CORAL SPRINGS — When the Florida Panthers took the ice for practice last week at training camp, faint laughs and chirps could be heard throughout the rink.
More often than not, it was because Tony Bitetto was up to something.
“He is one funny man,” Panthers coach Paul Maurice said.
“Tony is on every day. He’s chirping somebody, he’s got something smart to say but in really positive ways.”
Bitetto, 32, has had to claw his way into NHL lineups throughout his career.
Since making his NHL debut for the Nashville Predators, the Island Park, N.Y. native has spent a lot of his time in the press box serving as an extra defenseman or bouncing back between the NHL and AHL.
His happy-go-lucky attitude helps him make the most out of any situation.
“Honestly, I’m pretty blessed to have this opportunity to play at this high level,” Bitetto said.
“I’ve had a pretty good career and I’ve been around for a while now. I enjoy coming to the rink and kind of running my mouth a little bit. But it’s all in good fun. I love working hard and it’s kind of been what has kept me around for a little longer.”
While the 6-foot-1, 222-pound defenseman has a reputation of being an adequate depth player on playoff-bound teams, it has been his personality which has shined through over the course of his career.
“He’s an awesome guy and he is pretty fun to be around,” Nick Cousins said.
Cousins, despite not playing with Bitetto with the Predators, has some history with him.
When Cousins signed with the Predators in 2020, Bitetto offered Cousins a place to stay at his house in Nashville.
“I met him a few summers ago when he was down in Nashville. He needed a spot and it kind of worked out, he was renting my place,” Bitetto said.
Ever since he left the Music City in 2019, Bitetto has remained a popular figure in Nashville and spends a lot of time there during the offseason.
He was even seen participating with the Predators in their informal practices before heading down to South Florida for training camp.
“It was my first team and I enjoyed it there,” Bitetto said.
“I spend my summers there. A lot of guys spend their summers there and we had a lot of good teams when I was there so we all kept in touch. It’s kind of a home base for now.”
While Bitetto did not get to play against his former teammates when the Panthers opened their preseason in his ‘home base’ on Monday, chances are he was chopping it up with a few old friends when he got the chance.
His impact was felt on the ice as well.
With a slew of young defensemen still finding their footing on NHL ice attending camp, Bitetto has taken a mentorship role in helping them learn the game.
“I take pride in that,” Bitetto said.
He has been paired with 2021 second-round pick Evan Nause during his first NHL camp and has been guiding him through it the whole way.
“The biggest thing [I’m teaching him] is consistency,” Bitetto said.
“If you can find consistency and figure out what you do that brings a role to the team, that’s it. Everybody is kind of fighting for something. Some guys are going to be goal scorers, playmakers, whatever. For me, I play a simple game, you move the puck out and then get off the ice so that’s kind of my role.”
Of course, his role always comes down to his sense of humor and his leadership ability.
When Bitetto signed his first free-agent contract outside of Nashville, it was with Maurice’s Winnipeg Jets.
The new Panthers coach did not have to ask around long to find out what kind of guy he was getting.
“When we got him out of Nashville, I called their assistant coach because I’ve worked with him for years and he said he’d be a culture guy for you,” Maurice said. “He liked that positive energy
“Coming to the rink in February after five months of grinding, it’s nice to have some people who are energy bringers in your room to tell a funny joke and make you laugh a little bit.”
Coming into training camp with the Panthers, it has been more of the same.
With a new head coach coming in and only 15 days until the start of the season, there is a lot of pressure on this team to learn a whole new system in a short amount of time.
Bitetto is one of two players at camp who have played under Maurice in his career and his demeanor and experience have helped players ease into it.
“He knows his role and keeps the room upbeat,” Brandon Montour said.
“He is obviously very funny. On and off the ice, he keeps guys laughing and that’s what it’s all about. This time of year, guys might be a little stressed out as a younger guy or gripping their stick too hard, but you need guys like that to keep it easy going.”
FLORIDA PANTHERS PRESEASON
Monday: Florida 4, Nashville 3 (OT)
Monday: Nashville 4, Florida 0
Thursday: vs. Carolina, 7 p.m.
Saturday: at Carolina, 1 p.m.
Oct. 6: vs. Tampa Bay, 7 p.m.
Oct. 8: at Tampa Bay, 4 p.m