VANCOUVER — Sven Butenschon showed a level of mettle last season which went a long ways towards convincing UBC Thunderbirds’ athletic director Gilles Lepine that he need not look far to find the next fulltime head coach of the school’s men’s hockey program.
Thrust into the head coaching role on an interim basis in training camp last fall following a sudden parting-of-the-ways between the school and then bench boss Adam Shell, Butenschon rallied the ‘Birds from a 1-6-0 start, going 11-7-3 the rest of the way (7-3-2 after the winter break) en route to the Canada West playoffs.
Now, Butenschon, 41, an Olympian and former Pittsburgh Penguins draft pick, will get a chance to continue building the ‘Birds brand name. UBC is expected to make his fulltime hiring official on Tuesday.
“I am hoping with the hiring that the school and the program have a chance to get some good vibes and some positive PR,” said Butenschon, who last season, as a rookie head coach, was the program’s fourth head coach in four seasons. “We want to make sure people across Canada know we’re all good.”
Beginning with Milan Dragicevic, the man who helped save the program during the school’s infamous sports targeting review process, and who was fired after 12 seasons in 2014, UBC has since been coached by Tyler Kuntz (2014-15), Shell (2015-16) and Butenschon (2016-17).
Reflecting on how the carousel impacted his players last season, and how that most recent campaign served as a gut-check for all concerned heading into 2017-18, Butenschon was impressed by the way his roster thrived during its trial by fire.
“I think the first half of last season was happening so fast for me as a coach, and the group,” began Butenschon, a German-born defenceman who in addition to playing for his country here at there 2010 Winter Games, was a 1997 draft pick of the Pittsburgh Penguins and also played for Edmonton, the N.Y. Islanders and Canucks over his NHL career.
“For some of those guys, my voice was the fourth one they had heard in four years. As a player, I couldn’t imagine having all of those messages sent to you, from style, to dressing room culture, to tactics, to Xs and Os, to just getting to know people on a human level. But those guys were great.
“We caught our breath, we looked in the mirror, and we brought everyone back three days earlier than normal after Christmas. It was definitely a different vibe in the second half, with more accountability. And it was great to watch the guys grow.”
UBC took favoured Calgary to triple-overtime in the first game of its best-of-three conference opening-round series but lost in two games.
This time around, Butenschon actually has something resembling an off-season to lay his plans.
“Now I have a few months to prepare and put my fingerprints on this program,” he says. “But the way things finished, going to Calgary and out playing them much of the way, it’s kind of what Toronto went through playing Washington. It’s about learning. Now we build our program and our plan for the season. I expect us to hit the ice running from Day 1.”
Among the top returning players this season, team scoring leader Anthony Bardaro (Prince Albert Raiders) and defenceman Wes Van Nieuwenhuizen (Vancouver Giants) would have been playing for their fifth head coach in five seasons had Butenschon not been retained.
What was Butenschon busy doing Monday?
The same thing his fellow men’s head coaches, basketball’s Kevin Hanson and football’s Blake Nill, have been doing a lot of lately: Showing a promising new recruit around the sprawling Point Grey campus.
After all of the tough years UBC hockey has endured of late, Butenschon says he is energized and inspired by UBC’s community of leaders, all of whom offered him ample support during his unexpected ascendancy to head coach.
“With Gilles Lepine as our new athletic director, and with our president Santa Ono, these guys are real sports guys,” Butenschon begins. “It’s like that old saying about mind and body being so important.
“We know UBC is at the top for academics and that is the mind,” he continued. “But the body is university athletics and it’s great to be a part of a school with all of these other great programs.”