Today, it was my absolute pleasure to chat with North Bay Battalion coach/director of hockey operations Stan Butler. Butler, of course, is a legendary figure in OHL hockey, holding a place inside the top 5 of career victories and games played. His upstart Battalion currently sit 3rd in the Eastern Conference, and we chatted about this year, last year, hockey in Brampton, Hockey Canada, and many of the players he's coached (past and present). Below you can find snippets of the transcript of our conversation.
Brock Otten - While I definitely want to ask you a ton of questions about the past, it's only fair that we start with this year. Going into the season, did you truly believe that your Battalion would be up near the top of the Eastern Conference after all the graduations from the previous year?
Stan Butler - Well to be honest, I think our goal was to be a competitive team, which we always try to be. Given the loss of players that we had, and then early on losing Bratina and Calvin Gomes, we decided to move Liberati to recoup some draft picks [from the Moutrey deal]. We thought we would settle in as a team battling for the playoffs, in that 7/8th spot. But credit to our team, and my coaching staff, everyone's worked hard and we've thankfully found a way to be better than that.
Otten - Safe to say that you guys believe now that you could contend for the Eastern Conference title?
Butler - I think the best way to put it is, we believe that we'll be a really hard out for anybody in the playoffs. We've got experienced goaltending with Jake Smith, and enough experienced players. Although we do have a very young team too, something not enough people give us credit for. I believe 2nd or 3rd youngest team on paper in the league. But with experienced guys like Amadio and Santos, we'll be able to battle against anyone we play.
Otten - And I think that's a credit to you and your coaching staff. Every year people say, "man I don't want to play the Battalion in the first round." It's obviously a goal for you to make your teams that tough out no matter where you're ranked.
Butler - Well yeah, that's something we try to do. We want to be competitive every year. That's our goal. And it's tough. I mean we never get to draft high. You look at some of the teams that are at the top of the standings this year and they were built with high selections. We don't have that luxury so we've got to develop the Nick Paul's, the Mike Amadio's. That's where we're at. The reality is, we don't want to have down years in North Bay. We want to be a competitive team every year. Our goal here is not to win a Championship then be a last place team for the years after that. If you're competitive every year, you'll eventually have a chance to win. Look at us last year, I don't think anyone expected us to be where we were. And end of the year, I think you could have flipped a coin between us and Oshawa.
Otten - Absolutely. And I mean, that Oshawa team was incredible too. I think no matter who won that series, either of you would have gone on to defeat Erie for the Championship.
Butler - I think they proved that. They had a tougher series against us. That's not to take anything away from Erie. They had a terrific team too. But that second game finished 1-0. We win that game, we go up 2-0 and anything could have happened.
Otten - Was there ever a point this year where you explored or considered the idea of moving Amadio or Wood?
Butler - Yeah, I mean we certainly thought about it. We listened to other teams, but we never got really close to doing anything. After that Liberati deal, we wanted to make a 'hockey trade', with players, not draft picks. And none of the offers out there gave us the chance to make that kind of deal. We felt that our team was young enough and our team was developing. And a guy like Amadio, he wanted to stay. He did not want to leave. At the end of the day we had kids that wanted to be here and that's something we're proud of. We have so many young players and we'll be returning so many players next year too. We sat down and looked at everything and we decided we were in really good shape going forward. We felt like we didn't have to make a move and we were in a great position to help our young players develop.
Otten - Mike Amadio. In your opinion, is he the best two-way player in the OHL right now?
Butler - Well I've certainly thought so all year. I thought he deserved an invite to the Canadian World Junior camp, but the powers that be thought otherwise. Which is fine, of course. They see all 3 leagues, I see 1. But yeah, he's the poster child for development in the Ontario Hockey League, as far as I'm concerned. If I'm Adam Dennis or Joe Birch, and I'm sitting down with a family discussing development in the OHL, I don't think there's a better example than Mike Amadio. I mean here's a kid who stayed in the Soo and played home town hockey. Was a 2nd rounder. Scored 6 goals his first year, 12 his next, then 24, and now 48 and counting this year. There can't be a better poster boy for the OHL, at least from a development stand point. He's the type of player we need to consistently get in North Bay. We've got to find those 2nd, 3rd, 4th round guys that come in and turn into really good players.
Otten - Yeah, and not just in North Bay, for any franchise. Your ability to draft outside of the first round, and your ability to find free agents is key to maintaining success, to creating a Championship team.
Butler - I agree with you completely. You look at our team. Matt Santos was a walk on. Mike Amadio was a 2nd round pick. Jake Smith was a late round pick. When you're a smaller market team, you've got to be a draft oriented team. We don't trade a lot of players. We try to develop our own players. If we make trades, it's to supplement what we've developed. That's the model that an organization like us needs to use.
Otten - Speaking of later picks, Cam Dineen. How critical has he been for your organization this year?
Butler - He's been huge. Any time you can get an elite player after the 2nd round, it really enhances your chances to win. He's a prime example of that. He was committed to Yale. His Dad's a high school principal. We just showed him our program here and how he could continue his schooling here and I think that really helps to bring in future talent.
Otten - I mean, to give up on Yale for your program in North Bay, school must be really important to a kid like that?
Butler - Yeah, you know it is. With my background in education, being a teacher in Scarborough, while coaching Junior A, that's something I've brought with me to the OHL; the emphasis on school. Right when I started in Oshawa, we were always a team that was a huge proponent of school. Look around the CIS, we've got a lot of players playing there. Spencer Abraham, Marcus McIvor. That's something I always tell people. We're a development league on and off the ice. We've got to develop players with the ultimate goal of the NHL. But it's really, really important that if they don't go to the NHL, we do everything that we can as an organization to make sure that they have options for schooling as well.
Otten - Agree completely with that philosophy. Going back to Dineen. Do you feel that scouting organizations are underrating/undervaluing him right now?
Butler - I do. But that seems to be a common theme for any team I coach. I think a lot of our guys are always undervalued. I think he fits in that category. I mean he's second in defenseman scoring behind a 19 year old [Rasmus Andersson], as a first year player in the league, on a team that's not the most offensively gifted. I just don't see, with the game, where it's going, why you wouldn't value a guy like Dineen a lot more.
Otten - Again, I agree completely. I still can't wrap my head around why he's not consistently up near the back half of the first/early 2nd. I mean, sure there's the size argument, but with the way the game is going, defenders like Dineen can excel.
Butler - Yeah, you know what Brock, it's a puck moving game. If you've followed my teams over the years, no one loves big defencemen like me. But we've tried to adapt to the game as much as anyone else. The game now is about puck moving defencemen and skill. And that's what Cameron [Dineen] is. Yeah he's got a bit of work to do defensively, but he's only 17. I'm sure when Mike Amadio was drafted at 17 with 12 goals, a lot of guys probably looked at Mike Futa [of the LA Kings] like he was crazy. But if they re-did the draft today, I don't think there's any doubt that Mike Amadio is a first round pick and Mike Futa looks pretty good.
Otten - In regards to the draft, we're you surprised that Brett McKenzie wasn't drafted last year?
Butler - Yeah, disappointed more than surprised. I mean, he was at times inconsistent. But he does bring a lot to the game. What do I know, I'm just a junior hockey coach.
Otten - With the improvements he's shown this year, you think he gets his name called this time around?
Butler - I hope so. He's another kid that's improved every year. When you look at his stats, they've improved every year. When you look at his numbers 5 on 5, they're impressive. I mean, he's got 25 goals this year and only one powerplay goal. He's got more shorthanded goals than he has powerplay goals. To me, when you're moving up every year [point wise], it's a good thing.
Otten - I think scouts need to start taking into account the way that you guys develop forwards. Look at some past guys. Amadio is a perfect example. Or Nick Paul, Or...
Butler - Barclay Goodrow, Sam Carrick, Guys that aren't high NHL picks that turn into potential NHL players.
Otten - Wanted to shift focus to Hockey Canada. With you success at this year's Hlinka, would you ever consider taking on the U20 team again?
Butler - I would absolutely love the opportunity, but I don't know if it's in the cards. I did this team [the Hlinka] because people like DJ and Sheldon left and they wanted an experienced guy. I went in there and it was good for me, to allow me to see if I could still do it after all those years away. And I did it. Do I think I could coach the World Junior team again? 100 percent. But I do think that it might be a job for the new era coaches. And that's fine. I had my chances.
Otten - That's fair.
Butler - Don't get me wrong though. I think I've done a good job of adapting to the newer age. I even took a big risk in joining twitter! Some guys, like Ryan Pyette [of the LFP] even asked me to confirm it was actually me on there. I think that's something myself, and my coaching staff do a really good job of; connecting with the players of today. If you watch our games, I think we've adapted well on the ice. We definitely do preach strong defensive play, but we don't get the defenders scoring the way they do now without activating our 'D.' And I think we're pretty in tune with the kids today too. If you're going to motivate them, and teach them how to play, you've got to understand how they work.
Otten - Why do you think that the OHL didn't work out in Brampton in the long run?
Butler - I just think that you're in Toronto. It's one of those things where there's so much going on. And for most, the only thing that matters is the Toronto Maple Leafs. It's a professional sports town.
Otten - Yup, and I mean, even when you go into the suburbs. Mississauga is only doing OK, although they have improved attendance wise.
Butler - Yeah, and I mean, but our owner Scott Abbott really, really didn't want to move the team. He really, really tried [to make it work]. The one thing that him and I have said since we've moved to North Bay. If we would have been in North Bay the last 15 years, I have no doubt that we would have won a Championship. As much as we loved Brampton, and the loyal fans we had were amazing, we never ever had home ice. In the playoffs, that's a huge thing. I never had a real appreciation for it until I moved here. It had been so many years since I had been in Prince George, where we had a terrific fan base. I think that's the challenge for Mississauga. I remember that year of the Mississauga/Owen Sound final. Game 7 in Mississauga, there were more Owen Sound fans there and it felt like one of their home games. We went through that too in the playoffs in Brampton, against Windsor and Barrie.
Otten - I think you hit the nail on the head with Mississauga too. I remember going to the Memorial Cup games that year and even when Mississauga was playing, there weren't many team specific fans. Mississauga draws more fans of hockey, in general. It's different than going to a game in Owen Sound, or Kitchener, where you've got loyal supporters.
Butler - You're absolutely right Brock. But I mean, I really hope it works out in Mississauga for James Boyd and their fans. He's a good man.
Otten - All your years in Brampton, you coached some pretty amazing players. Could you give me your three best?
Butler - You know what Brock, people do this to me all the time.
Otten - [Laughs], Sorry!
Butler - I just can't. I mean, it was a great experience coaching Jason Spezza as a 15 year old and him getting 70 points on a glorified midget team. That was certainly impressive. Raffi Torres was an interesting guy to coach because when he hit people you never knew what was going to happen. Rusty Klesla was that, probably years ahead as that defender who could activate himself. We didn't have them very long, but having Matt Duchene and Cody Hodgson on the same team was exciting. Always got a kick out of when we went to shootouts that year. Don't think we ever got to a 3rd shooter.
Otten - You mentioned Torres. I was a big fan so it was disappointing to see how his NHL career has kind of fallen apart the last few years.
Butler - You know what, what most people don't realize is that Raffi in the Ontario Hockey League had 91 points one year. Raffi was drafted 5th overall because he was a physical player, but more so because he was a...
Otten - Yeah he was a goal scorer. He had a fantastic shot. Hard, great release.
Butler - Yeah. Great sot. Great physical gifts. He played both ends for me. He was an absolute warrior. People don't realize that he was a 6th round OHL pick. It's too bad. I loved coaching Raffi. He was a great kid. But he knew how to play hockey one way and you know what, he wasn't going to change. It's too bad. He's taken a lot of wrath, but when he was playing junior, he was a pretty hard nosed player, but I never thought he was a dirty player. To this date, I've never seen a guy that size, hurt people the way he did with his hits.
Otten - It's almost as if he were born 10 years earlier, or had played in the Scott Stevens era, we'd be talking about him as a former perennial all star.
Butler - That's the thing with Raffi. People point the figure at him, but at the end of the day people still want him on their team. That attitude of, I don't like the way he plays, but if he's ever available, we need to get him.
Otten - One thing people don't realize about you is that you coached that one year in Prince George, as you alluded to earlier. So naturally I have to ask you about a behemoth defender that played for you named Zdeno Chara. Did you truly believe he'd be as good as he is/was?
Butler - You know what, I'll be honest with you. I never knew that he'd be the player that he would be. He broke his wrist about half way through the year and had a good rest. When he returned for our magical playoff run, he was unbelievable. The one thing I knew right then was nobody in the world had a work ethic like this guy. He was a machine in the weight room and a sponge on the ice. And I think that's the reason he's had the career he's had.
Otten - That makes total sense.
Butler - You know what's funny about that team, Brock? You talk about development. We had an overage goalie who asked for a trade, but we refused. A kid by the name of Chris Mason and he ended up having a pretty good career. And I had a 16 year old defenseman named Eric Brewer. We had Blair Betts who signed with us as a walk on. We had about 7 or 8 guys off that team that ended up playing in the NHL.
Otten - Looking back on that team, they had a ton of talent.
Butler - When I arrived in Prince George, they hadn't made the playoffs for a while. But I set them up for a couple of good years after I left. Two 40 win seasons with all my guys. But that's kind of been me, right? In Oshawa, my first year there, we had 10 players drafted in the NHL and they told me that it was a three year plan. And I developed all these young guys, but after year two they decided to go in a different direction. Then Bill Stewart came in and won a Championship with my guys. Then I went to Prince George, cleaned that up, but then I left to come home because my kids were young at the time and it was too tough. But I did set that team up for success. Then I went to Brampton, basically took on a midget team and got pounded 60 times, or however many times we lost. But that 2nd year we made the playoffs. And since then we've been pretty competitive.
Otten - Oh absolutely. And I think that's a credit to the great things that you, and your coaching staff do.
Butler - We try. We try to do things the right way. One thing we've always said here is that we develop players on and off the ice. We want to make sure that our guys understand, you have to play a 200 foot game to be successful. We try to play a pro style game here. Nick Paul, said to Chris Cuthbert recently, I never understood why Stan made me do some of the things he did, but now that I'm in the NHL, I get it and I'm glad he did.
Otten - That leads into the last question that I wanted to ask you. Around the World Juniors, many analysts were saying that they felt pro style systems in the CHL were killing skill development. How do you counter that kind of argument?
Butler - Firstly, I've always been accused of trapping and we never do. I just laugh at that. Nobody plays a harder game on the puck than we do. Secondly, we still work on skills here. We teach kids to play in their own end. And then, I think quite frankly, good coaches stand back and let their players work in the offensive end. I've had a few incredibly talented players. I've had Marc Savard win a scoring title in Oshawa. Wojtech Wolski had huge numbers for us. Matt Duchene is obviously a pretty creative player. What people need to understand is that it's easy for people like that to look at some of the coaches in our league and a lot of these guys are coaching for survival. When that's the case, isn't the biggest emphasis going to be on winning?
Otten - For sure. I would agree. And like you said, you're not going to win much if you don't get defensive commitment from your forwards and every player on the ice.
Butler - And my argument for some of those guys, quite frankly, would be. A guy like Mike Amadio has certainly developed his skills. He's a heck of a lot better at 19 than he was at 16. A guy like Michael Nylander has brought his son [Alex] over, and I don't think his skills have suffered playing in the league. Look at the top scorers in the NHL. Patrick Kane, what league did he play in? Tyler Seguin, what league did he play in? Sidney Crosby. I could go on and on. Look at the scoring leaders in the NHL, how many played in the CHL?
Otten - I certainly don't have the list in front of me, but I would hazard a guess that it's a large majority.
Butler - I mean, outside of Jonathan Toews, seems like most North American superstars come from our league. What's funny is that Toews might be the most complete player in the league and he played in the NCAA. But I don't know. I think that argument is unfair at times.
Otten - Yeah and I mean, to some degree, I think it's Canadians trying to make excuses for the rest of the world catching up to us. Like we don't want it to happen so we feel the need to constantly reform.
Butler - See my answer to that is, I don't necessarily think that they've caught up. At the end of the day, they've always been there and we've never given them the credit that they deserve. In the 90's we won a lot of gold medals, but I also think back to 99 when I was the coach and we had Roberto Luongo in net. We don't make the finals without him. When you look at the World Juniors, it's been competitive since the mid 90's. We've won some gold medals we didn't deserve to win. Just like we've lost some gold medals that we should have won. But when you look at the World Juniors for me, it's all about one position [goaltender]. It's not about skill development, it's about that. And that's the one area that we as a country really need to work on. We won't win many gold medals unless we improve there.
Otten - Couldn't agree more. Anyway, thanks so much for all your time. It's funny, I knew you were a teacher before and it's easy to see where you get your philosophies. I'm a phys ed teacher myself, actually.
Butler - Oh that's great. Good on you. I did that [phys ed teaching] and then my last three years with the board I was a phys ed consultant. I was the guy that drove around handing out the trophies. Kidding, obviously, I did a lot more than that. But I do miss that job. I tried to take my experiences in that job with me into this job.
Otten - Again, makes perfect sense given the way you operate your team.
Butler - Anyway have a good March Break and take it easy.
Otten - Thanks again and best of luck the rest of the way.
Just wanted to say thanks again to Stan Butler and the North Bay Battalion organization. Nothing but class, I'm incredibly grateful that they took the time to make this Q & A happen.