Lance Pitlick Interview
Q.This is Kyle from Vintage Minnesota Hockey sitting
down today with Lance Pitlick. Thanks a lot for taking the time
to answer some questions with us today, I really appreciate it.
I know a lot of Minnesota Gophers fans already know the
answer to this first question but for the record where did you
play hockey before coming to the NHL?
A.I started out playing youth hockey in Blaine, then we
moved to New Hope, Minnesota, and I ended up playing High
School for Robbinsdale Cooper, and then went on to play four
years for the Gophers before I turned pro.
Q.Elating to your time with the Gophers, I am sure there are a lot of great moments and memories that you took away from your time playing for the maroon and gold? A.That was some of the best memorable moments I’ve ever had playing hockey. I mean we were very successful. Went to the Final Four three out of the four years that I was there. Didn’t win the National Championship though. And I still have not watched that championship game yet. Q.Is that painful to think about today? A.I don’t know. Someday I will but I just haven’t got around to it. But it was very special. I met my wife at the U. She was a gymnast there, so we share a common thread, you know being a student athlete at the U, and just very happy and fortunate to be able to play for them and the history and tradition. Q.I'm sure you were very proud to pull the "M" over your shoulders every Friday and Saturday night? A.Oh, absolutely. And now I got season tickets there and take my sons to a few games a year. It’s tough when he’s playing hockey; can’t get away much, but it’s always fun to go back. And every once in a while you run into someone that was watching us when we were there. They’re still going strong. It’s a neat building now and I miss the old one. But ya know, ya do what ya gotta do. Q.You said a lot of older people run into you and remember you from your playing days today. For myself, I played hockey for Cooper as well, and in Bantams me and my friend Adam went to your hockey school in Brooklyn Park that you held there. You had been an inspiration for myself, and a lot of guys at Cooper since you skated for the Cooper Hawks as well. A.Thanks. I think back to when we were going there that, that old barn. It took a while I think for people to kinda get used to the new building, but, it’s funny, as long as I played in the NHL here in Minnesota, I’d get, “Oh, didn’t you play for the Gophers?”. So not many people knew that I played pro but they remember when I played for the Gophers. So that’s, it’s nice to get your ego fed once in a while. Q.Reiterating as to what we just talked about, did you ever dream when you were a young boy living in Minnesota that you would one day play in the NHL, or get drafted by your hometown Minnesota North Stars? A.Absolutely not. It wasn’t until I was in probably my freshman year in college that I even thought that playing pro hockey was a possibility. You know, it seemed like such a long shot to even play for the Gophers. It’s ironic that Peter Hankinson and I were the two guys that were there on half scholarships and we ended up just plugging along and being captains our senior year. So I had no aspirations to playing in the NHL or to play pro. It was just like, "alright I’m done playing here and I can still play? Let’s give her a shot." Q.That’s great. Were you a little upset when the North Stars left town, and you didn't get to wear a
North Stars sweater?
A.No, to be honest with you I didn’t even think
that I was even in the ballpark playing in the NHL. I
mean, I was excited to possibly play in the minors
and I thought that would be the extent of my career
and it almost was. But, they just seemed so doggone
Q.You had said you played for Blaine and then
Cooper in High School, but before this tell us about
your time as a child playing hockey in Minnesota?
A.Yea, well one of the reasons I bought this house here is because of that thing out there. (pointing to outside pond next to home) The first thing I did was I wired lights out there and we got flood lights out there and playing on the pond. I remember as a kid just coming home from school, getting something to eat and going out there. Much like, you know you hear about all these other kids that made it to the NHL. It’s was just a passion and it was just fun. It was like going to the park or going to a movie. You just wanted to be out there with your buddies. It’s neat now that I can share that with my kids. Last year we had our first skate on opening day at "Pitlick Ponds". So I invited my Wayzata Squirt A team to come over here after our morning practice, and pretty much all of them came over, and I had to go run and get a net and tighten skates and you know so I’m just sweating when I get up here, I’m just kinda watching them, and all of a sudden I got a knock on the door. It’s Parrish. He’s got his snowsuit on, his choppers and stick and his skates. He says, "I don’t know when I’ll be able to do this again. Let’s get out there and have a little skate with the boys." So, you know, I’d never even said anything to him, but it was just a perfect day and he came out and skated with the kids for about 45 minutes, took pictures with them and all, and you know it was a great memorable day, and that’s Minnesota hockey right there. Q.Yea, definitely. I remember the same thing myself skating at the local rink- Welcome Park in Crystal with my buddies. It’s seems today it’s almost a lost art. There’s a lack of outdoor ice it seems and a lot of communities aren’t even flooding ice any more. So it’s great that you’re (looking out your window of your office), have a great pond here. It reinstates some of that old heritage pond skating for kids, it’s great to see. A.It’s too bad the weather isn’t cooperating a whole lot and it takes a lot to maintain a rink, but
there’s a group of us that I am friends with that have backyard rinks and stuff like that. You know, one guy said, "Gee you run a rink in your backyard? It’s not a passion, it’s a sickness." There’s a lot of hours, but when you see the kids out there skating with a nice full moon, it’s pretty special.
Q.As a youngster, which player or person did you look up to as your role model? A.In the NHL I had, you know, I really didn’t even give a
crap about pro hockey. I was more interested in High School
tournaments, you know when I was really young, but when I got
into High School, I would say the guys that I really looked up to
were Wayne Gretzky and Scott Stevens. I was more a physical
player, so I tried to model my game after him, and every one
wishes they had a little bit of what Gretzky had, and I just never
did. And then, you know, I was very fortunate growing up to just
have great, great youth coaches and my High School coach, Ken
Staples, was a big inspiration for me and a role model for me,
and all the coaches at the U were outstanding. I just had
breakfast with Jack Blatherwick on Tuesday, so I keep in touch
with them and we run into them. Hockey is a small world and
you go to tournaments or games and you’re always running into
people. So it’s neat to be a part of.
Q.Every year at the State High School Hockey Tournament,
and at the Let's Play Hockey Expo show during the tournament it must be sort of a homecoming?
A.It’s fun. It’s neat that I’m done playing and I’m lucky that I don’t miss playing at all. Everyone says you miss the camaraderie and stuff, and you know yea there were some really neat people that I met where we lived and that I played with, but I got in to coaching right away when I retired and coaching my kids and involved in youth hockey. I have those relationships now and we get together. I don’t do it much, but you know go out and skate, you get coaches’ hockey and play a little pickup game and then go out for a couple adult beverages and work on the power play scheme. Q.You described yourself as a "grinder", and modeled your game after Stevens. How else would you have described yourself as a hockey player in the past? A.I guess I was a hitter and not very flashy, kind of a stay-at-home defensemen, you know, that had to play physical to stay in the line up, and even in my whole career, there was only probably three or four years that I played in the NHL where I wasn’t in and out of line up all the time, so I always was a bubble player, and you know, there’s something to be said for that where you’re not taking anything for granted and being a part of something bigger, and you know even if you only get four minutes a game or a couple shifts a game, you’re still part of the team, and you bring something that makes it complete. So I never, every year I was thankful that I was to play at whatever level it was, and you know I look back on it and say it didn’t mean much then, but now you sit there and think about how few people get to play in the National Hockey League, and I feel very fortunate to be able to have played for a program like Minnesota and get an education. I guess you just can’t beat it. So we’re very thankful and appreciative of all the opportunities that I got, and my family has gotten. Q.Who were some of your favorite teammates in your days, not just with the Gophers, but in the NHL? A.Well, there wasn’t a guy I didn’t like playing for the U. It was pretty unique, where the majority of the kids were from Minnesota and a few, Steve McSwain I think and John Blue were the only guys that weren’t from Minnesota. But in the pros, I had a guy that I played with, his name was Tim Tookie in Hershey, and he was a veteran when I started. He kinda took me under his wing and I ended up living with him for a year. So he was a guy that really helped me a lot. And then in the NHL, I became pretty close with in Ottawa Wade Reddin and Chris Phillips and Daniel Alfredsson. Those guys were real good friends of mine. Down in Florida we had Brett Hedican from Minnesota, and Mark Parrish. So, you know, they’re all great guys and you’re lucky if you walk away with a handful of them that you keep in contact with when it’s all said and done, but when you do talk it’s like a moment hasn’t passed and you just saw them yesterday, and that’s what kinda neat about the friendships. Q.I have heard before from some old players that previously "Donned the M" it’s a fraternity, and you never leave that. In your opinion, what were some of the best hockey highlights of your career? A.Oh, boy, I mean there was more team stuff than my highlights weren't scoring goals. It was having a nice solid hit and but I guess for me for the U there was the National Championship year. That was a pretty special year. I don’t remember a whole lot of the specifics of the year, but I just remember how it felt and how special it was. In the pros, my best years were playing for Ottawa and when I first started there, they were still a new expansion team, and I was there the first year that they made the playoffs, and just how the town went bananas and playing in the playoffs in the NHL. We only got to do that three times and made it to the second round. I didn’t even get close to getting a sniff at playing for the big boy, the Stanley, but it was pretty special, so you know for me it was the moments are not only playing hockey, but the people that we met and the places that we lived, and every place that I played hockey, we still are in contact with at least one or two families there. One family in Ottawa, they’ve come to Minnesota I think eight times since I left there and the husband comes out here and helps me open or close the cabin every year. So it’s kinda neat. You know, it’s more about just the relationships, and the friendships that you formed. You gotta do something after hockey’s over. Q.What hobbies do you have outside of your hockey business? A.Ah well, I coach, and I’m very passionate about coaching and trying to become a better coach. One of the misconceptions of parents is that because you played in the National Hockey League that you’re automatically going to be a good coach, and it’s something you really have to work at becoming better. The summer team that I coached with, I coached with a guy name Greg Dornbach; who played at Miami of Ohio, and Ben Hankinson who was a former Gopher, Troy Jutting who is the coach at Minnesota State. You know, that guy’s a nut. He drives an hour and a half three days a week back and forth for his kids to skate on our team. And I asked him "why he does it" and he says "coaching college hockey is a job, you know. It’s not just going on the ice. There’s a lot of recruiting and budgeting and all that, and he says when I’m on the ice with you guys it’s just fun. It’s back to just pure hockey and watching these kids develop and just love to be on the ice." So I do that and then you know I’ve done some remodeling. Right when I retired I remodeled a couple cabins and I built a house with a guy, so I still haven’t figured out how I fit into this world, but I’m trying. Q.It sounds like you got a good thing going with your company, and the website looks great. If there was one thing you could change about modern-day hockey, what would it be? A.Boy, I don’t know. I think the game’s pretty doggone good right now. I mean the speed. There’s the old saying, "if it ain’t broke don’t fix it." Well, you know, you got a little bit of everything, and I just got the NHL package here and my kid loves watching it. You know, now we can flip through and see if there’s gonna be a shoot out. We just love that. Q.That is pretty cool to sit at home and see all the NHL games. This next question stems off of the last one, but what do you think has been the biggest change in hockey overall in Minnesota since you played? A.Boy, I think that just the opportunity. I mean it goes twofold. You know, you’re not seeing the multisport athlete any more. They’re specializing at a much younger age. But the kids they're talented, oh are they talented. So it’s time to find that balance of, you know, "what are you really doing this for". With all these companies now like Dean Talafous running total hockey, you got Acceleration Minnesota, you got all these training facilities, you got the mini-rinks coming out now. There’s just so much out there that you could play year round, and we force our kids to take about six to seven weeks off, just put the skates and the stick away and just get away from it. It’s hard for them because there are kids that are going year round, and you always think they’re not gonna keep up with em. But I think the break is important and I think that, kids that play other sports is important. I’m not saying you have to play organized sports. You know, even playing a baseball game at the park in the summer or going across the street and playing basketball or tennis. I mean you don’t have to be in an organized sport to be a multisport athlete. But you can’t just do one thing. So that would be something that I’ve seen as a big change. Just the exposure that these kids can get now with the internet. I mean going on YouTube, you just type in stick handling or goals and you can sit there and watch video for weeks. Now the kids are seeing all these things that they only heard about, you know. Picking the puck up, doing all these funky moves, and they go out in the garage and they start trying it, and here’s a nine and ten year old. I mean, I’m not going to lie to you, my ten year old has better hands than me, than I every did playing in the NHL and he had that about two years ago. So they’re just exposed and training is so specific now that there is a timeline as far as things to do to become a better skater, stick handler, or whatever, and I think the coaches are more knowledgeable now to teach the game, and as a result we are seeing more kids going and playing college hockey, and even making it to the NHL. Q.Yes it seems today there is a lot of specialized clinics and that that you talked about. I myself have a four year old at home that I’m teaching him how to skate on my backyard rink as well. I recently attended a USA Hockey coaching clinic in St. Cloud where I spoke to Justin Johnson about the company that he operates called the Mental Edge, that deals with the Mental side of the game. Like you said we have a lot of companies locally that are involved in the game of hockey, so it’s good to see. A.Well it’s nice, you know, we grew up playing the sport, we love
it, and if you can support your family while still doing that, that’s
awesome. I still haven’t found that out yet. I’m still trying to make it, but
I’m gonna do it as long as I can.
Q.I understand you stepped away from the game due to chronic
back problems. Did you find it difficult to retire?
A.No I didn’t. I mean, that was the injury that I had at the time. I had
nine surgeries throughout my whole career from college to pro, and I
just hurt. It was my back and hip. And the things that are good on me is
the short list, let’s put it that way. And it just became, I was in so much
pain all the time and I was playing not to get hurt, and if I can’t play
reckless, there’s a thousand guys that can replace me. And because of
that it was crystal clear. What happened was, we were flying out to
Quebec to play and exhibition game when I was with Colorado and my
back when out on me. I was just in the plane ride there, and training
camp was just really tough for me. I was in a lot of pain. I could barely
walk at night and I’d have to get there three hours before practice to
hot tub and massage just to get it loosened up and oiled up. So, you know, it was, I wouldn’t change it for anything and I’m lucky that it was an easy, I mean it wasn’t an easy decision, but I knew that it had to be made and I’m glad that I did, because there’s a lot of life to live after hockey, and you know, I had young, I still do, had really young kids at the time and I want to be able to run to the park with them and be able to still skate and coach. So we had a good run and I never thought that I’d play as long as I did, and like I said I don’t miss it. I miss the paychecks but I don’t miss playing. I don’t miss the lifestyle and being on the road all the time. I like being home. So a lot of guys, they don’t have that. They are bitter; they still wanted more, and I was fine and I still am.
Q.That's good that it made your choice to walk away a little easier for you then. What person or persons had the biggest impact on your overall career? A.Oh, boy. You know in college it was, I’d have to say Bill Butters and Jack Blatherwick. I mean all the coaches there, Woog, Paul Otsby, Bob Shier, and Dean Talafous. Bill was kind of a guy that, you know went to them and said to them you know "I think we gotta give this guy a shot", he got me a half scholarship, so he believed in me, and you know Jack, he helped me with school. I wasn’t the brightest puck on the rink, so they were very influential and maturing as a young, rebellious kid and learning about the game outside of hockey. Probably pro hockey, I was coached by Mike Eaves when I was in Hershey, Jay Leach who I don’t know where he is now, he was in LA or maybe Anaheim or something. They were awesome. Then when I went to Ottawa Jacques Martin, he was magical for me. He brought the best out in me. He treated every player differently. They always say in coaching you gotta find the personalities and how can you get them to overachieve and so he was instrumental in not only giving me a chance but just making me believe that I could play at that level. So, you know, Florida, I can’t say that Mike Keenan was one of my favorites, but you learn a lot about people and with him I learned in a lot of ways how not to coach. And you can print that if you want. (laughing) Q.Ahh that’s hilarious (laughing). When you step back on the ice again, do you feel that rush? A.I don’t know what the rush would be. I guess I just, every time I go out there now coaching with my kids I guess it’s just brings me back to my youth days or just loving the game. It’s not a rush; it’s more it just brings me back to more childhood memories of just having fun with your buddies on the rink and seeing the kids smile and being a part of that and still being able to be a part of it and still being able to skate halfway decent. You know, it’s fun. Q.When you look back on your career, what has enriched you personally? A.I guess the biggest thing that I came away with was the emotional part of the game, because hockey is such an up and down sport, and you know, when you’re winning things are great and when you’re losing it sucks. Especially the higher levels you go. I mean it’s a business and you gotta perform. But, you know, learning that when things are going well you don’t get too high and when there not you don’t get too low. That even keel approach. I guess self-control of how I deal with issues in my own life. You know you just kind of even keel it and really analyze and see what the solution is. And just relationships. You don’t want to burn bridges. And I’m not saying you want to be a brown-noser, but hockey is a small community, and if you’re bad, word travels fast; if you’re good, word travels even faster. So I hope that as a coach and as a player that people thought that I had integrity and that I was respectful and that I didn’t think that I was better than anyone else. Q.I probably already know this answer with your hockey company
that you operate, but what else are you doing today?
A.I am selling my stick handling training aids and videos. Working
on trying to find other things that I can maybe come out with that would
help youth players and coaches become better.
A.Yes SweetHockeyProducts.com. And then you know I might start
doing some privates, you know small group training, stick handling,
skating. But I guess that’s where my passion is, that’s where my
knowledge is, and I think that I just love doing it. So if you love doing
something, you start doing it, and if you make money down the road, you
make money. But everyone that I’ve met that’s started out saying, I want to make a million bucks, they don’t do well. If it’s real passion, you know it may happen, but you just love getting up in the morning and going to work.
Q.Yup, that’s what I’ve always heard people say, the key to a successful business is you have to be passionate about something first, then successful will follow second. A.Well that’s like you. Q.I really feel the deep passion for it as well. Even though I never played a game of college hockey, I was just an average at best high school hockey player in Minnesota, but I look back at that time and I am proud I was able to do that. A.It’s amazing. My partner, I ask him, you know this is our third year doing it. He’s a scout for Cedar Rapids and he trains, he’s at Armstrong and he does all their skill development, so he's had guys like Leopold, Pat O'Leary, Peltier, you know they all came up through that Armstrong program, Dennis Vaske. And I asked him, I said, "what if someone would want to come and wanted to buy the company, what would be the dollar amount that we’d say yea, let’s do it." He says, "I don’t know. He says, I enjoy this." You know, that says it all. We just love doing it and it’s fun for us. The biggest satisfaction is, I mean we haven’t made a penny on the company. We’re just paying our costs to start it up and that, but when you're at a rink and you see the Sweet Hands product out on the ice, or some parent comes up and says "my kid made a B team, he was a C player, or an A team and he was a B player, and we think it’s because of him using your sweet hands product." I mean that’s pretty flattering, so we enjoy it. Q.Have places such as the Herb Brooks training center bought into your products as well? A.Ah, no, that’s again me, I should go up there and give them one. I have done that for the Acceleration programs and give them one and if they want more they gotta pay for them, but, you know, that's just me, I don’t know a whole lot about business. Like honest to god, my day starts, what do I have to do for youth hockey, and then if I have any time left then I’ll do the business. Q.Well that’s it. Thanks a lot again, Lance. I really appreciate you taking time to do this interview with me.
A.Yea, not a problem. Any time you need anything, let me know. You’re doing a great thing. Remembering and you know the tradition of Minnesota hockey and Gopher hockey, it’s, I don’t know, they said after I left I talked to some of the coaches and it’s a different game now, you know. Kids are looking at college as more of a stepping stone and you’re lucky if you get the kids there for four years, and I don’t know if part of that passion, that fraternity that you talked about is still there, but I just think that it’s changed a bit now just because kids are, there’s a lot of money to be made in the NHL. Q.Lucrative NHL contracts. A.Yea, there’s a lot of kids that played for the Gophers and that was it. Their career was over, and those are the proud ones. I hope that they realize what they were a part of and that kids growing up dream about putting that "M" over their shoulder pads. Q.That's great to hear that coming from a former alum. A.Yea, you bet, not a problem.