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The Butterfield years

Note: The following piece was written in 1993 by retired Springfield Union-News sports writer Gene McCormick. Jack Butterfield passed away on Oct. 16, 2010 at the age of 91.

Jack Butterfield learned his lessons well.

Jack was the student; his uncle, mentor and teacher was Eddie Shore, hockey’s Hall of Famer.

There’s no greater honor in the sport than enshrinement in the Hall housed in Toronto. Shore, "Mr. Hockey" himself, the former Boston Bruin star of the 20’s and 30’s — the game’s roughest and toughest and certainly one of the greatest — was a shoo-in once he hung up the skates.

Butterfield took a different path. Ever since 1945, when he came out of the Royal Canadian Air Force as an unemployed torpedo bomber pilot, he began to hone his skills as a member of hockey’s administrative team.

He worked for Shore for 35 years in one capacity or another — trainer, rink manager, coach, general manager and advisor — hitting every conceivable work station as he advanced to the very top of the league, its presidency in 1966.

"I had no idea what to do after five years of military service until Shore called and asked, ‘What the hell you going to do?’" Butterfield recalls. "I told him I had studied agriculture engineering and took some business administration courses but that I didn’t know anything about the hockey business. ‘Good,’ Eddie replied. ‘That will make you a good prospect.’"

By the mid-70’s the American Hockey League was down to a floundering six teams and needed someone to prop them up. Butterfield met the challenge. He kept the AHL going and gradually increased its ranks to first 10 members and in subsequent years to its present standing of 16.

"When the WHA signed Bobby Hull in a joint venture and started enticing NHL and minor-league players with bigger money offers, I realized the AHL was not in a position to fight with the new league," Butterfield said. "I knew we’d have to go to NHL teams and develop players for them or our own markets wouldn’t prosper.

"Today, our product still is a good one and importantly still priced for the man on the street at an average of $10 per ticket."

It’s understandable then that Butterfield became regarded as one of the saviors of minor-league hockey, and induction into the Hockey Hall of Fame as a builder, the 61st person to be honored in that category, became fact.

At the enshrinement ceremonies Sept. 8, 1980, Hall of Fame director M.H. "Lefty" Reid said: "Four years ago, when the World Hockey Association and National Hockey League were locked in a survival battle that threatened to decimate the AHL, Jack was as steady as a surgeon. He took a sick patient and injected new life into it. That’s when the Hall of Fame took a long look at this man and his accomplishments."

Butterfield hasn’t forgotten his own reaction.

"I remember telling an audience of nearly 600 that I was a guy from Hicks-ville, and that it was hard for me to comprehend what I was doing up there in the company of such Hall members as Mr. (Clarence) Campbell, Frank Selke, Conn Smythe and others like them."

Humble as he was then and remains today, the honor was most deserving. His log has continued to show accomplishment ever since.

The West Springfield, Mass., resident’s reign in the AHL President’s chair is finally winding down. By the time his successor, Dave Andrews, general manager of the Cape Breton Oilers, officially fills the occupancy next July, Jack’s tenure will have lasted 28 years.

Among other AHL presidents, only Maurice Podoloff served as long as 16 years (1936-52). Six other presidents served from one to two years each.

Thankfully, Butterfield is not going far. He will become the league’s Chairman of the Board, continuing to attend NHL All-Star games and various other ceremonial functions. Oh yes, he will also churn out the yearly schedule. That’s when you attempt to placate 16 bosses (league Governors) who plead for prime time nights and still manage to get member teams from throughout the Northeast and Maritimes to the next station stop on time.

Butterfield insists on sharing the laurels he has won during his reign, such as his associations with old-time builders such as Jim Hendy (Cleveland), Lou Jacobs (Buffalo), Lou Pieri (Providence) and, of course, Shore, whom he says was the least understood man in the world, and to his ever changing slate of Governors.

One person that didn’t change during his reign as President was Jack’s colleague Gordon C. Anziano. Gordie joined the league in 1968 as Secretary and Publicity Director and has served with Jack ever since. Now Vice President and Secretary, he will continue as such with Andrews.

"The Governors have been good to me," Butterfield said. "They’ve given me a totally free hand — much like letting me march to my own drum beat.

"Fortunately, I learned and extracted wisdom from highly placed executives. It was not unusual for me to telephone Mr. Campbell (the longtime NHL President) and ask for his advice or discuss the best procedure in solving a problem."

Butterfield’s original home was in Regina, Sask. He played most sports in high school and later at the University of Alberta in Edmonton.

He hasn’t forgotten the first day of his hockey career when he reported to Shore at New Haven. He found Eddie pacing the sidewalk in front of the Arena, awaiting his arrival.

"Hurry, Jack," Shore said. "You’ve got to catch a train for Cleveland and be trainer of the club on this trip."

He remembers being a trainer, coach and driver of a car for a game in Washington. His association with Shore also put him in Fort Worth, San Diego, Oakland and, of course, with the Indians in Springfield.

It was in Fort Worth where Jack met and married his lovely wife Nina.

"She’s backed me all the way. When the going got tough, Nina was always there. She’s still very supportive and since her own retirement has traveled with me a great deal."

Butterfield permanently relocated to Springfield in 1949 where he fulfilled such positions as trainer, coach, concession manager, ice maker — you name it.

When with the Indians, he established a league record of being the only general manager in history to win the Calder Cup three years in a row (1959-60, 1960-61, 1961-62).

Personal achievement didn’t stop there, however, as he was named the 1985 winner of the NHL’s Lester Patrick Trophy, awarded annually to a candidate who has given outstanding service to hockey in the United States. He has also been honored with the AHL’s James Hendy Award (Executive of the Year) in 1971 and 1984.

Never too busy to become involved in community affairs, he has served on the Board of Governors for Shriners Hospital for 15 years and as Chairman of the Board for eight.

Jack Butterfield: A man for his time, and the AHL with its fans are richer for having him.