|HMI'S BILL BUTTERS MINISTERS TO THE HUSKIES|
|Friday December 25, 2009|
The following is a recent article by Kevin Allenspach of the St. Cloud Times, highlighting the ministry of Hockey Ministries International staff member Bill Butters to the St.Cloud Huskies Hockey Team.
The coffee in Bill Butters' hands is warm as he watches the St. Cloud State men's hockey team practice.
Separated by Plexiglas and a generational gap, he watches a familiar scene. Players swoop and spin, occasionally crashing into one another with a shout, or blasting a slap shot that explodes in the empty arena at the National Hockey Center.
"It's a violent game," Butters said.
He should know. Butters, 58, played at the University of Minnesota in the early 1970s, then went on to a pro career that included 100 fights and more than 240 stitches in his face.
Thirty years after he last appeared as a defenseman with the Minnesota North Stars, he's still around the rinks — only now it's with a Bible under his arm. Its black cover carries the logo of a skate with a cross on the heel.
Butters is a chaplain for Hockey Ministries International, and he visits St. Cloud State about twice a month to meet with a group of Huskies who seek harmony between hitting and their own humanity.
"I get people all the time who say 'Hockey? Ministry? C'mon, they don't go together,' " Butters said. "To me, it's a mission field. No one dares to go here because we're all big, tough, macho hockey players."
Nonetheless, some of SCSU's biggest and toughest are among those who meet with him, usually after practice once every couple of weeks.
"Some of us are religious but don't have time to get to church, or school gets hectic or else we're on the road," said 6-foot-3, 210-pound junior forward Nick Oslund, who today will travel with the Huskies to Denver to face the second-ranked Pioneers.
"When Bill comes in, it's an open environment — nothing's forced, though it's Christianity-based. Sometimes we'll debate things going on in our lives and usually he's got a passage from the Bible that puts things in perspective.
"It's relaxing to come in and get your mind off everything else."
Butters provides Bibles like his own to those who want them. And St. Cloud isn't his only destination. He recently stopped at Wisconsin, North Dakota and makes routine visits to Minnesota-Duluth and Nebraska-Omaha. In a two-week span, he put 4,000 miles on his van.
He also ministers to the Gophers, the Wild and various visiting NHL opponents. He only appears where invited, though he has many friends in the college coaching ranks — including former teammates in Dean Blais (Omaha) and Mike Eaves (Wisconsin).
"I went to church with my parents growing up, but sometimes I've been unclear about my faith," Huskies captain Garrett Raboin said. "Bill makes it easy to interpret. When you think of Bible study, you think of a setting more like school.
"This isn't like that. It's more of a conversation going back and forth. Bill's gone through everything we're faced with now and he shares his experience. We talk about how we can be intense on the ice and a good person off the ice."
Butters raises his own support, "like any other missionary," he said. He doesn't seek donations from players, instead saying most of his backing comes from people outside the game. They help pay his travel expenses — gas and even airfare to some places he's asked to speak.
He was, for example, an HMI respresentative at the last Winter Olympics in Torino, Italy.
Why does he do it? No one took the time with me," he said. Brawler bottoms out And Butters believes he really could've used it. He grew up the oldest of five brothers.
Three of them have since died — one run down by a drunk driver at age 7, another killed in a car accident and a third on a snowmobile. The fourth is in prison serving a felony drug conviction.
His mother was divorced for the first of six times when Bill was 4, and his family lived in a couple dozen different homes when he was growing up in greater St. Paul.
But that's just the beginning. Butters played for Glen Sonmor and later Herb Brooks at Minnesota and, despite ordinary size at 5-10 and 185 pounds, cultivated a physical game in the Slap Shot era.
He racked up 361 penalty minutes in 125 games with the Minnesota Fighting Saints of the World Hockey Association. He was a teammate of Gordie Howe.
Butters also played with Dave Hanson (real-life counterpart for one of the Hanson brothers in the movie) as well as heavyweights like Jack Carlson and Paul Holmgren.
I played outside the rules," said Butters, who also played for the Houston Aeros, Edmonton Oilers and New England Whalers in the WHA. "I had to intimidate people or I didn't have a job.
"The problem was, the more I played outside the rules the more I began to believe in my own mind I could play outside the rules outside the rink."
After just seven years and at the age of 30, then-North Stars general manager Lou Nanne told Butters his career was over. He was released and no other team was there to pick him up.
"I was an adulterer, I was a drunk and I'd spent all my money," Butters said, reminiscing over his cup of coffee. "When I heard (Nanne) say I couldn't play anymore for the North Stars, it took me out of nowhere.
"I knew I had a drinking problem, that I was a womanizer and I was living a lie. But God uses certain situations to get our attention."
Butters, who hadn't finished his degree and was having trouble finding a job, got a call from former Stars teammate Tom Reid, asking if he'd volunteer to coach at a Christian hockey school.
Butters, who admitted he was farthest from who should be in such a role, initially wanted nothing to do with it — especially since it was unpaid. But Reid kept pestering him until he said yes.
Butters was moved by the lack of swearing around the rink that week.
The turning point came when he attended a few off-ice group sessions. He broke down at the first and was frightened at the second, when the group — mostly 11 year olds — joined hands and began to pray.
Butters went from terrified to calm — later saying it was the Holy Spirit coming over him — as he heard boys pray that he would find a job, that he would find peace in his life.
"I taught them how to play hockey and they showed me Jesus," Butters said.
Determined to make a change, he told his wife where he'd gone wrong and wouldn't have been surprised if she'd left him. Instead, Bill and Debbie Butters have remained married for more than 30 years. They have three children and several grandchildren.
I thought I was tough, but that takes true toughness — to truly forgive and love someone," Butters said. "That's one of the things I try to bring to these guys — the importance of building strength in their character and their relationships ... I want to tell hockey players they can be tough and still serve God."
Butters was, and is. His nose was broken five times and he lost five teeth. His shoulder has been operated on twice, and he has experienced trauma-induced epilepsy because of all the blows he took to his head.
"I'm not perfect," he said. "I've been forgiven and I keep being forgiven ... you could follow me around and say 'What a phony. What a hypocrite.' But Jesus bought me with his blood. It's like a goalie in hockey who takes a penalty. He doesn't go to the box. Someone else has to serve. That's what Christ did.
"Only it's not two minutes or a suspension. He died to save us separation from eternity. I've accepted that gift and I want to show these guys life doesn't have to be about drinking and vulgarity and womanizing and being the campus fool. If I'm able to help one kid a year, it's worth it. I'll go anywhere to meet someone with a question."
He's also not afraid to question those who meet with him.
"I try to tell young men that before they diss Jesus Christ, just read the gospel of Mathew, Mark, Luke and John," Butters said. "We have to choose whether to serve Him.
"If we do, you can't just pick up (the Bible) every now and then. How good of a hockey player would you be if you went in the weight room once or twice a year? Do you think you'd be on the team? That's like only going to church on Christmas and Easter."
The Huskies will spend Thanksgiving together today at a hotel in Denver. Matt Chapman, SCSU's coordinator of business and hockey operations and a Bethel University graduate, sometimes guides the group in Butters' absence. Whether they meet or not, his guidance remains in their thoughts.
"It's nice to spend just an hour or 45 minutes relaxing — and it seems we talk about everything but hockey," sophomore forward Jordy Christian said. "It's a Christian ministry, but it's really about life.
"Whether you're having issues with school, relationships or family pressures, Bill's got a great perspective. He's walked in our shoes and beyond to the next level. Nothing can surprise him."
Butters' plan for Thanksgiving has little to do with hockey. He gathered Wednesday with his family, then planned to visit his brother today in prison.
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