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For Crookston's Paul Bittner, his decision to skip high school hockey pays off

CROOKSTON -- At age 4, Paul Bittner proclaimed that he'd be playing in the NHL some day.

Fourteen years, three feet of growth and countless ice time later -- much of it on the lighted, snowbanks-as-boards rink in his family's backyard on Houston Avenue -- he appears headed to make his pre-school prediction/dream a reality. At least he should reach that dream in the eyes of the people who should know.

They are the experts with the NHL Central Scouting Bureau, which has the 18-year-old Bittner as the No. 19 North American skater in the midterm draft rankings. Unless his final rating drops dramatically before the June draft, he should be a first-round pick.

In comparison, No. 19 draft picks with UND roots have been current squad member Nick Schmaltz in 2014 and Landon Wilson in 1993. For added perspective, UND's Zach Parise was picked 17th in 2003, UND's Drew Stafford was 13th in 2004 and Henry Boucha of Warroad, Minn., was No. 16 in 1971.

That's no guarantee that Bittner will necessarily reach the NHL's upper echelon as Parise has. But it reflects the high-end potential he has displayed during his third season with the Portland (Ore.) Winterhawks, a major juniors team in Canada's Western Hockey League. A left-winger, he's 6-foot-4 and 206 pounds -- 20 pounds more than when he arrived, with room to add more. Size is a hot commodity in this age of the NHL.

"The mesmerizing thing about Paul is that he's 6-foot-4 and 200-plus, yet he also skates really well and has real good hockey sense," said Jamie Kompon, the Winterhawks' coach/general manager. "With his size and skating skill, he has the ability to protect the puck and shoot the puck.

"He has a unique skill set in that he plays both ends of the rink equally well. He has a 200-foot game. If you can't be trusted in one end of the ice, it will bite you in the butt."

A road less-traveled

In pursuit of his NHL dream, Bittner has taken the road less-traveled by United States hockey players.

At age 15, after being the leading goal-scorer on the Crookston Pirates varsity as a freshman, he opted to play in the major juniors, which is deemed a professional organization.That results in a loss of amateur status in the United States, meaning he can no longer play high school or college hockey.

"It was basically putting all your rocks in one basket," Bittner said about his decision. "I was concerned with me giving all that up, but at the time, it felt right."

Not everyone in Crookston was enamored with his decision to play in the WHL, one of three major juniors leagues under the Canadian Hockey League umbrella. After years, and even decades, of lagging behind perennial northwestern Minnesota powerhouses such as Roseau, Warroad and East Grand Forks, Crookston was losing a top-end player. And the player's father, Jon Bittner, was the team's head coach.

"It was obviously a difficult decision because we have great ties to Crookston and high school hockey in general and also a great love for community-based programs," Jon Bittner said. "They came to us; we never made any phone calls. They have scouts everywhere. But this was a one in a million opportunity.

"Paul felt this was his best option for what he wanted, which was to become a professional hockey player."

While major juniors is the usual pathway for Canadian players to reach the NHL, United States players typically use high school, amateur junior leagues such as the USHL and/or college play to grow their talents with the hopes of reaching the professional level.

But major juniors has its advantages development-wise. For instance, Bittner's coach during his first two years with the Winterhawks was Mike Johnston, now head coach of the NHL's Pittsburgh Penguins.

And, the Winterhawks are owned by billionaire oilman Bill Gallacher, who is known for providing whatever the team needs.

"My dream was always to play professionally, but I never thought it was reachable until I talked to Mike Johnston and Jamie Kompon," Paul Bittner said.

Teammates understood

Former teammate Doug Larson, now a Crookston junior, said the players understood his decision to play major juniors in pursuit of a pro career..

"Some (adults) thought of it as selfish and wondered why you'd move away from your family at age 15," Larson said. "There will always be some people with negative feelings.

"But those of us who knew Paul were pretty positive toward it and excited for him. For sure, anyone else among us would do the same thing given the chance."

From their hockey start in grade school, Larson said, Bittner was bigger and more skilled than everyone else in their age group.

"Even as a Squirt and Pee Wee, you could tell Pauly was something special," Larson said. "He'd have 3-4 guys covering him all the time, leaving me and others all alone, and he'd get us the puck. He wasn't selfish at all.

"But, if we were behind and he was mad or frustrated, he would pretty much go and make things happen."

NHL still years away

Even if Bittner is a first-round pick, it likely will take at least two more seasons after the current one before he's NHL-ready.

Many first-round draft picks in professional football and basketball play -- and even stand out -- immediately. But hockey typically takes longer to develop, unless they own Jonathan Toews-level skill.

No matter where he's drafted, Bittner likely will return to the Winterhawks for a fourth season. That's because players aren't allowed to play in the NHL's minor leagues until they're 19 -- and Bittner will still be 18 when next season starts.

He is allowed to go directly to the NHL at 18, but Kompon said he probably will need the one season with the Winterhawks and one or two years in the minors before he's ready for the top level.

"Paul still has a few things to learn for consistency," Kompon said. "It takes a special person to come into the NHL at 18 years old. That's a big learning curve from major juniors to the NHL. If you're going to the NHL, you need to contribute there."

Waiting for the sweater

Bittner recently played in the Canadian Hockey League's Prospects All-Star game in London, Ont. But his life is not all hockey, as he attends Sunset High, a school in a Portland suburb, and lives with a billet family.

But, like the precocious 4-year-old from 14 years ago, his goal remains intact.

"It's pretty cool to be ranked that high," he said. "But that's just a list in January. My ultimate goal is to get my name called and pull on the sweater of the team that picks me."

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