It takes Brian Bitetto a little longer to run his errands these days.
Bitetto, a lifelong Island Park resident, either knows or knows someone who knows just about every person in the South Shore village, and this past week, his social interaction reached a fever pitch. Nearly everyone he ran into wanted to stop and talk about his son Anthony, who will have a chance to play in the Stanley Cup Final this week when his Nashville Predators face the Pittsburgh Penguins.
“You can’t go anywhere without someone saying they knew him or went to school with him or telling some story,” Brian said. “Island Park is a very small town. Everybody is rooting for him. And it’s all good.”
Yes, it is. After a difficult start to the season that included two injuries that limited his play to 29 games, Anthony Bitetto will fulfill a lifelong dream on Monday night when the Stanley Cup Final opens in Pittsburgh.
“To tell you the truth, it’s kind of surreal. It hasn’t hit yet,” the defenseman said in a phone interview Wednesday, two days after the Predators clinched a trip to the Final with a win over Anaheim. “In sports, this is everyone’s dream. Playing in the backyard, it was either the Stanley Cup or World Series. Come Game 1, we will be ready. But right now, it’s almost a shock to think that this is actually going to happen. It’s going to be a fun ride.”
After playing in 14 games in last year’s playoffs, Bitetto entered this season with high hopes. They took a hit, however, in the season opener Oct. 14 when he broke his left hand in a fight with former Predator Jordin Tootoo.
Bitetto had surgery and missed the Predators’ next 18 games. His comeback lasted only three games. Roughly a minute after he picked up his first point of the season on an assist, he tried to stop Fedor Tyutin’s shot with his left hand and broke it. He was back on injured reserve again for the next five weeks.
“It was tough. I went through a lot,” the West Hempstead High graduate said. “You come in expecting to have a big year and there’s a lot of upside good talk about you. I had a really good training camp. One game in, I go out, and then when I came back, I was out again in three games.
“It was a tough stretch mentally. But I had a lot of support from my parents and guys I played with and my teammates. I was injured, but I always felt I was part of the team.”
Bitetto recorded seven assists in 29 games but has yet to play in the postseason. Islanders assistant coach Greg Cronin, who has remained close to Bitetto after coaching him at Northeastern, said the big reason for his lack of playing time is that the Predators might have more defensive talent than any other NHL team.
“Before we played them in Brooklyn a few months ago, I spoke with [Predators GM] David Poile about Anthony and he said, ‘I love this kid,’ ’’ Cronin said. “He said, ‘He’s a great kid, he’s patient, but we have such a great D that he has to wait for someone to go down before he gets into the lineup.’
“I really wouldn’t expect him to say anything else. Anthony is fearless. He’s classy. He’s humble. He’s a hard worker. He’s tough as nails. He fights. He’s got good hockey sense so he can make quality decisions with the puck and he’s a great teammate.”
Bitetto learned the fundamentals of the game at Long Beach Arena playing for the New York Apple Core youth hockey system, which also developed NHL players Rob Scuderi, Douglas Murray, Mark Eaton and Eric Nystrom. After graduating from West Hempstead, he played two seasons with the USHL’s Indiana Ice before going to Northeastern for two seasons. He has been in the Predators’ organization since.
The Bitettos have a large extended family, and many are hardcore hockey fans. Cronin said he can’t imagine what Island Park is like right now, because it seems as if half the town turns out to watch Bitetto play when the Predators come east. “When he played in Long Island the last two years, I think he had 100 Italians running around the stands,” Cronin said. “He was trying to take care of them all afterward.”
Bitetto’s parents, Brian and Marie, plan to go to all of the games in Nashville and likely will make the trip to Pittsburgh. Anthony jokes that he has so many requests for tickets that his credit card limit won’t accommodate it. Right now, he’s trying to soak up every moment.
“This is my dream and I know how fortunate I am to have this many people who support me,” Bitetto said. “I really do feel like the whole town of Island Park is behind me. If we win this Cup, hopefully I’m going to bring it back there.”
And if the Predators win and Bitetto plays even one game in the Final, his name will be engraved on that precious Cup.