Will Butcher has had his eye on the Hobey Baker award since his senior season with the DU Pioneers started. This week, he saw his goal take its first step toward fulfillment as he became one of 66 young hockey players nominated for the coveted award. About the honor, he said, "It’s a great accomplishment for myself. It’s a goal I set out for myself personally at the beginning of the year." This first round of voting, which began on January 30th, includes the annual fan ballot which will comprise 1% of the total ballot in each phase. On March 16, the top ten finalists will move on to the next phase of voting.
It is no fluke that Butcher is in this conversation. He has been repeatedly recognized this year as one of the best defensemen, if not players, in the National Collegiate Hockey Conference (NCHC), earning the Defenseman Player of the Week award five times so far this season. He is currently tied for the conference lead in assists at 19 and is ranked third nationally (NCAA) in scoring by a defenseman. His five goals and 19 assists so far this season also put him at third in overall scoring for his team and the leader in helpers.
Moreover, the senior has done all this while wearing the weight of the captain's C on his jersey. Denver's head coach, Jim Montgomery, relies heavily on Butcher throughout games. Butcher is regularly logging the most minutes on the team, quarterbacking the power play, anchoring the penalty kill, and taking the top-paring in even strength ice time. Butcher enjoys the responsibility and, even more, enjoys playing for Coach Montgomery: "He likes it when we have the puck which caters well to my game. He kind of lets me play my game in the sense of being an offensive defenseman, rushing the puck and trying to be that fourth forward in the offensive zone."
While the five-foot ten-inch defenseman is not the biggest nor fastest guy out there, Butcher sees the ice so well that friends and foes alike consider him a constant threat. Throughout the league, Butcher is known most for his intelligent play, something he himself recognizes as an asset that will help him transition into professional hockey.
Thinking the game is my strongest attribute. I think plays really well, and I try to anticipate. I’m not maybe the fastest guy in the world, but I try to use my mind to help me be faster out there, and I think that’s one thing that I need to do every single night that’ll help me in the pro game.
But don't let the individual accolades fool you. Butcher is all about his team. He takes his roll as captain seriously, leading his teammates—both by example and through communication—on the ice and off. "Definitely guys look up to you a little bit more (when you're the captain), especially being a senior,...so that's what I'm learning...Also when to speak up at the right times is definitely a key thing I've picked up this year being the captain," Butcher admitted.
Butcher has helped to take his team to the enviable position of remaining in the top spots of the NCAA since the beginning of the season, currently sitting second in each of the major ranking outlets with an 18-6-4 record. The team's 18 wins ties it for the lead with Union. As for the conference, the Pioneers again sit in second, behind Minnesota Duluth, with a 0.719 win percentage.
Butcher credits the personal growth he's made this year off the ice as a major component in his ability to stay focused on his team and studies alike. "Being here for four years has really developed me as a person in the sense of how I prepare every day. I have set days where I do certain things, and it’s a job in a sense," he said. "If I stick to my routine and prepare like a pro then I end up playing and having success."
The son of a teacher, he also knows the value of education and appreciates the one he's getting in Denver. Even with the intense travel and practice schedules, Butcher maintains a 3.28 GPA and was named to the NCHC Academic All-Conference team last season.
Butcher's future is unclear at the moment as he has yet to be signed by the Colorado Avalanche, which drafted him in the fifth round of the 2013 NHL Entry Draft. It is common for college hockey players to be signed after their junior year, but Butcher is glad he got the chance to play out his senior year with Denver.
It’s always a bummer when you see guys getting signed after their junior year. It’s kind of the thing, especially with college hockey. At the same time, I just told myself I need to (stop) worrying about it. You can still sign after your senior year. I just need to go out and play. Coming back to our team this year, it’s almost been better for me because I got to grow as a person and lead a team that’s been doing very well this year, and I think it’s the best case scenario for me…just focusing on developing as a person and player here.
Will Butcher is enjoying the success the Pioneers are having, and he trusts that the business side of things will work itself out. He hopes it will be with the Avalanche as he has grown to love Colorado and would like to stay in the area. For now, however, the young defenseman is concentrating on what's directly ahead of him: four more weeks of regular season hockey and, if all goes well, a deep playoff run that could end in a championship.