Mike Butters is the new General Manager of the Lightning’s American Hockey League affiliate, the Norfolk Admirals.
Ok, if your mind’s eye has just conjured up a gray-haired professional hockey exec with an even grayer countenance, a seen-it-all vet who enjoys telling stories about when Gordie Howe ruled the NHL, you can, as Butters would say, “fuggetaboutit.”
Because Mike Butters is nowhere near that image, and if you’re surprised, well then you just haven’t been paying attention to the changes being made throughout the organization by the current Lightning administration. And that’s a shame, because it seems as if everyone else in the hockey world is watching.
How different is Butters from that stereotypical profile? For one thing, the guy’s funny. Very funny. So funny that he was a member of an improvisational comedy troupe in Los Angeles. But that’s only one of Butters’ past lives. The guy has had more lives than Garfield the Cat.
Here, in brief, is a list of the varied careers of Mike Butters. He’s been an actor, a musician (bass player for the Elvis Pawns, named for the local Manitoba pawn shop that provided the PA system) the owner-operator of a junior league Tier III hockey team (where he rode the Zamboni and tossed ice cream bars to the crowd) and a professional hockey player. In fact, Butters was in such demand as a hockey player that, in 1991-92, he was traded four times in a single AHL season. (“The other team always wanted me more,” he explained.)
So, he’s got a lot of hockey sweaters in his closet and travel stickers on his suitcase. So what? Did he ever give a thought to hanging up the skates that year? Man, you don’t know Mike Butters.
“I was a hot commodity that year,” Butters recalled. “I started in New Haven for the Nighthawks, and ended in Greensboro with the Monarchs with stops in Adirondack and Halifax along the way. It was kind of a weird year. I never cared. I was just happy to be playing.”
When his career finally ended in Bakersfield, California in 1996, Butters took that geographic accident as a prophetic sign and headed for nearby L.A. Since he was out that way, why not take a shot at acting, Butters thought?
Formal acting training, right? Um, nope.
Good contacts and connections? Sorry, no.
“I did come from a musical family,” Butters offered.
But here is the essence of what Mike Butters is about and the traits he brings to the Lightning organization. Through determination and perseverance he began to get roles and eventually his credits grew to include 35 films, numerous television guest spots and more than 90 television commercials.
“There are lots of similarities between hockey and acting,” Butters explained. “Both tell you what you’re not, rather than what you are. You have to discover yourself. You have to figure out what you can do.”
One of the things he figured he could do while in L.A.was play Pro Beach Hockey, a made for television concoction dreamed up by a wrestling promoter who loved hockey but thought the concept needed some spicing up.
“He might have been on to something,” Butters reasoned, “but he went way over the top. It was pretty campy and the closest thing to a three-ring circus you’ll ever see.”
How campy was it.? Butters invented his own alter-ego, a character that spoofed the stereotypical French-Canadian hockey player. Wearing a black wig, blacked out teeth and a black eye, Butters caused mayhem and comedy in the guise of Fatsy LaShaft.
One thing that Butters likely had over Fatsy LaShaft, however, was his unique goal-scoring display. Known as the “Kayak”, Butters would slide to neutral ice on his butt while pretending to paddle with his hockey stick. The fans only got to see it a few times a season as Butters pumped in only 28 goals during a five-season minor league career. One night his team was in a shootout that had gone 12 players deep when the coach looked down the bench and saw only Butters and the back-up goalie.
“The coach thought about it,” Butters recalled, “but he finally chose me.”
After scoring over the goalie’s glove hand, Butters treated the opposing team to close up view of the Kayak celebration.
Not a scorer, he was much more adept at spending time in the penalty box, where he amassed a total of 702 penalty minutes during that same career.
With his acting career underway, Butters, a Manitoba native, returned to his first love, hockey, and joined a men’s league team in Los Angeles comprised of writers, actors, producers and other film types. The team was named the Christopher Walkens, after the actor that kicked in $500 to sponsor them in exchange for naming rights.
One night, a new team member, Oren Koules, arrived in the locker room, and life for Mike Butters was about to change again.
“To get on this hockey team you almost had to audition for it – not that you had to be a great player, not at all – but you had to be a good guy,” Butters explained. “If you weren’t a good guy in the locker room, the team was going to ask you to leave. Oren came in and fit in great.”
A short while later, after Butters had appeared in two Koules-produced Saw films, the two friends teamed up to form a partnership to purchase the Tier III Junior Helena (Montana) Bighorns, and Butters headed for Big Sky country to operate the franchise.
Upon arrival in Helena, Butters found a franchise on shaky ground without much fan base. Eight years later, the finances are healthy and the team is a three-time Northern Pacific Hockey League champions.
Does the jump from junior hockey, where the players are still teens, to the AHL level, where he’ll be responsible for a team in the NHL’s highest development league, concern him? If you imagined it might, you’re still missing the essence of Mike Butters.
“Developing talent is developing talent,” Butters said. “Lightning coach Barry Melrose said it best to me. He said, ‘Buttsy, instead of looking at 15- and 16-year-olds, you’re looking at 22- and 23-year-olds.”
Actually, he thinks he has some advantages going in.
“This is a new crop of youngsters playing today,” Butters explained. “They’re different than the generations that played before them. They ask questions. They want answers. They’re better educated. It’ll be up to us to provide them with a roadmap.”
And Butters, 42 years old, thinks he’s the guy to sketch out the roadmap.
“We’ve got a plan for this organization,” Butters continued. “We’re a group of new thinkers and from the top all the way down we’ll be ‘hands on.’ ”
And if he gets his hands on some of the AHL league rules, watch for changes. While in North Pacific League with the Bighorns, Butters was instrumental in getting the rules changed to allow a 3-on-3 period in overtime if the 4-on-4 session didn’t break the tie.
“I wanted to go to a 2-on-2 and then a 1-on-1 but the other owners thought 3-on-3 was enough,” Butters recalled. “Why not? The fans love it.”
For Butters, it’s all about the fans, and once they get to know him, chances are, they’ll enjoy him. When he was introduced at the Norfolk press conference, he gave the assembled crowd a hint of what his style will be.
“I held up my tie and told them, ‘hey, take a good look - it’s the last time you’ll see one of these on me,’ ” Butters exclaimed.
Having Mike Butters around Norfolk will be fun, but running this team is serious business and Butters knows it.
“The AHL is an important part of any operation and I’m the eyes and ears of the organization there,” Butters said. “One of my goals is to have four players come up to the big club each year. I believe we can do it.”
Don’t look for him in the press box of the Admiral’s arena, the Scope. He expects to be sitting with the paying customers, listening to their comments. Butters’ goal is to bring the Calder Cup to Norfolk, and he’d like to do that immediately, but he understands that winning the championship might take a bit longer. Still, he’s got a promise to make to the fans:
“If there’s one thing I’ll promise about the Admirals this year,” Butters said, “it’s that we’re not getting outworked on the ice.”
To back him up in Norfolk, Butters promoted Darren Rumble from assistant to head coach and brought in an old friend, Alan May, to serve as Rumble’s assistant.
“This is an energetic, young coaching staff,’ Butters explained. “ Rumble is getting his first chance as a head coach and May is a strong personality who won’t be outworked. These are the right guys,” Butters concluded.
In fact, Butters see the right guys in every facet of the Lightning organization now.
“Our group could have a big sign at the door that says ‘Leave Your Egos Outside.’ Oren, Len, Brian Lawton – everyone has been very successful in their own ventures,” Butters explained. “But we’re committed to this, and we know the only way to succeed is to check the egos at the door. This,” he says, emphatically, ‘is a great group to work with.”
So, if you think Mike Butters will make a big difference with the Norfolk Admirals, if you suspect that he’ll succeed through sheer determination and will, then maybe you’re finally catching on as to who Mike Butters is. But if you need more hints, the following might help:
Oren Koules once asked Butters if there was anything in the world he hadn’t done.
“Yeah,” Butters replied. “Give up.”
“A true winner hates to lose more than he loves to win,” Butters said. “That’s the way it is. That’s what I believe in.”