(Courtesy of Perry Bergson, The Brandon Sun) — Sven Butenschon isn’t about to forget how good coaching helped him more than 20 years ago when he skated with the Brandon Wheat Kings.
Butenschon, 41, was officially extended for another year on Monday as the head coach of the UBC Thunderbirds men’s hockey team in U Sports after serving as interim bench boss last season.
Butenschon has always been grateful to his former Wheat King coaches Bob Lowes and Mark Johnston, who he says were key in his development. Johnston spent time with him before practice to do extra skating drills, and Lowes challenged him to be a better player during the defencemen’s three seasons with the team from 1993-96.
“Johnny was with me before practices working on that stuff,” he said, noting he has done similar work with his defenceman on things like their shot. “I just love that part of the game and teaching. It was done for me as a young player and it’s great to give back and do it for these guys.”
Butenschon, an assistant coach at the time, took the top job in August 2016 on an interim basis after the surprise departure of former head coach Adam Shell, who left during training camp after just over a year on the job.
Shell had replaced Tyler Kuntz, who resigned after the 2014-15 season following one year on the job. He had stepped in for Milan Dragicevic, who was fired following the 2013-14 season after 12 years with the Thunderbirds.
Butenschon said the fact that the team had four coaches in four years may have helped him.
“I think that was one of the big factors in me staying,” he said. “Our players had four different coaches, some of those guys, and four different voices and four different styles of play and opinions and people. The fact that I was here as an assistant and as a head coach, they were really looking for some continuity and I was the guy.”
Butenschon’s open-ended contract means his job status will be reviewed after every season.
The team struggled at 5-10-1 through the first half of the Canada West conference season as the Thunderbirds adjusted to Butenschon. But UBC went 7-3-1 in the second half, winning their final four games, to clinch the sixth and final playoff spot in the eight-team league.
They were swept in the first playoff round by the Calgary Dinos, but seemed to respond to Butenschon’s coaching style.
“I’m probably a players’ coach,” he said. “The fact that I played pro for 17 years, I can rely on a lot of my experiences and relationships that I’ve created over the years. When I’m trying to talk about a system or something to an individual, I don’t get in anybody’s face too much. I try to handle them like pros. I know they’re coming from the WHL where they’ve been ridden hard. A lot of those coaches are hard on the kids, so I want to be somewhere in the middle.”
His roster included former Wheat King Nick Buonassisi, who played with the team in 2012-13.
Butenschon, an Itzehoe, Germany-born defenceman, moved near the Manitoba community of Oakbank at age two.
After earning a spot with the Brandon Wheat Kings as an unheralded 17-year-old, Butenschon went on to be drafted by the Pittsburgh Penguins 57th overall in 1994. He played 140 games in the National Hockey League over eight seasons with Pittsburgh, the Edmonton Oilers, New York Islanders and Vancouver Canucks, and spent his final seven seasons in Germany in the top level Deutsche Eishockey Liga.
He even played for Germany in a couple of world championships and the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver.
Butenschon’s UBC team played in Edmonton in January and he ran into former Oilers assistant coach Billy Moore. He asked Moore, an Alberta hockey legend, what he thought of the Thunderbirds.
“He gave us the biggest compliment,” Butenschon remembered. “He said you guys played a really good team game, you looked organized, so that was coming from him. If you came to a game and watched us, I would say when we’re going that we’re fast, we compete, we get on other teams’ defence pretty quick. We have a faster team. We’re not overly big so we try to get clips of Pittsburgh (Penguins) and San Jose (Sharks) last year when they made their playoff run to watch their forecheck and how quickly they got on defenceman and created turnovers.”
He said that style of play is contagious.
Butenschon said it took time for the team to become accustomed to his role changing from being the assistant coach they could joke around with to the guy in charge, and it also took time for him to adjust. He’s hopeful that he can establish a better sense of accountability and create a better culture in the dressing room in his second season.
They’re lessons he first learned more than two decades ago as a Wheat King. He said what Lowes and Johnston taught him is actually more applicable.
“I think it’s now even more as a coach,” Butenschon said. “These guys, the heart and the dedication and how much they really cared for you, it made it easy to go out there as a player and lay yourself out to block a shot or take a hit to make a play. You wanted to do it for yourself and those guys.
“As a coach, I’ve always dreamt of coaching a group of players who would do that for me.”