This is a weekly feature that appears every Thursday on Arbour Day.
If ever a player marched to the beat of his own fists — er, drum, that player would be Brendan Witt.
The old-school defenseman may have had a temper on the ice, but off of it, he was more chill than ice cream cones. (Just go with it.) He quickly became a fan favorite on the Island after signing a three-year contract in 2006. His hard-hitting defensive style and unrelenting toughness won Isles fans’ hearts (including this girl’s — I still have a Witt jersey in my closet).
Witt had played most of his NHL career in Washington prior to coming to the Isles. He appeared in one Stanley Cup final with the Capitals (1997-98) and even served as co-captain during the 2001-02 season with Steve Konowalchuk. Konowalchuk would assume the captaincy the following season.
Witt requested a trade and got it in 2005-06, when he was moved to Nashville. That following off-season, he signed with the Isles. It was said that then-new head coach Ted Nolan had a very high opinion of the bruising blueliner, and indeed Witt flourished during the 2006-07 season. He posted career highs in games played (81), points (14), and plus-minus (+14). His PIM were also high (131), and fans loved the fire he brought to the lineup, as well as his shot-blocking abilities. The Isles made the playoffs that year after missing them the previous season, and fell in five games to the Sabres.
However, injuries caught up to Witt, and in his next three seasons with the Islanders, he wouldn’t play more than 65 games. He still made big hits, took shots and would drop the gloves every once in a while, but during the 2008-09 season he posted a career-worst -34, a stat attributed to his slow skating more than anything else.
At this point, the league was becoming faster and more creative, and thus the defenseman’s place in the game was also changing. He had to be faster and more offensively inclined, not just a big hitter but able to stay with streaking forwards and make a play for the puck. Witt tried his hardest, but couldn’t hang with it — especially not with Nolan’s replacement in 2008, Scott Gordon, and his “Overspeed” system.
There were other problems between Witt and Gordon, ones that Witt felt became personal. The defensive system Gordon put in place during his first season here earned some criticism from the defenseman, which turned into a small bit of controversy on the Island. Witt never had any problems voicing his opinions, and the same rang true here — but all of this came after he signed a two-year extension with the club knowing changes were coming (because it was as clear as anything that Nolan would be gone by the end of ’07-08). Perhaps he wasn’t sure just what he was going to get into; at any rate, he hung around and battled injuries for the rest of 2009 and part of 2010 before being placed on waivers.
From there, Witt went to the AHL and apparently had a ball playing with Bridgeport. Then came the buyout of the last year of his extension, and since then, he hasn’t played an NHL game — a fact that he attributes to Gordon.
He took stuff personally. He was the first coach I ever had that took stuff personally and he kind of made it a vendetta on me … because I spoke up and felt what was right for the team and apparently he didn’t like what I had to say. …I had a meeting with him and he pretty much said that if he had the choice he’d never make me play in the NHL again. …
… [E]ven though he said he didn’t have tension with me the whole team knew he had tension. Unfortunately no one else wanted to talk about it. That’s what happens when you wear your heart on your sleeve and you speak up for what you believe in and that’s what I did and unfortunately I had to deal with the repercussions and it cost my career.” (source: HockeyBuzz.com)
Two years later, Witt remains out of the NHL but not retired. Is it because of the strong words he had for Gordon? Is it because the game’s simply changed too much to allow for a slower veteran who’s been hurt increasingly often over the span of his career (the popularity of shot blocking notwithstanding)? It could be a mix of those things. Either way, he’s been off of the NHL radar, and it may stay that way. (Then again, correct me if I’m wrong, but Gordon is also not behind an NHL bench anymore…)
It’s still a little sad, seeing as he seemed to be a great guy otherwise in the locker room, and teammates really responded to his leadership. He also had stories like this one, in which he faced off against an SUV in Philadelphia and won. A warrior, he is, and that is missed.