In Sports Commentary

For more than three decades Phil Wittliff was the face of the Admirals. (PHOTO: Milwaukee Admirals)

Wittliff trades hockey stick for pencil

One of the best things in life is seeing the renovation of something or somebody.

Like all those old buildings in the Third Ward that were falling apart and which now house lovely offices and shops.

Or like Marc Erickson, an emergency room doctor whom I knew years ago who dropped the world of medicine to become the pastor at Eastbrook Church.

Another admirable reinvention took place for Phil Wittliff.

If that name is familiar to you it's probably because of the 34 years he spent with the Milwaukee Admirals. For most of those 34 years he was the face of the team, as a player, coach and general manager.

But like all good things, hockey came to an end when he retired a couple of years ago. Now you can find Wittliff wielding a calculator and a pencil instead of a hockey stick as a financial planner for New England Financial.

For those who know him the transformation is nothing less than startling.

Wittliff was a linebacker at Notre Dame before hockey came calling. He never backed down from anybody on the ice or in life. He always had a smile and a slap on the back. I bought him his first drink on the night his son was born.

This is not to say the new Wittliff is anything less than the gregarious man about town that he was at another time. It's just that his world now is numbers and plans instead of pucks and sticks.

"I miss the Admirals," he said during a recent conversation. "What I miss most are the people. The people, the fans associated with that team are by far the greatest memory I have."

The journey from the Zamboni to the desk and computer was not all that difficult for him to make.

He was always smart. Talking to him, even as a player, you were impressed with both his sense of humor as well as his sense of proportion. Underneath the fast-skating body slammer was a mind filled with both questions and answers.

When retirement came he took some time off and gazed at the scene from his cabin on Pewaukee Lake.

"You can only look at a lake for so long," he said. "Pretty soon I figured out that I had to do something."

He took the route that ended up with him at New England Financial, the oldest financial institution in Wisconsin.

"The final interview with them was with a guy named Bill Mott," he said. "I didn't have much money but he designed a plan for me with my limited resources. It was so wonderful that I said I'd take the job right away."

There was a pretty big learning curve for Wittliff, who, after 34 years, knew just about all there was to know about hockey.

"One of the things we say here is that nobody knows everything," he said. "If I don't know the answer to something, I can find somebody here who does know the answer. It's a great atmosphere of cooperation."

Wittliff used to be a guy who wore stress on his sleeve. Professional sports are not easy on the ulcer or on the psyche. But it does offer an emotional high that is hard to match in the real world.

"I'm happy," Wittliff says now. "Hockey's a lot less complicated than this. But I learn something every day that helps our clients. I loved hockey. But I love this now."

And that's what reinvention is all about.



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