American Hockey League

Admirals rookies appreciate value of friendship

Rem Pitlick can laugh about it now, but the embarrassing story illustrates his point: Transition is a challenge, and it never hurts to have a friend around.

No sooner had the University of Minnesota season finished than Pitlick began living his professional hockey dream with the playoff-bound Nashville Predators.

“My first day in Nashville, I went up to the rink, like, a half hour before the skate because I was used to doing that in college,”  Pitlick said. “Because you’re coming from class, there’s no rules about, well, we get to the rink this amount of time early.

“The guys were giving me a hard time, and nobody had my number to tell me, yeah, you’re supposed to get here an hour before.”

Fast forward six months, and the speedy, 5-foot-11 left wing is starting his career in earnest with the Milwaukee Admirals, having gone through an offseason, June development camp, rookie camp and finally Predators training camp. And this time he’s not completely surrounded by strangers.

While Pitlick got his start with a one-game stint in Nashville, Tommy Novak, a Golden Gophers teammate of Pitlick’s for three seasons, made his pro debut late last season in three games with the Admirals.

“We used to play summer hockey together, a Triple-A team called the Minnesota Blitz, so we’ve grown up and known each other for a really long time,” Pitlick said Tuesday on the opening day of Admirals camp. “It’s cool to be here with him and have a familiar face.

“Any new change of scenery, it’s always nice to have someone to talk to, ‘What time’s the meeting at?’ or this or that. There’s just so many things that people don’t realize. It’s a little bit stressful, and change, everyone goes through it and it’s nice to have someone to talk to and feel comfortable and that sort of thing.”

Pitlick, a third-round draft choice in 2016, is a prolific scorer who earned all-Big Ten and All-America recognition, gave up his final year of collegiate eligibility and could be on the fast track back to Nashville. When final cuts were announced, his name was one of the two that made headlines, along with Eeli Tolvanen.

The Predators picked Novak in the third round in 2015, but a catastrophic left knee injury midway through his sophomore season stalled his development, essentially for two years. Having regained full strength and confidence, the 6-foot-1 center came back to Milwaukee a leaner, quicker, more skilled player than the one who left.

“It’s definitely really hard just to get back into the game mentally and also physically you feel like you lose a step your first year and it changes your game a bit,” Novak said. “My junior year I came back and it was a little odd skating and whatnot and I picked it up more toward the second half of last year, just getting my feet under me and getting to feel back to where I was, feeling 100%. Now I’m just trying to go up from there.”

Although the quick pro stop last year was an abrupt change – Pitlick’s in Nashville, Novak’s in Milwaukee – both said it did give them a leg up on their first full season.

“You’re watching them on TV one day, and the next day you’re with them,” Pitlick said. “It’s a huge shell shock, but then you begin to realize that everyone is just a person and you can’t have these people you look up to too much and forget they’re human beings.

“It was a super, super good experience, and I’m grateful for it. It’s only going to help me here this year.”

Admirals camp opened with 34 players on the UW-Milwaukee Panther Arena ice in two groups. Exhibition home games are scheduled for Thursday and Saturday, and the regular-season opener is Oct. 6 at Iowa.

“It goes pretty quick,” said second-year Admirals head coach Karl Taylor, who’ll have about 10 cuts to make.

“Some guys may feel like they’re secure, but they’re still fighting for ice time and opportunity. Everyone’s playing for something. There’s no question, every day you’re out there … maybe you want more minutes, maybe you want more special teams … maybe you’re trying to earn a spot.”

It’s a journey that every player hopes will lead to – or back to – the NHL. For the foreseeable future, Pitlick and Novak know they can look to each other for advice and help along the way.

And maybe they’ll get onto the ice together, something that hasn’t happened as much as one might imagine for two players who’ve known each other as long as they have.

“We never really got to play together in college on a line,” Novak said. “We played together on the power play last year, and it went well. … He’s got a lot of speed and a good shot, and I think I’m kind of a complement to it.

“We’ll see if that ever happens. It never happened in college, which is kind of disappointing to me, but he’s a good player. A really good player.”

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