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Butcher Looking For National Championship Finish

The Avs prospect wants redemption for last year

by Heather Ward / ColoradoAvalanche.com

The pinnacle of the any college athlete's career is winning a national championship, and that is exactly what Colorado Avalanche prospect Will Butcher and the University of Denver Pioneers have their sights set on. 

The Pioneers finished the 2016-17 regular season with a 20-3-3 record, conquered Michigan Tech and Penn State to become NCAA Midwest Regional champions and earned the No. 1 overall seed heading into the NCAA Frozen Four at the United Center in Chicago on Thursday. 

"It's huge. It was our No. 1 goal at the beginning of the year, and we already have the experience," said Butcher a week before the Frozen Four. "We have the team this year to win it. We have everything going right for us right now, and to get to the Frozen Four after that regional meant a lot just because it was like you accomplished a goal that you set out for at the beginning of the year. Actually, I set out for it in May last year. It was huge. It felt like a long process, but it went by really fast."

The senior is no stranger to the Frozen Four and has been preparing for redemption after DU's devastating loss to North Dakota in the national semifinals last year. Butcher is confident that the Pioneers will finally be crowned champions after diligently putting in the work all year. 

"I think if anything, we took the regional a little bit differently, just because last year it was kind of one of those years where people expected us to do well, but maybe not that well," Butcher said. "This year everybody expected us to be there.

"We celebrated going to the Frozen Four, but the end goal is a national championship. That was our goal in October, so we still have another weekend to accomplish that." 

DU became a contender early on and never left the top-10 rankings during the season. As the year progressed, so did the Pioneers' confidence. With every victory, they knew they had a shot to the run the bracket again.  

"We've done everything the right way the whole year," Butcher said. "In the sense that we have been winning games since the beginning of the year, and we haven't stopped. Last year, we were 7-7-2 after Christmas break and went on a 16-game heater to make it to the tournament." 

Rounding out his career, Butcher was named captain of the Pioneers on July 2. Having been drafted by the Avalanche 123rd overall at the 2013 NHL Entry Draft, it would have been easy for him to relax, but he continued to work at improving himself on and off the ice.  

Trophies and accolades are typically the most remembered moments in sports history, but they were not his primary priority at the start of his farewell tour.

"For me, it was just to grow as a person," Butcher said of what he wanted from his senior year. "I wanted to do my best no matter what. If that was playing in all situations, just leading this team. I just wanted to be there for the team and do everything I could to try to get to the national championship game. That was the end goal, and I think I have accomplished that so far, not that we're done yet. But that was kind of my goal coming into the year. Try to be the best player and best person I could be for this organization."

The Sun Prairie, Wisconsin, native fought his way into the starting lineup during his freshmen campaign and has continued to make a difference for the program with every opportunity.

This season, Butcher was named NCHC Player of the Year, Offensive Defenseman of the Year and First Team All-Conference for the second-straight campaign. The six-time NCHC Defensive Player of the Week is also a Hobey Hat Trick finalist. He is one of three players up for the 2017 Hobey Baker Memorial Award as college hockey's top player. 

Butcher recorded 36 points, leading his team with 29 assists and contributing seven goals in 41 games, placing him second (tied) in NCAA scoring by a defenseman.

"It's definitely been a different year than I am used to, but it's been one of the best years of my career," said Butcher. "Not just my personal play and stuff like that, but with the guys in the locker room. It just has a great feeling in the room and is fun to be a part of." 

Luckily, the defenseman had a reliable support system to turn to for guidance during his journey, someone who has been able to provide a little perspective during the playoffs: his father.

"Not many people get to win a national championship," he said. "My dad was fortunate. He played Division III hockey and won two national championships, and he said, 'It's the best time of your life.'"

Many competitors soak up the limelight and focus on making the front page of ESPN but for Butcher, the best part of the experience is just being able to play hockey. 

"Not many people get to do this kind of thing, you know," Butcher said. "I focus on the game itself. I don't worry about the distractions. It would mean a lot to our class to go out that way because we have worked so hard over the four years here."

When entering big games like this, nerves are always a factor, especially when the opportunity to compete in the championship game is at stake. However, Butcher doesn't think that will impact his team. 

"You prepare the same way," the captain said. "When you prepare, you are going to be ready and the nerves are gone from preparation. When you prepare and practice the same way all year, you are going to be ready no matter what."  

Practice makes perfect and it paid off for the humble senior, who achieved All-Tournament Team honors at the NCAA West Regional for the second time this year. While he accumulated a very impressive list of accolades over his four-year stint at DU, Butcher is always quick to credit his teammates and coaches for his accomplishments.

"I mean I can take some credit, but most of it has to go to my teammates," said Butcher. "I wouldn't have the season that I'm having right now without them. I think it's because of the team. Not the only reason, but the biggest reason why I am up for those awards at the end." 

Video: Avs prospect Butcher discusses development camp

As quickly as Butcher deflects his personal success to the rest of the team, the praise is equally reciprocated when others speak on his behalf. Giving Butcher recognition was easy for Denver head coach Jim Montgomery considering the impact his captain had on the season.  

"He is a tremendous hockey player who controls the game at both ends of the ice because of his hockey sense, his poise and his determination to win one-on-one battles," said Montgomery. "He has hockey sense, vision and the offensive ability to break people down." 

This comes from the individual who was named the College Hockey News Coach of the Year and earned the 2017 Spencer Penrose Award as Division I Men's Ice Hockey CCM/AHCA Coach of the Year from the American Hockey Coaches Association.

With a long list of honors to add to his bio, Butcher wants to win a championship for his group of seniors. They have been through the gamut of emotions while battling together for the previous three years. 

"I mean obviously a national championship was the first [goal] sitting down with the seniors after last year," Butcher said. "We have a big senior class this year. We've always had a big class, since we were freshmen coming in with Monty. It would be great for us as a senior class to go out that way."

Butcher got a sneak peek at the style of hockey he would play with Denver after competing in two games for Montgomery's USHL team, the Dubuque Fighting Saints. Not only did he compete for his head coach in the junior league, they both started at the University of Denver the same year. 

"He has been instrumental. It's kind of funny, the first time I played for him was in Dubuque when he called me to play up there with those guys," Butcher said. "Right from the beginning, I was like, 'This is a good coach.' He's a great player's coach when it comes to guys."

Montgomery's trust in Butcher ultimately led to the big 'C' being embroidered on the front of his sweater.   

Butcher embraced his leadership role with ease after having experience as an alternate captain of the U.S. National Team Development Program U-18 squad that won silver at the 2013 IIHF Men's World Under-18 Championship and again with the Pioneers last year.

"It's not like you go into the role and you realize you have to go out of your way," Butcher said of being captain. "You be the person you are, and the younger guys will follow.  

"I'm not a big rah-rah guy. I know when to speak up, and I know when not to. I'm not a guy who leads by voice. I'm more of a guy who likes to go out and play hard and lead by example. All guys lead differently and that's perfectly fine, but you just have to stay true to yourself." 

A man of his word, he performed on the ice and drew national recognition by doing what he does best. The defenseman has registered 102 points (28 goals and 74 assists) in 156 collegiate games, but that hasn't prevented him from continuing to improve.

"One thing I wanted to do was give myself more time in the zone and make breakout passes. So I tried to go back, pivot harder, skate harder back for pucks and then try to skate them out, sometimes myself, or make that tape-to-tape pass that I know I can do," Butcher said. "That was probably my staple coming into this year. I wanted to perfect that and also just kind of work on my skating all over the ice."

The puck-moving defenseman is known for his smart decision making and quickly evaluating each situation he encounters. Not extremely flashy or over the top, he has become a rock solid D-man and a reliable player. 

"Will is true to himself and always understands and thinks team before he thinks about any individual moment," Montgomery said. "He brings a confidence and calmness that exudes through the rest of the team and allows us to make plays all over the ice."

Butcher has achieved success at every stage in his career and still continued looking for the next step in becoming the best player he could be. He demonstrated his commitment to the team throughout the entire year and trained relentlessly to lead by example.  

Everything Butcher has been preparing for has led to this moment. It will be the last time he'll skate out onto the ice with his Pioneers, the last time they will be recognized as the best hockey team in the nation, and the last chance to make his four years count for something greater than himself. 

The suspense of the very moment that has motivated him for several long months is finally here. 

As he enters his final collegiate weekend, the job is not finished yet. His main focus is on bringing home a NCAA national title with the teammates that have been beside him the entire way. 

What a ride it has been. 

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