November 3, 2006

Bitz Cherishes New Role as Team Leader

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When senior Byron Bitz learned that he had been named the captain of the men’s hockey team, his emotions ran the gamut from surprise to elation to perhaps a little bit of anxiety. After all, the three previous captains of the team — Ryan Vesce ’04, Mike Knoepfli ’05 and Matt Moulson ’06 — all led their respective squads to NCAA tournament appearances. Even for a program as perennially successful as Cornell, it is a tough standard to live up to.

“I played under some special captains in the past,” Bitz said. “This year, I was given the ‘C’ and I am very proud to wear it.”

Bitz carries the weight of the Cornell captaincy with class and poise. A native of Corman Park, Sask., Bitz has been a staple of the Red’s offensive unit since he was named the ECAC Rookie of the Week in November of 2003. In the first collegiate game of his career — a 5-5 tie with Western Michigan — the center scored twice and added an assist.

Now, after posting the second-highest point total for the Red last season with 28 (10 goals, 18 assists), Bitz is ready to lead the team in ways that statistics cannot recognize.

“I remember when I was a freshman you would look up to the older guys,” he said. “Being a captain is about how you hold yourself and how hard you work — both on and off the ice.”

Bitz leads a Cornell squad that enters the season in an unfamiliar position. No longer the pre-season favorite to win the ECACHL title, the No. 12 Red was picked to finish fourth in the league in both the coaches and media polls. Coupled with a noticeable size decrease and youthful starting lineup, Cornell appears to be more of an underdog this season than traditional powerhouse.

For Bitz, however, the lessened expectations serve as motivational fuel.

“We like being the dark horse,” Bitz said. “It’s a different kind of team here than in years past. We’re smaller, but we still want to be physical. And we want to make it to the Frozen Four just like any other year.”

Bitz’s experiences with the team allow him some perspective on the past. The difficult memories — two consecutive seasons ending in overtime losses — mesh with the special ones in a mental mélange that spans three years of ups and downs in Cornell hockey.

“Sometimes you think back and wish you could have gotten one of those overtime goals,” Bitz said, in reference to Cornell’s loss to Wisconsin last season and Minnesota the year before. “But that’s just the way it is. At that point, you are just one lucky bounce away [from winning].”

Bitz is optimistic about his team’s prospects in his farewell campaign and is looking forward to a few key dates on the Red’s schedule. Next weekend, No. 16 Harvard arrives at Lynah for the first game between the rivals since the Crimson beat Cornell in the ECACHL championship game last season.

“Harvard has been circled for a long time,” Bitz said.

Although he is quick to emphasize the importance of the season, Bitz would not be a senior if he was not thinking about life after graduation. An Applied Economics and Management major with an interest in business and finance, Bitz envisions himself playing professional hockey back in Canada — ideally for the Calgary Flames. Just don’t tell that to the Boston Bruins, who drafted Bitz in 2003 with the 107th overall pick.

“To get paid to play hockey would be a dream come true,” Bitz said.

In the meantime, however, Bitz and the Red have some unfinished business to attend to this season — starting with the squad’s first league road game of the year tonight in Providence, R.I., against Brown. With dozens of road games behind him, Bitz hopes to set the example for the younger players in the contests at Brown and Yale.