Editor’s note: On May 21, University of Wisconsin men’s hockey coach Mike Eaves announced that Bill Butters will be joining his staff.
Butters, who played at the University of Minnesota and later served as an assistant coach for the Gophers, has some history with Badgers fans — as was documented by Capital Times columnist Mike Lucas in his book, “Five Golden Rings: The saga of Wisconsin hockey.”
Following is an excerpt from the chapter on the Badgers’ 1972-73 NCAA championship run.
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Off the ice, University of Minnesota defenseman Billy Butters sounded so polite, so sincere, so passive, so Alan Alda-like.
“I leave my game on the ice,” said the 5-foot-10, 190-pound Butters. “Heck, when I’m not playing, I like to go out and have a beer with my opponent. I’m an entirely different person.”
But on the ice ...
“I’ve gotten a bad reputation,” Butters contended. “I get penalties that other guys would never get. I know that I deserve quite a few. But the refs are watching me a lot closer. I never get a break anymore. Even when I made a clean check or raise an elbow, they whistle me off. I don’t stand a chance.”
Against Minnesota-Duluth, Butters spent so much time in the penalty box that Gophers coach Herb Brooks took off his blazer and threw it onto the ice in protest of what he saw as one-sided officiating.
“At the time, it seemed like the thing to do,” Brooks said of the incident. “It was just a difference of opinions and it came in a frustrating situation.
“If Billy Butters is playing for you, then you love him. If he’s playing against you, then you hate him. He’s a tough kid who plays the game with enthusiasm and most of his penalties result from his spirit.”
Butters understands his shortcomings as an athlete. He can’t skate with the quicker forwards in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association, so he has to slow them down.
And a bone-crushing check into the boards is often the best equalizer.
“I have to play rough,” Butters said. “I’m an aggressive player. I don’t like to slash people or hurt them, but I have to even things up. I’m not a stick-handler. I tried to be one at the start of the year and I couldn’t do anything. Finally, I went back to my old brawling style.”
Intimidation is the key. Butters figures that if he roughs up an opponent once — taking them out of their comfort zone by sending a physical message — they’ll be looking for him the next time.
“I’m not a great skater,” Butters admitted. “So to equalize things I have to get them conscious of getting hit. That slows them down considerably. But I’m not going to go out of my way for a cheap shot anymore. I don’t go out there looking for a fight. I’ve learned that enough hitting will come your way during the course of a game.”
During the 1971 WCHA playoffs, Butters became Public Enemy No. 1 in Madison after delivering a cross-check to the throat of UW winger Tim Dool, who suffered a bruised larynx.
A three-photo sequence — ranging from Butters catching Dool under his chin with the stick to Dool crumpling to the ice — ran atop the Wisconsin State Journal sports section the following morning.
“I’m not as wild anymore,” said Butters, a team captain. “I’ve settled down quite a bit since then (the Dool incident).”
We shall see.
In the first round of the WCHA playoffs, the Badgers drew Minnesota. That would add up to four games against the Gophers in a span of just five days.
The ancient rivals played a Friday-Saturday series at the Dane County Coliseum to end the regular season. And they were back at it again in a two-game, total goals showdown the following Monday and Tuesday.
The Badgers won the opener 8-6, but the Gophers wouldn’t go down without a fight the second night at the Coliseum.
Wisconsin hung on for a 6-4 win, giving the Badgers a 14-10 edge in total goals. But it ended in ugliness for both sides. With 39 seconds left in the third period, both benches emptied.
The brawl was on.
And Billy Butters didn’t leave town without issuing a few parting shots.
“I shouldn’t say anything but I’ve got a lot more class than they do,” Butters said of the Coliseum banshees, who reside in the student sections. “Hell, one time I was skating back to the bench and I look up to see this guy who must have been 50 years old and he’s calling me a blankety-blank.
“Next to him was this little kid and the next thing I knew he was repeating what the old guy was saying: ‘You blankety-blank Butters.’ And they say we’re immature as players? Ya gotta be kidding me.”
Throughout the game, Butters was the target of verbal abuse from the CC-2 section — the self-proclaimed “Mad Dogs,” who hang along the glass next to the visitors’ bench.
That abuse went beyond the standard Billy Butters chant. When Butters took a hard slapshot off his leg and struggled to skate back to the Minnesota bench, the Mad Dogs stood and cheered. Butters made a gesture in their direction.
Surprisingly enough, when the brawl erupted, Butters was not involved. It started when Minnesota forward Mike Polich and Wisconsin defenseman John Taft had words.
Polich skated away from Taft and then stopped in front of the UW bench, where he suddenly thrust his stick at someone in the front row. As hands began to flail, Wisconsin’s Dean Talafous reached out to touch someone — Mike Polich.
“No. 17 (Talafous) was the first one to grab me and the next thing I know there were four guys pulling off my jersey,” said Polich, pleading his case. “Then all sorts of guys started swinging at me, and I just tried to get out of there.”
When order was restored, Brooks went to the officials and requested that no UW player be thrown out of the game for fighting, which carries with it a one-game league suspension.
“I’m not looking to be a hero or anything,” Brooks said. “But I saw no reason that warranted kicking any of the kids out. It wasn’t that bad. Both teams were emotionally involved.”
During the fracas, Butters and Wisconsin goaltender Dick Perkins, one of the more emotional and intense players in a Badger sweater, gravitated toward each other and chatted amiably at the blue line.
“We’re friends,” Butters said of his longtime relationship with Perkins. “I wasn’t going to get involved in Polich’s fight. But if I would have gone anywhere, I would have gone in the stands.”
Butters wanted to go after the Mad Dogs. He did end up skating along the sideboards and he raked his stick across the Plexiglas. They ducked. He smiled.
“I was just playing the role,” Butters said. “I wouldn’t hit anyone. But I was playing the bad guy; the part they cast me in.”
Columnist’s note: That’s bound to change among UW fans now that Billy Butters is on their side.