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Photo: Scott Paulus

Butler cherishing Olympic opportunity

by Jason Karnosky AHL On The Beat

For professional hockey players, there are moments in your career that you will always remember—scoring your first goal, playing in your first NHL game or winning your first title. But for Bobby Butler, the chance to don a Team USA sweater in the Olympics has been an unforgettable experience.

“With how well the season was going for me, I knew I had a chance to make the team,” said Butler, who is one of three American Hockey League players, including fellow forwards Chris Bourque of Hershey and John McCarthy of San Jose, who are playing with Team USA in South Korea. “When I was told I was going to be an Olympian, it was something special and something I will always remember.”

After receiving the news over the phone, Butler was quick to share it with his family. What came next was something that quickly went viral as the forward spilled the news about his selection to his emotional father at an Admirals practice.

“When I got the call I went out and surprised my wife, and she was so excited for me and for us,” Butler said. “She was with her parents, so I just told them all to keep it quiet as I wanted to tell my dad at practice.”

As wonderful as Butler’s embrace was with his father, another special moment occurred off camera during a team meeting.

“It was incredible to see him share the news with his family,” Milwaukee coach Dean Evason said. “But what was not documented well was when he told our team that he had made the U.S. Olympic Team. Our entire group just erupted (in support). It was not for just for a few seconds, but it was for a while.”

Butler’s Milwaukee teammates appreciate the experience and guidance the University of New Hampshire product has brought to their locker room.

“It goes to show what kind of respect (Bobby) has in our locker room and among his peers,” Evason said. “And then to follow that up with relaying the news to his father who was on the bench at practice—that was very emotional thing and a great moment for sure.”

Despite a hockey resume that includes 130 NHL games, Butler’s success in 2017-18 was far from a given this season. After a solid two-year run with the San Antonio Rampage that concluded in the spring of 2015, Butler took his talents overseas to try his luck in Europe. He was a solid contributor on three different squads, including Zagreb Medvescak and Nizhny Novgorod of the Kontinental Hockey League, but his play hardly stood out.

However, Admirals general manager Paul Fenton (as well as Predators GM David Poile) had a long memory, and remembered why Nashville claimed Butler off of waivers for a 20-game stint with the Predators back in 2012-13. They again took a chance on Butler, hoping he had something left in the tank.

“It is always tough for guys like myself who have bounced around in their careers, so it was great to come back to the Nashville organization and a place that was familiar,” said Butler who scored three goals and nine points in a Predators jersey. “I might not have known all the guys when I signed here, but I knew a lot of the staff, the trainers and the equipment staff, so it made for an easier transition.”

Butler’s play is certainly exceeding expectations, and the winger feels rejuvenated this season. He still leads Milwaukee with 21 goals, even though he left for PyeongChang on February 7 and has missed the last six games as a result.

“As a player, Bobby’s been everything that we’ve expected of him,” Evason said. “He’s a guy that has played in the NHL and has the experience of playing all over the world. He brings a real calm demeanor and professional attitude to our locker room.”

When talks between the NHL and IOC broke down near the end of last season, an additional opportunity presented itself to Butler. He knew that if he could play well enough in Milwaukee, a spot on the 2018 American Olympic Team was a real possibility.

“I owe a ton of my success this year to my teammates and the coaching staff for making it a great atmosphere for me to play hockey and have fun,” said Butler, who piled up 10 goals in a 13-game stretch from December 23 to January 20. “I’ve been given more opportunities this year to succeed, play on the power play, play on the penalty kill, and have had more opportunities to shoot the puck.”

Evason noticed a difference right away in the way Butler has played in Milwaukee this season, and it’s a big reason the Admirals bench boss keeps finding ice time for the undrafted forward.

“I think (Bobby’s) intensity level and his skating has been so good this year,” Evason said. “That was a knock on him in the past, but he’s been as fast as we’ve seen him this year. He’s prepared each and every night, and even if you take the Olympics away, he’s had a great year and has been a great story.”

“Every coach or general manager will tell you that they don’t want a player to leave their team while they are playing games for any period of time,” Evason said. “But in this situation we are very proud and excited for Bobby to have this opportunity. We will have to ask a lot of other players on our roster once he’s gone.”

When Butler returns to Milwaukee the motivated forward will be striving to carry his squad back into a playoff position.

Butler also has no plans to make this magical season his swan song. The 30-year-old veteran seems unlikely to bring to his hockey career to an end anytime soon—certainly not with the fun he’s having this season.

“I’ve got plenty in the tank,” Butler said. “I’ve had a little resurgence this year and I’m very hungry to play. I know I’ve got a few more years in me and I’m ready to keep going.”