by A.J. Atchue || for NHL.com
“All in the Family” may most commonly be known as the title of a famous 1970’s television show, but Bobby Butler could take that phrase and apply it directly to his progression as a hockey player.
The 23-year-old Butler is making quite an impact through the first two months of his pro career with the Binghamton Senators, leading the club with 15 goals – which is tied for third in the entire American Hockey League – and adding eight assists in through 26 games.
Among AHL first-year pros, his 15 goals rank first and his 23 points second. It’s been an impressive beginning, to be sure.
As the son of a longtime Massachusetts high school hockey coach, though, sticks and skates have been in his blood from the start.
“Ever since I remember, it was always my goal to become a professional hockey player,” Butler said. “I probably would have been a very different kid without hockey.”
A native of Marlboro, Mass. – about 45 minutes west of Boston – Butler first took the ice with a bunch of high school kids at the tender age of three. That’s a unique introduction to the game of hockey for a young kid, but not so out of the ordinary under these circumstances.
Bobby’s father, John Butler, has been the head hockey coach at Marlboro High School since 1986, amassing more than 300 victories and numerous conference titles over that span. As soon as Bobby was able to crack it, he was out skating following his dad’s practices.
“My dad is definitely the one who got me going playing hockey and got me on the ice,” Butler said. “I still have pictures from when I was real young of his old high school players skating me around the rink after practice.”
Fast-forward several years and naturally there’s Butler suiting up for his dad as a forward with the Marlboro Panthers. He played five seasons at Marlboro, including his eighth-grade year, and father and son capped it off by winning a state championship together in Butler’s senior year in 2005. Butler led the way with four goals and an assist in the title game.
He moved on to the college ranks and increased his point total in all four seasons at the University of New Hampshire, but Butler’s output as a senior in 2009-10 represented the most significant jump. That year, he led the nation with 29 goals and posted a team-best 53 points in 39 games, and he was named a finalist for the prestigious Hobey Baker Award.
“I just came in knowing it was my last year there and I was leader, the captain, so I wanted to come in and play well,” Butler said. “I had more of an opportunity to shoot the puck as much as I could.”
Unlike high school, though, there would be no storybook ending to Butler’s college career, as New Hampshire was upset by the Rochester Institute of Technology in the NCAA tournament’s regional finals.
Despite that disappointment, it didn’t take long for Butler to embark on the most exciting chapter yet of his life in hockey. While he was once a kid who had been passed over in the NHL draft, his progress at UNH attracted the attention of more than one club at the sport’s highest level.
“My season ended, and I had been talking to a few (NHL) teams,” he said. “I went home that Sunday morning right after we lost on Saturday, just sat on my couch and started a movie. It took about eight hours to finish the movie because my agent kept calling to try and figure out which was the best opportunity, and it turned out that was Ottawa.”
Butler signed with the Senators the next day, and within a week he was in Ottawa and in the lineup, making his NHL debut against the Carolina Hurricanes.
“It was crazy,” Butler said. “The whole experience really didn’t hit me until the middle of the summer, but it was a great opportunity to join the team at the end of the season and then catch the playoffs, just to see what it was all about.”
The 6-foot, 180-pound Butler wound up appearing in two games for Ottawa late last year, and his appetite for more was established.
He embarked on a slightly different summer routine from his norm, skating less frequently and focusing on getting his body ready for the marathon that is the professional season, double the number of games than he was used to in college.
It’s paid off in a big way so far.
Butler tallied a goal in his very first game for Binghamton on Oct. 8, scored again the next night, and ended October having found the back of the net in five of his club’s nine contests.
“Seeing the ice and shooting the puck hard are the things that I really do well,” he said. “I’m playing with good guys and shooting the puck a lot, like last year. When you shoot the puck, sometimes it finds its way in.”
When the rookie says he likes to shoot the puck, he isn’t kidding. Butler has averaged nearly four shots per game thus far, and his total of 96 shots is 18 more than anyone else on the Senators and good for seventh-most in the AHL.
He’s blossomed in the early going while playing primarily on a line with veteran Corey Locke, a four-time AHL All-Star and former Calder Cup champion. The duo has combined to form one of the AHL’s most lethal scoring threats this season.
“He’s a great guy on and off the ice,” Butler said of Locke, “and he makes plays when he’s got the puck. He can definitely make the guys around him much better.
Though he appeared to make a seamless transition into the AHL, Butler points to a pair of games as clear benchmarks in his feeling comfortable and confident at the pro level.
The first was an Oct. 29 contest against the Charlotte Checkers. Senators coach Kurt Kleinendorst sent Butler out for a 4-on-3 power play in overtime, and the rookie responded by taking a cross-crease pass from Locke and banging it home for the first of his league-leading five game-winning goals on the year.
A week later vs. Syracuse, Butler scored twice in the opening period and then completed his first pro hat trick on the power play with just 29 seconds left in regulation.
“I think (my confidence level) progressed, but the game I had a hat trick was pretty key. I just felt comfortable, and then the third one I scored with a few seconds left, it felt great to see that go in.”
The hat trick was part of a monster November for Butler, as he racked up nine goals and 15 points in 14 contests en route to being named the Reebok/AHL Rookie of the Month.
The brass in Ottawa took notice, and a couple of weeks ago Butler earned his first recall of the year to the big club, appearing in four NHL games. It’s a place where the rookie forward sees himself earning a permanent home in the not-so-distant future.
“It was a great experience, definitely a good taste to get in a few games,” he said. “I felt comfortable seeing the ice and getting open, but it’s just the grinding in the corners, battling for the puck that I still need to work on a little.
“I know I can play there – I just need to get a little stronger.”
When Butler does reach the pinnacle of full-time NHL duty, it may come at a perfect time. This marks the retiring John Butler’s 25th and final season coaching at Marlboro High, which should conveniently free up his winters to watch his son and former player compete at the pro level.
All in the family, indeed.