Bemidji State goalie Bitzer backstops Beavers to new heights
BEMIDJI, Minn.—A Hobey Baker finalist doesn't walk through your door just any day.
Bemidji State knows that.
Last season, the program boasted its first top-10 finalist for college hockey's Heisman since Joel Otto in 1984.
This season, Michael Bitzer wants more than just the MacNaughton Cup, which the Beavers claimed last year as Western Collegiate Hockey Association regular season champions.
The goaltender is aiming for a Broadmoor Cup, a piece of hardware that would also indicate an NCAA tournament berth.
If last year is any indication, Bitzer will play as crucial a role in the Beavers' success as anyone. The former Moorhead Spud posted a statline that would make any goaltender jealous.
Bitzer finished 2016-17 with the nation's best goals against average (1.71) and the most shutouts (six) in the NCAA. His .932 save percentage was good for third in the country.
"Personally, I don't like to set too many goals based off numbers and stuff," Bitzer said. "I think the big thing is just try to give the team a chance to win night in and night out. If I take care of my job, I know they'll take care of theirs."
Those numbers were good enough to make Bitzer a finalist for the Mike Richter Award as the nation's best goaltender, as well as a CCM First-Team All-American, All-WCHA First Team selection and WCHA Player of the Year.
But BSU's veteran netminder doesn't spend much time thinking about those accolades.
"That's all in the past now," Bitzer said. "It's cool, I don't know. My family likes it a lot and they like that kind of stuff. But I think that's in the past now. When my hockey days are over and I have kids, I can tell them about it but right now it's in the past and just focus on this season."
Perhaps the number that shows just how much Bitzer has meant to the Beavers is 2,355.22. That's how many minutes he played over 39 appearances last season, the most in the country.
"He's been very consistent for us," BSU head coach Tom Serratore said. "So you know exactly what you're getting out of him. He's gonna be consistent. He's gonna be the hardest-working player on the ice."
Factor in the 28 games he started as a freshman and 34 as a sophomore, and any hockey fan can see how important Bitzer is to Bemidji State.
"We know he's our best player," Serratore said. "He's been our best player for the last three years. When you have that kind of player that provides that kind of leadership, he's your steady influence on the team."
Bitzer's steady presence in net puts his teammates at ease.
"He's my roommate so I don't want to pump his tires too much," senior forward Gerry Fitzgerald said jokingly. "But he's by far, I want to say, the best goalie in the league so we definitely have some confidence when he's in net. We're lucky to have him again for one more year."
"When he's playing good, we worry a little less because we know he's gonna stop the puck for us," senior forward Kyle Bauman said. "He works hard every day and never takes days off. He's so professional about what he does."
The word "professional" comes up a lot when discussing Bitzer.
"He's your consummate professional," Serratore said. "Everything he does—how he acts, how he responds, how he plays, how he conducts himself—is all professional."
Knowing how many minutes he will get, Bitzer has tried to improve his diet—mainly eliminating sweets—to augment his stamina. He's already 15 to 20 pounds lighter than he was as an underclassmen.
Coffee remains a part of Bitzer's diet, however. The goalie has a new spot to get his caffeine fix before practice, and a new bet with his roommate to boot.
"It used to be Dunn Bros., but now with the Tim Hortons on the way, we're gonna have to mix it up," Bitzer said. "Me and Myles Fitzgerald have a bet so if he scores, I have to buy his. If I get a shutout, he has to buy mine. So we'll see who wins the bet and who picks the spot."
Regardless of who wins that bet, Bitzer and his fellow seniors want to end their collegiate careers on a high note.
Another MacNaughton Cup and the program's first Broadmoor Trophy would do that—goals that were set from the get-go for Bitzer when he arrived on campus three years ago.
"Those were goals set before we came in," Bitzer said, "and it's cool to see how far we've come, but at the same time, I want to see us take that next step and see all four years finally come together right at the end."