UW assistant coach Bill Butters stepped down last week, leaving the Badgers in peril - Photo Credit: Larry Radloff/INCHWriters.com
The Wisconsin men's hockey team may have been on a bye, but that didn't stop them from dominating college hockey headlines last week. A relaxing week off was anything but after the Badgers announced the resignation of assistant coach Bill Butters Wednesday.
The news was shocking given the timing. Wisconsin is just six games into their 36 game regular season schedule, with at least four months remaining in the college hockey season.
Butters told the local media Wednesday afternoon that he was following his passion. Before coming to Wisconsin in 2010, Butters spent a number of years running Hockey Ministries where he was an advocate for young hockey players looking for an outlet to discuss their faith.
"This is about my calling on my life," Butters said. "In 1980, I felt called by God to get into ministry, to tell players about faith, or share faith with them.
"I did that for a number of years, and that's where my true passion lies."
Wisconsin head coach Mike Eaves tried to talk Butters out of leaving, but admitted that he understood Butter's need to move on.
"Never being one just to roll over, I challenged [Butters] a couple times," he said. "Throughout our discussions it became clear where his heart was, and what he needed to do."
The most common criticism in the wake of the Butters departure has been the timing of the decision.
I think most people can live with the reasoning behind Butters decision to move on if his heart isn't in the right place. I don't think that anyone wants a guy simply going through the motions and collecting a paycheck. For that, I applaud Butters for doing what he had to do.
That said, the timing couldn't have been worse. Wisconsin has gotten off to a 1-4-1 start to the season and are currently without their top freshman Nic Kerdiles (NCAA suspension) and leading scorer Mark Zengerle (injury).
When Butters met with the media last week he was asked if he felt he was leaving the team in the lurch just six games into the season.
"I don't think I'm leaving them in the lurch," Butters said. "I think this is a necessary ending for the betterment of the team. Sometimes necessary endings are tough, but I have to answer this call in my life."
Others don't see it that way. Long time Badger insider Mike Lucas was vocal on his radio show (Lucas & Lepay on The Big 1070) last week in assessing Butter's decision to step down when he did.
"Well, look, I think it's great that he has the lord in his heart, more power to him. But the lord is not on scholarship, those kids that he turned his back on, are. And he cheated those kids by walking out and leaving this program in the lurch. That's how I look at it."
"The lord can wait, if he was really going to live up to his commitment to this program. And to those players that he recruited, some of them he recruited, those players he coached, he turned his back on them."
While Lucas' statement may be brash, his thoughts seem to echo the feelings of most longtime Wisconsin hockey supporters who are confused and angry with the current state of the program.
The Badgers have failed to qualify for the NCAA tournament in three of the past four seasons, including the last two.
Butters talked about a moment he had a few weeks ago in Eau Claire when he was speaking to a group and came to the realization that his time may be best spent serving the lord as opposed to the Wisconsin hockey program.
"I spoke in Eau Claire a few weeks ago and it reminded me where my passion really is," Butters said.
If Butters was thinking about this decision a month ago, it's hard to believe that he didn't have these thoughts over the summer when stepping down would have made the most sense. Are we to believe that one speaking engagement after the season started was the straw that broke the camel's back?
Seems like a load of BS if you ask me.
Butters is stepping away from the team when they need him the most. The hits keep coming for this program, and Butters has seemingly taken the easy way out.
Replacing Butters Won't Come Easy
Wisconsin head coach Mike Eaves is now forced to deal with the herculean task of replacing a coach part-way through a season that hasn't exactly gotten off to the best start. It certainly doesn't help things that Eaves own seat seems to be warming up by the weekend as it is.
Eaves will eventually find someone to take the spot, but don't expect that to come this week.
Andy Baggot from the Wisconsin State Journal reported that 12-15 people had expressed interest in the position, but finding a qualified candidate at this point comes with a multitude of roadblocks.
The most obvious problem is that the majority of the qualified candidates are currently employed by other teams. You're not going to get a coach to leave an established job at the collegiate or pro level at this point of the season.
Given the circumstances of the situation, Wisconsin will be forced to hire a temporary replacement that is classified as a part-time position at the University. That means that whoever is hired will not be guaranteed a full-time job at the conclusion of the season.
After the season Eaves and the University will conduct a national search for a full-time replacement. Will someone take the risk of leaving their current employer for a four-month trial position?
Any candidate for the position must be a college graduate, and have three years of general coaching experience. They must also go through a background check, which is part of the reason why you shouldn't expect a final decision to come down this week.
What kind of options does that leave? Hard to say, but there are a few schools of thought that jump out.
The first is a former player who is transitioning out of the pro game and is looking to start their coaching career. I know that there are more than a few former Badgers who fit the bill and are interested in the opening.
In speaking with other sources around the league, I know that there are alumni of other schools who are in the same boat and either have, or will be contacting Eaves about the position soon.
Other options include someone who has coaching experience at this level, but for whatever reason may have stepped away from the game and into the private sector.
Mark Strobel, a former Wisconsin player would fit this situation. Strobel was a defenseman for the Badgers from 1991-95, and spent four seasons as an assistant coach between Minnesota-Duluth and Nebraska-Omaha after his pro career.
Giving the timing of the situation, the hire doesn't need to be someone who is advanced in the strategical parts of the game. A quality hire would be someone who has a name that resonates with the current players, and has a voice that they can respect.
Whoever is chosen doesn't need to have a rich history of experience, but they need to be someone that can lend a helping hand when needed, and be able to make adjustments and give suggestions to players when necessary.
Eaves Is Not Without Fault
One thing that has seemingly been overlooked by some is the role of Mike Eaves in the wake of Butters' departure. Could Eaves have known that Butters was going to leave him and his team holding the bag six games into the season at a critical juncture? Of course not.
That said, there's a school of thought that this coaching setup was destined to fail from the outset.
Eaves found himself in a tough spot after Wisconsin's run to the 2010 national championship game. The ensuing off-season saw Wisconsin looking for a pair of new assistants, as Mark Osiecki left to take the head coaching job at Ohio State and Kevin Patrick left to take the head coaching job with Muskegon in the USHL.
To replace his veteran assistants, Eaves made a pair of curious hires.
To replace Patrick, Eaves choose rookie coach Gary Shuchuk. While Shuchuk's credentials as a former NHL player and alumni of the school are certainly critical, the highest level of experience he had in the coaching ranks was at the midget level.
To fill the rather large shoes of Osiecki, Eaves chose longtime friend Bill Butters, despite his hiatus from coaching on the collegiate level for over 15 years.
Prior to his time on the Badgers' bench, Butters was an assistant coach with his alma mater Minnesota starting in 1985 and ending in 1995.
The moves raised a few eyebrows at the time, and many of those same skeptics are still scratching their heads.
Individually, hiring Shuchuk or Butters would have been fine. Hiring both of them at the same time was a risky proposition that hasn't come close to netting the results that Wisconsin has come to expect as an elite hockey school.
One particular alarming stat has been the production of the penalty kill, which Butters has been in charge of during his time at Wisconsin.
Through 84 games (two seasons, plus six games), Wisconsin's penalty kill has a success rate of just 78.2%. To put it bluntly, that's awful. Last season Wisconsin was 55th in the country out of 59 teams in penalty kill percentage, and the previous season they were 41st. To start this year, the Badgers are 54th.
In addition to on-ice results, you also need to ask how recruiting is affected when you bring in a rookie college hockey coach and a guy who hasn't been around the game in 15 years?
The recruiting results on Butters and Shuchuk's watch have been a mixed bag up to this point.
It's obvious that Wisconsin has lost their recruiting stronghold in Western Canada, as they haven't landed a recruit from that area since the coaching change, despite Shuchuk's ties to that area.
Instead the Badgers have focused on landing high school talent from Wisconsin and Minnesota and have lately found a pipeline in the AAA midget scene in the Chicago area.
At this point it's too early to judge final returns from their efforts.
By all accounts the Badger players seem to love Shuchuk, and he's picking up steam on the recruiting trail as he gains experience in the role.
That said, at the end of the day all that matters is winning hockey games, and Wisconsin hasn't done enough of that lately. Hard not to wonder if things would be different if they had gone in a different direction with at least one of the hires.
Where Do The Badgers Go From Here?
As I previously mentioned, a 1-4-1 start is not where anyone in the Wisconsin program wanted to be at this point of the season. Obviously given that Wisconsin is without the services of Kerdiles and Zengerle at least for the next few weeks, the Badgers are going to have to find other sources of inspiration.
I was listening to Lucas and Lepay on the Big 1070 on Friday and Andy Baggot was a guest on the show. Obviously one of the topics that they discussed in length was Bill Butters, and Baggot was asked what this means for the team going forward.
I thought that he had a great answer, and I agree with him that this is a moment that can make or break this year's team.
"I think this moment is a rallying point for this team. People think you stink. People think you're going to go to Minnesota and get your butts kicked by your arch rival. People think that chaos is here, with one of your top freshman being suspended, your leading scorer out for 4-6 weeks with a broken finger. People look at you as vulnerable. I think this is a moment where you bow up your back and say, ‘Ok people, we can show you.' Regardless of if they bring in a coach right now, I think this is a moment you have to seize, and you have to be inspired by."
"I think at some level, there still has to be motivation from this. This is a tough moment, how are you going to handle it? Are you going to step back and shrink from it? Or are you going to accept it and move on? I think for the most part this team appears like it has accepted it and intends to move on."
One thing that I've learned in being around the guys on this team from time-to-time is that there is a certain sense of pride that doesn't always resonate in the public eye. People only see them for a few hours on Friday and Saturday nights and don't understand that they live and breathe Badger hockey.
The players in this program understand the longstanding tradition and success of Wisconsin hockey, and that's not just the local kids who grew up rooting for the Badgers.
Every summer Wisconsin's pro players come back to town and work out and practice at the Wisconsin facilities. Current players see that, and interact with these guys and are made aware of the expectations at a school like Wisconsin.
With the current NHL lockout, guys like Adam Burish are taking extra time with this current crop of players, and are attending practices and games and doing their part to help re-ignite that winning tradition in Madison.
Obviously no one is happy with the final results of the past few seasons not making the NCAA tournament. This is a proud program that is rich in history.
Missing the tournament this season for the third year in a row is unacceptable, and Mike Eaves will have to answer the bell for that regardless of the circumstances involved in how things got that way.
That said, Eaves and Shuchuk are talented coaches and have the pedigree to put this Badger train back on the tracks.
If I know this team like I think I do, these guys are looking at this situation like another opportunity to prove people wrong. Baggot is right, this is a moment to rally the troops.
Prior to the season, expectations were high for this group. Despite losing All-American Justin Schultz, most expected the Badgers to be a threat in the WCHA this year.
That can still happen, but it's going to take a group of brothers banding together and adopting an 'us vs the world' mentality to overcome the adversity that's been thrown at them this season.
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