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Catching up with Brendan Witt: Former NHL player skates with Mules

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Brendan Witt

Former NHL player Brendan Witt of Darby, shown here helping with a youth clinic last year, skated for the hometown Flying Mules during their tournament Friday at Glacier Ice Rink.

The 14th annual Flying Mules Festival brings hundreds of adult hockey players to Missoula’s Glacier Ice Rink, and this year is no different – well, except for maybe who did show up.

The local Flying Mules scored a bit of a coup for their roster this weekend: Brendan Witt, a 14-year NHL defenseman who settled in Darby with his wife and children upon his retirement in 2010.

Playing his second organized hockey game in five months, Witt helped the Flying Mules to a 5-4 win over LePamplemousse out of Kalispell on Friday night, setting up Gary Jahrig for a goal. It was Jahrig who connected with Witt to help with Missoula Youth Hockey’s “Learn to Play” program a year ago. That in turn helped to get Witt in a Mules’ sweater.

The tournament concludes Sunday: The over-35 Mules have a game at 9:45 a.m., and there are championships at 1 p.m. (women’s), 2:15 (rec), 3:30 (over-35) and 4:45 (open).

Witt had many more NHL penalty minutes (1,424) than goals (25) while playing for the Washington Capitals, Nashville Predators and New York Islanders, but was still the kind of force you’d expect out of someone picked 11th overall in the 1993 NHL draft. After growing up in tiny, hockey-crazed Humboldt, Saskatchewan, Witt says these days ice time is rare, save for an occasional shift on Lake Como.

“I’ve skated on there with the kids,” he said. “But they’re girls. They don’t want to play ice hockey. They’re into figure skating.”

Q. How often do you get to skate?

A. Guys were asking, ‘Do you play a lot?’ And I’ve helped Gary with the Learn to Play – we donated 10 grand last year through the NHLPA – but the only time I’ve played a pick-up game was early in October or late September, out in Washington for Capitals’ alumni. Other than that I haven’t played at all. It was fun.

Q. So maybe once a year?

A. You know I always worry because I’m pretty competitive. Actually I wasn’t sure how I’d do out here. But I had fun. It was even a little bit of a slow pace. It was fun to come out and be (rusty) with the guys and have a good time.

Q. I count five guys from Humboldt who played in the NHL, which is pretty amazing for a town of 5,500 or so. So you knew growing up that guys had made it from there?

A. Well, no, but we all knew Glenn Hall. He holds the record for most games played by a goalie. And in Saskatchewan that’s all we live and breathe, is hockey. And every kid’s dream there is to play in the NHL, and my dream came true, to play as long as I did. I was very fortunate, and I had the support of family, but I had to leave home at 15 to pursue it at higher levels. There was a lot of sacrifice involved as well.

Q. That paid off with being a first-round pick. Did that just blow your mind?

A. Yeah, in Quebec City. I remember the day, it was about 90 in that rink where the Nordiques played and we’re all in suits. Even though you knew you were in the first round, you didn’t know if you were going to get picked or not. It’s just a waiting game. For that to happen – it was a dream but I also knew there was a lot of work ahead and it was just a stepping stone toward (the NHL). You see a lot of first-rounders that never made it.

Q. Washington, Long Island, Nashville – which place did you like the best?

A. I got to know a lot of political figures in D.C., but I loved Long Island because of the fact you were only 45 minutes out of New York City, and that was fabulous. And Long Island had a lot of die-hard fans. But I got to meet a lot of cool people in D.C. – Colin Powell, I got to have a cup of coffee with him. I’d have to say D.C. because of the fact I played with them in the (1998) Stanley Cup Finals. They drafted me, I played 600 games there. And I still know a lot of people in that area.

Q. I read a couple articles and one said you surf. You didn’t learn that back in Humboldt, obviously.

A. No (laughs). I learned that in Maryland my rookie year. We had a guy from S&P, and he taught me out in Ocean City. Then I had a neighbor, and we would drive 3 hours and go surf these little waves. I’d go to Florida and surf, and then Costa Rica and Nicarauga, Hawaii and surf a few weeks. It was a good way to stay in shape. I like to snowboard, and I couldn’t snowboard in the winter (in the NHL). Now I can.

Q. How many of these Flying Mules did you know?

A. I know Gary and a few guys from when I worked that Learn How to Play program for kids.

Q. I was going to ask you if Bob Irwin was the best skater you’ve ever played with.

A. Who?

Q. Exactly. He’s on your team.

A. Oh, I get it. No, I had fun today. This was awesome. I didn’t realize until a few months ago that Missoula has the third-largest men’s hockey league in the nation, which is pretty awesome.

Reporter Fritz Neighbor can be reached at (406) 523-5247 or at fneighbor@missoulian.com.

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