For some people, hockey is more than just a game. It's a way of life.
For Nashville Predators fan Ben Butzbach, hockey was a way of life until the very end. Butzbach died Tuesday at the age of 33, leaving behind his wife, Brandy, and son, Jake.
Known affectionately as "Big Ben" in the Predators fanbase, Butzbach was well known for having painted messages and designs on his stomach that were shown on the jumbotron at Predators games to pump up the crowd at Bridgestone Arena. He was very popular among fans and Predators players.
"I was shocked to hear that [Wednesday morning]," Predators goaltender Pekka Rinne said. "Obviously you think about his family. What I've learned is he has a wife and a kid. It's terrible news. Obviously the players who have been here for a long time, we all knew of him and knew who he was. Saw him during the games and during the practice days, and he was a great fan. I feel very, very bad for his family."
What started off as a fun idea eventually grew into a part of the game experience in Nashville. Butzbach and others would come up with ideas to paint on his stomach, and he would be shown on the jumbotron with the song "Sexy and I Know It" blaring in the background.
"When it started out, he was actually pretty shy," Butzbach's friend Justin Bradford said. "He was a pretty shy guy starting out because he wasn't sure how people would respond to it. Obviously you're exposing the upper half of your body and you're not necessarily used to doing that in public, especially in front of 17,113 people and on TV sometimes. It kind of put a little bit on him, but it grew and he started to see the response that it had."
Butzbach's unwavering support of the Predators and his unique way of showing his fandom illustrated the passion that the Nashville community has for hockey and for the Predators.
"It's hard to put into words, right? Because in essence he was just a guy on the megatron, but in reality, he was larger than life and he symbolized die-hard fans' fandom, if you will," The Game Nashville reporter Jeremy K. Gover said. "He was fun. He was funny. He had a different message every game that changed. It was always topical, and I think everyone looked forward to seeing him."
Butzbach also helped Bradford start a podcast called Penalty Box Radio that eventually grew into a live sports show on the radio at The Game Nashville and a website that covers the Predators. Their goal since the beginning has been to grow hockey in Nashville, covering not only the Predators but junior, high school and college hockey as well.
"Ben and I did it together," Bradford said. "We built it from the ground up. The way we founded it was on a summer night in August of 2012, and we were on my back porch. We were celebrating founding it and naming it and creating a website called penaltyboxradio.com by drinking RC Cola and eating tasty cakes because they had just arrived in Middle Tennessee from the Philly area and smoking really good cigars. That's just the way that we were."
As a former first responder, Butzbach was also very passionate about Firehouse Hockey, which is a group of hockey teams made up of first responders and members of the military that raise money for charities. The response in the hockey community since his death has come from all across the world.
"The response has been overwhelming in such an inspiring way," Bradford said. "You don't realize the impact someone has sometimes until they're gone. And what so many people in Nashville and around the country and the world have even seen so far is the impact that he had in a positive way, not just on Predators fans, but on the hockey community in general in what he was able to do with Firehouse Hockey.
"So many inspiring phone calls that we've received on our radio show from the northeast in Boston, the lives that he touched there, people in Philadelphia whose lives that he touched. So it's been amazing to see the response of people who had memories to share with him."