Leave it to the passionate hockey fans in America’s Dairyland to know what happens when butter goes bad.
RANCID – adjective: having a rank, unpleasant, stale smell or taste, as through decomposition, eg: rancid butter.
That was the word that greeted University of Minnesota tough guy Bill Butters nearly 40 years ago, written on a banner in big red letters to be easily seen by him and more than 8,000 fans who packed into the raucous Dane County Coliseum in Madison.
“BUTTERS IS RANCID.”
When the much-despised defenseman and his Golden Gopher mates would venture into the den of the University of Wisconsin Badgers, the on-ice tough guy known for bone-rattling checks and the occasional gloves-off mayhem was always the target of well-earned ire from the Badger faithful.
Butters recalls one game where he hit the ice in Madison and was greeted by the trombone section of the Badger band, with each horn’s slide holding a rubber chicken with Butters’ hockey sweater number on it. True to his villainous reputation on the ice, Butters admits taking a swipe at a few of the horns.
Another time, he recalls being followed to the Gophers’ locker room, and exchanging unpleasantries not with an opposing coach or player, but with Martha Johnson, the wife of long-time Wisconsin coach Badger Bob.
“Bill never did anything real cheap to me, but he had a football background, and when he hit you, he made sure you remembered it,” said Dean Talafous, who was the Badgers offensive star of the era.
“A player with that personality and those traits is naturally going to look like the bad guy to the other team, but I think he took more punches than he gave. You’ve got to have players like Bill to win championships.”
Butters took that winning attitude from the WCHA to the professional ranks, bouncing between the WHA and NHL for much of the late 1970s and routinely putting up triple-digit penalty numbers for teams like the Minnesota Fighting Saints, Edmonton Oilers, New England Whalers and Houston Aeros.
By the time he was hired to recruit and coach the defensemen at his alma mater in 1985, Butters had mellowed a bit, although he was still known for fiery moments behind the bench. He helped lead the
Gophers to a trio of WCHA titles and six trips to the Frozen Four, while earning a reputation as a defensive innovator, helping blueliners like Doug Zmolek, Chris McAlpine, Lance Pitlick, Mike Crowley, Tom Pederson and Dan Trebil make successful careers in the NHL.
“What makes him a great coach first and foremost is his personality,” said Minnesota Wild head coach Todd Richards, who played for Butters with the Gophers. “He’s genuine and honest, but also a character. You listened to him and you had respect for him because of his experience, and because of that personality.”
After head coaching stints at the small college and high school levels, Butters switched his efforts to Hockey Ministries International, coaching camps and traveling to college hockey programs throughout the Upper Midwest to share his faith with interested players and coaches. All seemed content in
Butters’ world, with the children out of the nest and at the age where many contemplate retirement. Then an old teammate called with an offer he couldn’t refuse.
Wisconsin’s top two assistant coaches had departed at last season’s end – Kevin Patrick is the head coach with the USHL’s new Muskegon Lumberjacks, and Mark Osiecki is the new men’s head coach at Ohio State. That meant Mike Eaves was looking for both youth and experience to fill his assistant spots.
He found the youth in former Badger star Gary Shuchuk, who was the offensive catalyst for Wisconsin’s 1990 NCAA title team. And for experience, Eaves called on Butters, with whom he’d been a teammate on the minor league Oklahoma City Stars and Minnesota North Stars in the 1979-80 season. After some consideration, the former “most hated man in Madison” took the job.
“I always had a healthy respect for Wisconsin, and always took pride in competing against them and beating them,” Butters said. “I thought about it and figured I might still have something to offer.”
For those who knew Butters’ history as the villain from Minnesota, his hiring in Madison was a surprise, and drew immediate comparisons to long-time Dairyland hero Brett Favre leaving the Green Bay Packers to play for the archrival Minnesota Vikings.
“I was drinking coffee and reading the paper when I saw the news about Bill going to Madison, and I’m pretty sure I fell off my chair,” recalled Talafous, who played eight seasons in the NHL and coached Wisconsin-River Falls to an NCAA title. “I think Bill drove a maroon and gold car, and I’m pretty sure he painted his house maroon and gold, and now he’s going to be a Badger.”
For former Gophers, there was similar shock and mock disappointment at the news of Butters trek down I-94 East.
“I feel that he’s betrayed me,” joked Richards, who then turned serious and complimented the Badgers on their hire. “Bill is going to do a great job at Wisconsin and make everyone around him better. It’s just hard for me to picture him wearing a red turtleneck.”
While Wisconsin made a run all the way to the NCAA title game last season (losing 5-0 to Boston College in Detroit) the off-season losses, particularly on defense, are notable. Seven of Wisconsin’s top eight scorers will be playing elsewhere in 2010-11, and three underclassmen defensemen departed early, leaving holes to be filled on the Badger blue line. Butters casts an optimistic eye toward the immediate challenge in front of him.
“I love working with young guys and helping them get better,” Butters said. “We have good players here, and this is a great opportunity for guys to step in and prove themselves.”
Of course, many figured that as important as the Badgers proving themselves to their new coach would be Butters proving himself to a red-clad army of fans – many of whom still remember him wearing maroon and gold and terrorizing south-central Wisconsin.
If Butters had any trepidation about venturing into what used to be enemy territory, it disappeared during one of his first days on the job in Madison, when a friendly couple, now in their 70s, stopped by the Badger hockey offices. Admitting they were the original creators of the “RANCID” banner that was hung in Butters’ honor, the couple handed over a fresh-baked pan of brownies, and said how happy they were to have him wearing Badger colors today.
“It’s a funny thing,” Butters said later. “All those years I thought that I bled maroon and gold. But I just had a physical, and it turns out that I bleed red.”
Jess Myers is a contributing editor to InsideCollegeHockey.com.