Tribute to a transformation
- Updated: June 25, 2015
Herb Brooks Foundation honors Bill Butters’ amazing comeback
When the good Lord made Bill Butters, he took one look and then broke the mold, as Butters is truly like no other. His transformation into who he is today is really hard to fathom. Butters went from one extreme to another, going from an NHL tough guy with the Minnesota North Stars to the church pulpit as a minister.
As a player, Butters was known as an enforcer, being one of the toughest and fiercest competitors who ever played hockey in Minnesota. He was also known to have been just as tough off the ice, bending the rules as he saw fit, with his partying and other escapades.
Butters now is known as a man with a gentle spirit who leads Chapel services in NHL and college locker rooms. He is now also serving on the staff of Hockey Ministries International.
On June 12, at the National Sports Center in Blaine Minn., Butters was recognized for all that he has done for the hockey community when he was honored with the 2015 Herb Brooks Foundation Youth Hockey Hall of Fame Award. Brooks, his former coach at the University of Minnesota, was instrumental in helping Butters get to this point.
Early on in Butters’ ministry work, Brooks took him aside and told him he wanted to help and do a fundraiser for him. Brooks did just that, raising over $10,ooo to help Butters get started.
Pushing the envelope
The former Minnesota Fighting Saint’s character was not always saintly, though. In fact, according to an interview Butters did for Eagle Brook Church, Brooks once told him, “Right now Bill, you are a character; I hope someday you will have character.”
Bill’s escapades on and off the ice were legendary. When requesting stories from former team mates about Bill’s past, the most common response is I have a story, but can’t tell you, because it would not be suited for print. Besides, they also knew Bill was famous for getting people back in the pranking department, and wasn’t afraid to take his game to the extreme.
Former Olympian Rob McClanahan said of Butters, “Billy will be the first to admit he is lucky to still be alive.”
Butters was always pushing the limits off the ice in his NHL playing days and his North Stars teammate, Steve Payne, offered a prime example.
Payne recalled a night in Atlanta after a game against the Flames at a restaurant and bar adjacent to the team hotel. As the story goes, a large tropical aquarium separating the restaurant from the bar quickly drew Butters’ interest.
“Bill was really quick with his hands,” Payne said. “He stuck his hand in the tank and grabbed a fish. He then looked at us, and stuck the fish in his mouth and ate him live. When Butters repeated the dubious feat, the bartender, seeing his fish disappearing, asked him to stop. Payne says this only encouraged Butters to push the envelope and he swallowed yet another tropical fish.
The bartender was now getting really upset, saying “That’s it, if you do it again, I’m calling the cops,” Payne said. Bill took that as a challenge and ate another fish.
“Known for never backing down, Bill then proceeded to eat one more fish, just before he and the rest of the guys exited the bar, just seconds before the police arrived.”
Bill grew up in White Bear Lake, Minn. with his mother and two sisters. He played baseball until he couldn’t hit the curve and football until his 5’ 9” stature and lack of speed made a future career in either sport highly unlikely. When he tried hockey, it was like football on ice for him and he thrived as he became a feared and fierce competitor.
At the University of Minnesota, Butters also played for Glen Sonmor, a coach also known for his tough character. Former NHL star Reed Larson recalls the day he was first introduced to Butters. While being recruited by the U and having been asked to attend the Gopher game versus Colorado College, Larson found himself sitting at the old Mariucci arena right behind the Colorado bench.
“In the old Mariucci Arena, the recruits would sit right behind the opponents bench, with just a bar separating the visiting team and the first row,” Larson recalled.
What happened next was classic Butters. Larson witnessed him not just take on a player, but the entire CC team.
According to Larson, the game became chippy and Butters was ejected for fighting. But before leaving the ice, Butters skated to the visitors’ bench and challenged the Tigers to a fight.
“When no one came on the ice, Billy jumped into the player’s bench with both fists flying,” Larson said. “I was shocked, but then started to reach and grab the Colorado College guys from behind, trying to help Bill out.”
An inspirational leader
Butters made a name for himself as a tough guy who was all about putting the team first. His senior year, although not the most talented player, Butters was named captain of the Gophers. When others are asked to describe Bill in one word, the most common response is inspirational.
Former teammate and 1980 Olympian Buzz Schneider recalls “I was a freshman and Bill was the senior captain of the Gophers. Bill was the ultimate team guy, I just loved playing with him and having him as a captain.”
Butters’ notorious reputation across the WCHA drew the ire of many an opposing fan. Former Gopher great Rob Harris recalls all 8,100 at the old Dane County Coliseum repeatedly chanting “Billieeee Buuutterrrs.”
“Bill would have his hands high saying bring it on,” Harris said. “The ironic thing is the chant continued the following year, even though Butters was no longer playing for us.”
Fighting for a job
Butters desire was to play professional hockey. At that time, the Philadelphia Flyers and the Boston Bruins were winning championships through toughness and intimidation, and he figured the only way he was going to make it as a professional player was to have that same level of toughness.
Butters signed a professional contract with the Toronto Maple Leafs before moving on to the fledgling World Hockey Association. His job as a professional hockey player was to protect the more skilled players, playing just outside the rules, as an enforcer in an era that was known for its bullies. Butters was known for being a tough guy, having been in over 100 hockey fights with over 240 stitches in his face.
Butters would play 7 years as a professional including 217 games in the WHA, playing with the likes of Goldie Howe, and another 72 games in the NHL. He amassed 607 minutes in his 289 pro contests. Although he had hoped to play for many more years, his career came to an end when he was informed that his services were no longer needed.
At 30 years of age, Butters did not know what he was going to do.
Bill Butters’ transformation is truly from sinner to saint. It’s fitting that one of the pro teams he played for was the character-filled Minnesota Fighting Saints. Butters in his previous life could best be described as a self-destructive wild child.
Bill has always been a character but, as Brooks noted, it’s not the same as having character. Bill would be the first to admit he made mistakes along the way, but in life you don’t get a rewind button.
Upgrades, on the other hand, are allowed.
The turning point
Legendary South St. Paul girls hockey coach Dave Palmquist summed it up best.
“Bill Butters is a man of faith,” said Palmquist, the state’s all-time leader in wins among girls’ high school coaches. “His story is a great story of transformation in turning his life over to Jesus Christ and from one making very poor choices, to now the man who is looked up to and held in the highest respect.”
What changed Bill was his encounter with Jesus Christ when, in a prayer huddle as an instructor at a hockey ministries camp, he came to the realization of where he was at and where he was going.
In Bill’s own words from his short autobiographical booklet entitled Out of the Penalty Box Butters tells his story of his own transformation:
“I went back home to Minnesota to look for a job, and even though I had attended college for four years, I had not completed my degree, so I had trouble finding employment.”
Then a friend, a long-time pro hockey player named Tom Reid called me and asked if I would like to help at a youth hockey camp. At first I agreed saying that I could use the money. Tom told me that this was a Christian camp and I would be working as a volunteer. I told Tom that I would not come. I hung up the phone, but Tom was persistent calling me again and again. For some reason I agreed to work at the camp.
At the camp I saw young boys and pro players having fun, singing songs and studying the Word of God. No one was swearing, fighting or other things I had witnessed in boys that age. In one of the large group meetings the song leader looked at me (assuming that all of the pro instructors at the camp were Christians) and sang, “Oh Billy do you love Jesus?” I was supposed to respond “Oh yes I love Jesus.” My face started getting red and my eyes welled up with tears. I was embarrassed, not so much because I didn’t know the song, but because I didn’t know who the song was about. During the meeting, Chico Resch, a pro goalie, got up and told how Jesus had changed his life. I had never heard anyone talk about a personal relationship with Christ before that time.
Later we broke into small huddle groups. At the end, the counselor said we were going to close in prayer and whoever wanted to, could pray. The counselor prayed, the boy next to him prayed and then each boy in the circle prayed. They were heading in my direction and I was nervous because I had never prayed before and I didn’t know what to say.
All of a sudden a calmness came over me and I started to listen to the boys prayers. Each boy was praying for me. The Holy Spirit used those prayers and those 11 and 12 year old boys were showing me the love of Jesus Christ. I was there teaching them how to play hockey; and they were there teaching me how to love.
They prayed that I would find peace in my life, employment, and that I would know Jesus as my Savior. I went back to my room, got down on my knees and asked Christ into my life. I admitted that I was a sinner and that I needed Him to help me turn away from the sinful life I was living.
When I came home from camp, I knew Christ had changed me. I told my wife about my becoming a Christian. I told her that at camp, I had asked God for forgiveness. I also then told her of all my shortcomings and how I had not always been faithful, and asked for her forgiveness. After some time, my wife saw the change in my life was real and her faith allowed her to forgive me. Jesus Christ had restored our marriage.”
This real transformation that has lasted over 30 years is miraculous. Butters exemplifies the traits associated with Christ and the Holy Spirit. Ephesians 5: 22-25 states, “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, long-suffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. Against such there is no law. And those who are Christ’s have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live in the Spirit, let us also walk in the Spirit.”
A legacy of honor
Butters has consistently shown these positive traits to hockey players of all ages, from the eight-year-old camper at the Hockey Ministries camp, to coaching high school and college players, all the way to working with the NHL’s veteran players and coaching staffs.
Current Gopher assistant coach Mike Guentzel recalls joining the Minnesota coaching staff in 1994 and having the opportunity to be mentored by Butters for a season. Besides sharing advice on coaching and life, the one comment that really stuck out is, “The team from the East that wears red is a team we can never lose to.”
The ironic thing is that the hockey world is pretty small, and a decade and a half later, Butters joined Mike Eaves’ staff as an assistant coach for the University of Wisconsin. He began poaching the talent pool of the top prospects in Minnesota, including former Minnesota Mr. Hockey, Grant Besse. The former Benilde-St. Margaret’s star, who scored five goals in the 2013 state championship game, three of them shorthanded, is now starring for the Badgers.
Butters has come a long way from the day Herb Brooks called him out for his character. Besse said that was the trait which stood out in Butters throughout the recruiting process that factored heavily in his decision to sign with Wisconsin.
“I knew Bill was sincere and really cared about me as a person and had my own best interest in mind,” Besse said.
Besse was one of several hockey dignitaries attending the event in Butters’ honor to offer their thoughts and recollections on their encounters with him over the years.
Several Minnesota Gophers including Kyle Rau, Brady Skjei and Justin Kloos said the thing that comes to mind when thinking of Bill Butters is his present work with Hockey Ministries and how he makes himself available.
“It is much more than talking hockey,” noted Rau. “Bill talks to us about life and making the right choices and how to deal with all of the pressures of life. We greatly appreciate Bill taking the time to help us out.”
St. Olaf men’s hockey coach Sean Goldsworthy, a close friend of Butters stated, “The transformation of Bill Butters is nothing short of miraculous. Bill has translated his passion and loyalty for his teammates, to now living for Christ in the hockey community. His love for people is evident in his soft heart, unconditional love, and kindness for people wanting to know more about living for Christ. His toughness is now represented in love.”
Former Gopher and NHL star Chris McCalpine talked fondly in saying, “Bill recruited me and was like a father figure, not just to me, but all of the guys, teaching us how to treat people, and the game. He helped many of us advance our career and is a major reason why I was able to play in the NHL. I just think the world of Bill.”
Minnesota Wild head coach Mike Yeo added, “I had heard about Bill before I arrived here, and have now gotten to know him personally. During the season when things weren’t going well, getting texts from Bill meant a lot to me. His work with the chapel and helping others has meant a lot to me and many other individuals.”
Wild forward Ryan Carter thought so highly of Butters, his coach at White Bear Lake High School, that he asked him to officiate as the minister at his wedding. “Bill Butters has been a selfless individual for as long as I have known him. Bill has always thought about what is in the best interest of others. And when I was considering going to play Junior A hockey instead of high school, Bill took me aside and went through how I was a person who really cared about my family, that it wasn’t necessary to play juniors, and he was absolutely right. It gave me the leadership skills that helped get me to the NHL playing with the Wild, I can’t thank Bill enough for all he has done.”
The 2015 Herb Brooks Foundation Youth Hockey Hall of Fame Award is a fitting tribute to Butters’ lasting hockey legacy and Brooks would be proud of how far he has come, and all of the hearts and lives that he has touched. If you would like to learn more about Hockey Ministries Int’l check out: hockeyministries.org .