On February 10, the Denver Pioneers were facing another key moment in the 2006-2007 season. One of the nation’s top teams had already suffered a disappointing 2-1 defeat on the road at Michigan Tech the previous night, and after taking an early two-goal lead in the rematch Saturday, the Pioneers were down by a goal with under five minutes left in the game.
Sophomore defenseman Chris Butler fired a slapshot that tied the game, giving the Pioneers a key point to remain in third place in the WCHA.
With that, in addition to his two assists earlier in the game, Butler once again showed how far he has progressed in four years, when he wasn’t even good enough to be drafted by the USHL.
While he doesn’t quite possess the hockey bloodlines of former teammate and friend Paul Stastny, Butler’s parents, Doug and Martha, met while both were playing hockey at St. Louis University. While Doug, born in a small town near Brandon, Manitoba, competed in ice hockey for the Billikens from 1975 to 1979, when the program was dropped, Martha was playing field hockey.
“I’m sure Dad was the one that first got me on skates when I was about four or five,” Chris remembered before a Pioneer practice in January. “I was probably using some of his old sticks that were still hanging around the house.”
Growing up in St. Louis, Butler played just about everything, including soccer, basketball, baseball and golf.
“Baseball was my second favorite sport. I played it until I was 15 or 16. When I went away to play junior hockey, I realized as much as I loved baseball, I had to give it up to play hockey.”
While in the seventh grade, Butler met Paul Stastny. “We got to know each other at school and while playing on the summer teams at that time. We then played together at Chaminade High School when I was a freshman and he was a sophomore. Then he left to play on the Junior Blues.”
After weighing his options between midget or junior hockey, Butler, then 15 years old, chose to follow Stastny to the Junior Blues.
“I figured playing against bigger, stronger guys that were 18 or 19 years old at the time would be really good for my development,” he said. “When I was there we lost in the national title game and since I left I think they have now have won three national titles in a row. It is a very good program.”
During that time, Butler also benefited from the coaching talents of a few ex-NHL players who stayed in the St. Louis area following the end of their playing careers with the Blues.
“Mike Zuke and Perry Turnbull both have sons that are my age and they both coached teams that I was on while we were playing AAA for the amateur Blues. Having guys around like them, Basil McRae, Al MacInnis and Tony Twist really helped. Anytime you can get a guy who has played at the highest level to coach and give back to the area is tremendous. You look up to them and they are coaching you at the same time. It is pretty special.”
Despite his progress, Butler still wasn’t drawing interest from any of Canada’s major junior teams or the USHL.
“I never really got a lot of attention from major junior teams,” Butler recalled. “I was a little smaller at 14 years old, when they conduct the bantam draft. I was probably 5-foot-9 and 130 pounds at the time. But my game really changed when I went to play for the Junior Blues and things kind of took off from there.”
Following his good season with the Junior Blues, Butler finally got some attention from scouts.
“I was actually close to signing a tender to a team in the North American Hockey League in Michigan called the Capitol Center Pride, but they ended up folding. I didn’t have a lot of options at the time as I wasn’t selected in the USHL draft, but I was invited to attend Sioux City’s camp and competed as hard as I could and made the team. Things really worked out well for me there.”
Did they ever, as Butler went from a walk-on in his first season with Sioux City to First-Team All-USHL honors in his second year with the Musketeers. In that 2004-05 season, Butler led his team with a +36 plus/minus rating and a team-leading 60 games played while scoring six goals and 28 points.
His great year also got him invitations to the National Hockey League combine and a tryout for the Under-20 World Junior team.
At that point, major colleges came calling, and after being wooed by schools like North Dakota, Ohio State and Maine, Butler decided to once again join old pal Stastny at Denver, where the Pioneers had just completed back-to-back NCAA championships.
“When I decided to come to Denver, I knew I had a chance to learn from two of the premier defensemen in the nation in Brett Skinner and Matt Carle. While Brett ended up leaving before I got here, having a year to learn from Carle in watching the way he prepares himself and the things he does was very good for the development of my game.”
DU head coach George Gwozdecky agreed.
“One of the great things that helped Chris was playing with Matt Carle,” noted Gwozdecky. “Prior to coming here Chris was not recognized as a great offensive player. But in working with and talking with Matt and by giving Chris a little bit more freedom and then playing him more, Chris gained more confidence in what he can do offensively. It was very apparent last year in having Chris assume a little bit more of the role that Matt played with us last year has been very healthy for Chris.
“He has grown in his confidence with that. In where he plays, not only on even strength and the penalty kill but the power play, it tells you that he has a primary role and the importance placed on him in many of these key situations. His progress has been tremendous and we couldn’t be more pleased for him and how he has continued to develop.”
Following strong play early in his freshman season at Denver, Butler realized another dream when he made the U.S. World Junior Team. But Butler experienced a low point in his hockey career when an injury during the tournament prevented him playing against Canada.
“I was so pumped to put on the USA jersey and represent our country and then I got injured against Switzerland one day before we played Canada. The U.S.-Canada rivalry is obviously pretty big. Everyone was hoping and waiting for that game and to sit there on the sideline with a separated shoulder was pretty tough to watch. The way things finished for us was disappointing because we had higher expectations for ourselves.”
The U.S. team finished fourth in the tournament, just out of the medals. While at the tournament, Butler got to know his teammates well, especially roommate Jack Johnson, along with fellow defensemen Erik Johnson, Taylor Chorney and Brian Lee.
After missing two more games due to the shoulder injury, Butler finished the 2005-06 season with seven goals and 22 points in 35 games, good enough for eighth among WCHA defensemen in league scoring.
The Pioneers’ season finished on a down note, though, as the two-time defending NCAA champions failed to make the NCAA tournament following their upset loss to Minnesota-Duluth in the opening round of the WCHA playoffs.
Denver’s losses to lightly-regarded Princeton and Ferris State in their own Christmas tournament also figured prominently in the Pioneers’ failure to make the NCAAs. Butler, along with teammate Geoff Paukovich, missed both of those games while at the World Juniors.
Of note is that three of the four games Butler missed were Pioneer losses.
While the program soon experienced a high with the announcement that Carle had won the Hobey Baker Award, that was tempered by Carle’s decision to turn pro. While Carle’s departure wasn’t totally unexpected, the decision by Stastny to turn pro later in the summer was.
Butler and Stastny kept in touch during the summer and now, as Stastny is having a great year with the Colorado Avalanche.
“We played soccer about once a week in the summer at his parents house with his brother (Yan) and a couple of other guys who were Yan’s age who played college hockey,” said Butler. “It was a fun way to keep in shape and keep the competitive spirits up. I now get a chance to watch him play with the Avalanche and every once in a while I bug him for his tickets. It is a lot of fun and pretty exciting to watch him play.”
Butler is having another outstanding year in 2006-07. With one week remaining in the regular season, he has nine goals and 25 points and is tied for third among WCHA defensemen in league scoring, putting him ahead of World Junior teammates Johnson and Lee.
More importantly, he is becoming a more complete player.
Said Butler, “The thing I am really trying to do now is fill in all the holes in my game. I try to play well both offensively and defensively. I try to play physical and I try to use my stick to poke-check when needed. I want to be a complete player.
“Obviously, I am not the biggest guy in the world, but if I can take away an opponent’s time and space and put him into the boards hard every time he has the puck, he is going to think twice about coming down on your side of the ice the next time or he might hurry a play and make a mistake.”
Gwozdecky agreed, saying, “Chris played in every situation as a freshman last year and continues to do so this year. This year Chris is averaging in the mid-to-high 20s for minutes played, tops on the team. He plays a lot of times against the other team’s top lines and that puts more stress in his life but he has handled it extremely well. We have not been very deep on the blueline this year and Chris has been asked to do an awful lot as far as playing time is concerned.”
Added Gwozdecky, “One thing we have always liked about Chris is that he has a little bit of a bite to his game. We have talked to Chris about knowing when to use that edge and be aggressive and take that smart hit or make the smart, tough play as opposed to making the undisciplined play. Chris has developed his game in this aspect also.”
Asked to compare Butler’s progress to guys like Matt Carle and Brett Skinner, Gwozdecky said, “Chris is falling along the same progression line as many of the top defensemen we have had here over the years. He is different in certain areas, but the development he is going through now, the playing time he is receiving, the responsibility that has been put on his shoulders that he has responded to all tell me that he is handling it and his development has been rapid up to this point.”
While the subject does not come up in team discussions, St. Louis native Butler admits that returning home to play in the 2007 Frozen Four has crossed his mind.
“It has been my goal since day one since I knew the Frozen Four was going to be in St. Louis. A lot of guys were giving me a hard time this summer at home about it. Certainly there is a little extra pressure, but I want to go back there and play in front of my family and friends and hopefully see what we can do as a team.”