For the Wisconsin men’s hockey team, the 2012-13 season has been anything but normal.
After being forced to open the season without freshman forward Nic Kerdiles amidst a scandal that he received benefits from an NHL agent and losing star junior forward Mark Zengerle to a broken index finger for 4-6 weeks, Wisconsin thought they had weathered the storm.
Then Nov. 7, assistant coach Bill Butters decided to step down six games into the season so that he could pursue faith ministry.
The players got their first clue that something was up when head coach Mike Eaves called an impromptu team meeting on a day the coaches had originally planned to give the players day off.
“We had planned for a day off because we had our bye week,” redshirt junior forward Keegan Meuer said. “Then all of a sudden it was like, ‘Oh hey, 1:30 meeting.’ Nobody was really sure what it was about, and when we walked into the room, we sat down and coach Eaves was like, ‘Coach Bill has something to share with us,’ and then he kind of dropped the bomb on us.”
For sophomore defenseman Jake McCabe and his teammates — who have already survived a roller coaster of a season — the news came as shock.
“I don’t think any of us expected any coaching change whatsoever, let-alone midseason,” McCabe said. “It’s pretty rare at the college level; you don’t see it much.”
Still, while they may have been surprised by the announcement, the players are anything but bitter about Butters’ decision to leave.
“I respect his decision,” senior defenseman John Ramage said. “It wasn’t something that had to do with hockey, it was just a personal decision, and sometimes when you have a personal decision, you go with your heart. You really can’t argue against that.”
During his brief tenure with the Badgers, Butters was in charge of the defense and the penalty kill, and in his absence, the defensemen have already noticed some differences in practice without Butters on board.
Butters became famous among the players for giving out nicknames based on some of their attributes on the ice. Now, even though Butters has moved on, the nicknames remain.
“We would always play these smaller games, and he would always come up with these nicknames for different guys,” McCabe said. “He calls Mark Zengerle “Rain Delay” because he has such patience with the puck, and he calls Joe Faust “Steel Fingers” … just making a joke that he has got rock-solid hands.”
“Just little jokes like that, he lighten[ed] the mood.”
Even more, Butters was one of the players’ go-to resources for questions on and off the rink. McCabe said players regularly went up to talk to him in his office about whatever was on their mind.
On the ice, McCabe said the transition to assistant coach Gary Shuchuk — who now takes over the reigns of the defense — was difficult at first, but he credits the remaining coaches in their ability to transition the team amidst yet another distraction for the team off the ice.
“We know that [the coaches] will find a good person to fill his shoes,” Ramage said. “We know [Shuchuk] has good credibility, so we aren’t really worried about all that.”
Now almost a week later, while the players have come to terms with their beloved coach’s decision, the task ahead of them — short two players and now short an assistant coach — still remains a difficult one, especially as a weekend series at Minnesota quickly approaches.
“You can’t make excuses,” McCabe said. “You’ve gotta keep going. We’ve got a great group of guys, we’ve got to step up. Zengerle is a big loss, Kerdiles obviously that was a tough situation … coach Butters as well, but our other guys have to step up.”
When it comes to the media, student athletes are well trained to say that their focus is always on the next game, especially in times of turmoil. After all, it is always a safe answer.
This time though, the players seem to genuinely mean it — hoping that a return to the ice can somehow right the rough start that nobody expected coming into the season.
“It’s in the back of our heads,” McCabe said. “ Now we are focused on Minnesota, just like the other things going on this year we have got to keep on going forward. … Minnesota is our biggest rival. … We have to get some points over there. There’s no excuses.”
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