KEARNEY, Neb. – After a national search, the Tri-City Storm have chosen two coaches, J.B. Bittner and Erik Largen, to complement head coach Josh Hauge as assistants. Combined, the two new members of the staff have almost a decade of experience at both the professional and collegiate levels of hockey.
“It was a tiresome process,” Hauge said. “We had over 50 applicants and a lot of people that were very interested in the job. I had a lot of help from both our owner Kirk Brooks and our president Greg Shea, just trying to sort through everything and make a determination.”
Bittner comes to Kearney after a two-year stint as an assistant with the South Carolina Stingrays of the ECHL. The Pittsburgh, Penn. native helped guide the Stingrays to an overall record of 38-26-5 and a playoff berth in 2012-13.
“J.B. will work with the defenseman,” Hauge said. “His team in South Carolina had one of the best penalty killing units in the East Coast League last year so that will be an area he has a lot of responsibility with.”
Before the Stingrays, Bittner spent three seasons as an assistant coach and video coordinator with his alma mater, Ohio State. The 31-year-old was a forward with the Buckeyes for four seasons and registered 76 points on 37 goals and 39 assists in 160 career collegiate games. He also served as team captain in 2004, leading his squad to a CCHA Super Six Championship title. OSU reached the NCAA Tournament in three of Bittner’s four seasons.
After his college career came to an end, Bittner played professionally for four seasons in both the ECHL and AHL as a member of eight different franchises. They include the Dayton Bombers, Johnstown Chiefs, Augusta Lynx, Idaho Steelheads, Florida Everblades, Syracuse Crunch, Portland Pirates and Iowa Stars.
But Bittner started in the USHL, appearing in 108 games with the Sioux Falls Stampede from 1999-2001. During his two seasons with the Stampede, he scored a total of 43 goals and 54 assists.
“He was a great player,” Hauge said of his new assistant. “He played in the USHL and in college, so he’s been through the process and knows what our guys will be going through. He also worked for a great staff and university at Ohio State so he brings a little bit of everything and he’ll make a difference on our staff right away.”
The Storm have also found some help for their goaltenders in between the pipes with new assistant coach and former collegiate netminder, Erik Largen.
The Fairbanks, Alaska native played for his hometown team, the University of Alaska-Fairbanks from 2006-08 before beginning his coaching career as an assistant to current Storm head coach Josh Hauge with the Fairbanks Ice Dogs of the North American Hockey League (NAHL).
The two had success together in Fairbanks, compiling an overall record of 72-37-7 and reached the National Championship in two consecutive seasons, winning the title in 2011.
“I worked with [Largen] for two years and we had a lot of success because of what he did,” Hauge said. “He’s a tireless worker, a guy who will help in any way he can, and he’s great with goaltenders.”
Largen, who is now 26-years-old, took over his own program after Hauge left Fairbanks and had immediate success with the Twin Cities Northern Lights of the Minnesota Junior Hockey League (MNJHL). There Largen compiled an overall record of 87-9-2 over two seasons and won back-to-back regular season and league championships.
“It’s like a family hire for me because that’s what he is,” Hauge said. “I’m really excited about him.”
The two coaches will replace the vacancy left by former assistant coaches Eric Fink and Lenny Hofmann.
“The biggest characteristics I looked for were hard-working guys that are fun to be around and who will bring energy to the rink,” Hauge said. “I wanted a couple blue-collar guys that are willing to put in long hours.”
The first task for the newly formed staff will be to evaluate their team for the upcoming season during training camp.
“I think it’s great we’re bringing two guys to camp that have never seen a lot of these players and don’t have preconceived notions of them,” Hauge said. “Everybody’s got a fair shot and it doesn’t matter if you’re a first round pick or you’re a guy who is just trying out and we’ve never seen you before. We’re going to give everyone a fair look. Our new staff will be able to give a different opinion and I’m looking for honest evaluations from them.”
(Nathan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)