts. When it was all said and done, Bitzer finished his junior year first in the WCHA (and the nation) in goals-against average (1.71), first in the conference in save percentage (93%) and was named WCHA Player of the Year. In addition, on the national stage, along with being named to the AHCA All-American First Team, he was named a Hobey Baker finalist. More important than all of that was the MacNaughton Cup trophy that the Beavers were able to hoist as WCHA regular season champions.
"Winning the MacNaughton Cup for sure," commented Bitzer, when asked about his greatest college memory to this point in his career. "When we came in we wanted to win a championship and to get a regular season championship; the first in school history, that was a big deal and that was something our guys were really proud of."
That season and throughout his career, whenever Serratore and company have needed a big-time performance, Bitzer has responded. Now in his senior year, Bitzer recently posted his 21st career shutout, which ranks him second all-time in NCAA men's hockey history (and first in the illustrious history of the WCHA Men's League). To date, he has 65 career wins, meaning nearly 1/3 of his career victories have been of the shutout variety. And still, as he continues to silence his opponents one game at a time, the nine-time WCHA Defensive Player of the Week has quietly gone about his business with a consistency that has rarely been seen by anyone wearing a Bemidji State uniform, past or present.
"I can't sit here and pinpoint everything because he's so mentally tough. The difference with a lot of goalies lies in what they have between the ears, and he's so strong when it comes to what he has between the ears. He's been so darn consistent over his four years," mentioned Serratore. "Even a bad goal doesn't shake him up. A goalie gives up a bad goal sometimes and you're like oh boy. I think that actually makes him more determined."
"It's something that my dad always preached growing up and always talked about- having fun with the guys and to enjoy playing the game, but once it's time to play you have to be ready to play and ready to go out there and do your job," explained Bitzer, commenting on the level of focus he's now known for. "I just think that is something my dad has told me my whole life, and that's something I have always applied and learned at a young age to focus on the game when it's time to play.
"I am a pretty quiet guy and to hear people talk about me, sometimes it's a little uncomfortable, but it's also something I have learned to deal with," continued Bitzer. "I just try to do things the way they are supposed to be done and I think people see that. I think people respect guys who play the game that way. I just want to be someone who does those things the right way."
Focus, consistency and respect. The first two categories are attributes that helped Bitzer grow his legacy and the third one- respect; that's what has permanently stamped his mark on the end-boards of rinks across the WCHA. Places like Anchorage, Alaska and Marquette, Michigan; or, Huntsville, Alabama and Fairbanks, Alaska. Over his last four years, Bitzer has been especially good against those four programs and has a winning record against them all. For example, against Northern Michigan, over the last four seasons, Bitzer has gone 9-2-4 and has stopped 95 percent of the shots he's faced. Against Alaska Anchorage, Bitzer has won nine of 10. In those 10 games versus the Seawolves, he's stopped 190 of the 202 shots he faced. Everywhere you go throughout the league, players and coaches alike have witnessed just how good a goalie can be.
"Mike has been able to be consistent over four years. More directly he has been consistent in games. The tougher the game or situation the better he seems to play. It shows his level of focus," replied Matt Thomas, Alaska Anchorage head coach. "You try and disrupt him, take away his eyes; make him uncomfortable. He's been great at fighting through those obstacles and it's showed in his shutout record."
"To be honest, I'm usually not a big numbers guy but our radio announcer has been bringing them up a lot lately. It's pretty cool to look back on things. Like I said, I just try to do the right things every day and keep growing as a player. I think just doing those things and focusing on the right things, those numbers have taken care of themselves," remarked Bitzer. "I think it's focus and preparation. I think in big games, you have to play within your comfort zone and you have to be you. When you prepare the right way I think those things take care of themselves; just being out there not trying to do too much. If you are not prepared, you are going to be pressing in those tough situations. I think the big thing is just preparing myself day and in day out; that allows me to just be me when we get to those crunch times and those games mean a little more."
Now with two games left in the regular season, Bitzer and the Beavers skate into Mankato this weekend for a series with the Mavericks; the number one team in the WCHA and fourth-ranked team in the country. After that it's tournament time and a date with Michigan Tech. As each game passes, the reality that his college career is winding down begins to soak in more and more, but don't expect his approach to change. Currently second in the WCHA in goals-against average (2.15); Bitzer doesn't know how to sweat. Per usual, despite the upcoming challenges, he continues to forge ahead with a quiet confidence in his eyes and ice water in his veins.
"That's a good analogy, it really is," replied Serratore. "It's a tough position to stay consistent and that's why I respect his game so much and why I respect Mike so much. It's tough to be the quarterback; it's tough to be the pitcher. It's difficult- eyes are on you all the time. He's just so mentally tough and I think that's another one of his attributes you can talk about. He has that inner drive and that competiveness that every coach wants and every player wants to have. With him in the nets he gives us a chance to do something special each and every night."
History has shown already, when it comes to Michael Bitzer and the Bemidji State Beavers, something as simple as a chance can lead to so much more.