Dec. 14, 2009
By Joanne C. Gerstner
This wasn't the storybook ending that seemed clearly ordained for a young hockey star. But sometimes storybooks can have even better alternate endings.
Jason Botterill (1994-97) had everything needed to make it big in the NHL. He had the size, standing a solid 6-foot-4 and 220 pounds, good hands, tenacity around the net, excellent leadership and intelligence on the ice, and was an integral member of Michigan's 1996 NCAA championship team. He was smart off the ice too, graduating with a degree in economics.
The Dallas Stars drafted him with their top pick in 1994, and Botterill was off to have his starring life at left wing in the NHL. Much was expected of him, and he felt ready to handle anything pro hockey had in store. Little did he know there was so much he couldn't control.
A series of concussions occurred as Botterill bounced between the NHL and the minors. He played 393 games in the minors, and 88 in the NHL over eight seasons.
Concussions aren't an unusual injury for hockey players, thanks to the terrific force of collisions into the boards, cruel checks from behind, or other violent blows. Botterill's body took punishment, and the blows produced devastating results.
"The headaches, the pain, getting the black spots in front of my eyes, how I felt wasn't going away," Botterill said. "It was taking longer to recover, and it was easier to get the next concussion. I'd be off the ice for a week or two, come back, and it would happen again. The concussions kept happening over and over."
The final concussion came on Halloween 2004, while he was playing for the Rochester Americans versus the Syracuse Crunch. It wasn't even a hard check, a tap to the chest that snapped his head back sharply enough to cause a whiplash-style concussion.
Doctors told Botterill he was in danger of suffering permanent brain damage, possibly even death from concussion syndrome, if he was hit again.
He had a choice to make: take the risk playing hockey, or quit to ensure a normal life.
And the doctors were adamant, telling Botterill that the risk was non-negotiable.
"It was tough, because I had played hockey since I was little, it was what I loved so much," Botterill said. "But then again, when you are told that what you love to do could cause permanent injury, it makes your decisions clear. I had to quit hockey and move on with my life."
Winning the NCAA championship, three gold medals for Canada in the World Junior Championships, and having potential could not trump what was happening to his health.
Botterill, then 28, announced his retirement and wondered what would happen next.
"It's always difficult, and you always still wish you could go back and play the game," Botterill said. "It's a situation where if you retire 22, 32 or 42, you always wish you could play one more year. You still have that competitive edge. You have to find different things to channel it in to."
Fortunately he had already given a bit of thought to his future, thanks to conversations with Michigan coach Red Berenson.
"Coach always told us that we need to be prepared for life after hockey. He'd ask, 'What are you going to do?'" Botterill said. "For some guys, that's a question that's very hard to answer. For me, when my time came, I knew I wanted to do something in business. I didn't know that hockey would be my business in the long run."
Hockey had provided the cruel end to his career. And now, it would provide the other happy ending to his story.
Botterill decided to go back to school, enrolling in Michigan's Stephen M. Ross School of Business to study for an MBA. He admits feeling some butterflies heading back to school, as he was no longer a fresh-faced student.
Berenson fully supported Botterill's choice to go back to school, as he too had followed a similar path. Berenson also went back to Michigan for his MBA, and strongly believes in education.
"Jason is a very smart and talented guy, and he was always more than just hockey," Berenson said. "There are too many guys I know that don't have that going for them, they are only hockey players. And when the hockey is over, they are really lost. They think about coaching or staying in the game, but there isn't much room there either. Jason knew he could use his intelligence in many ways, and I knew he'd be great because he was such a good student here. He was going to be fine."
Botterill figured he'd gravitate toward finance or banking, using his math skills and U-M economics degree. Conversations with fellow students and professors led him to look at hockey in another way, this time toward the front office.
Botterill quickly learned he could combine his burgeoning business skills with his love of hockey. Sports is a business at heart, and can be just as competitive as the action on the ice.
An internship at the NHL offices and the NHL Central registry followed, allowing him to get to know the front office life.
"It really captured me, just something about it really clicked," Botterill said. "It was as close as I could be to hockey, without me getting to be on the ice."
He also made time to attend U-M hockey games, getting goosebumps every time he entered Yost Ice Arena and saw his team's championship banner hanging in the rafters.
"No words can explain how I feel when I see that," Botterill said. "It's still a dream come true, like a dream you can relive over and over when you go to Yost and I feel like I am right there again."
Botterill's business career has taken off since graduating with his MBA. The Pittsburgh Penguins hired him in 2007, naming him director of hockey administration.
He became the team's "capologist", using his math and finance talents to keep track of the Penguins' salary cap and what was going on with other NHL teams. He also helped with contract arbitration, scouted pro and college players, and oversaw the Penguins AHL team in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton.
Botterill empathizes with the players, as he isn't too far removed from being in their world.
"I try to remember a little bit of what it's like," Botterill, now 33, said. "It can be tough when you have to cut or trade a player or have a coach tell you you're not working out. I've been the player on the other side of that conversation. I always wanted to know what I could do better, and that's what I try to do now. Be prepared, be honest. You have to sometimes be harsh and direct, but you're striving to do what's best in the long run for the organization."
Botterill was promoted by the Penguins to assistant general manager after the 2008-09 season. It was already a big summer for him, as the Penguins defeated the Red Wings to win the Stanley Cup.
Botterill's friend and former Wolverine teammate Brendan Morrison likes to make fun of his new position. Many members of the 1996 championship team remain very close, to the point of taking an annual, guys-only "Senior Trip" each summer to reconnect.
"He's gone to the dark side, he's one of them now," joked Morrison, a member of the Washington Capitals. "He's one of the suits. Seriously though, I am so proud of Jason and I have no doubt that he's going to be running a team of his own someday. That's how much I think of him. He is smart, he loves hockey, and he's a good person. Maybe someday he can trade for me or sign me."
Morrison wonders aloud about Botterill's path to the front office, thinking about what could have been.
"When we won the title in 1996, the sky was the limit for all of us. We were going to make it in the NHL, win Stanley Cups, you name it," Morrison said. "Jason was so good, I think he was underrated when we played together because he wasn't flashy. He was so dependable and always did the right thing. We talked when he was getting those concussions, and it was scary to hear him say he couldn't remember where he left his car keys. Hockey was going to really screw him up if he kept going.
"We all wanted what was best for him, and he's clearly gone down the right path."
Berenson also sees big things in Botterill's future. The two speak often, with Botterill keeping Berenson up to speed on the business machinations of the NHL. Botterill also gets to hit the road to scout, with trips to Yost to take in a game or two each season.
"I would love to see him as the next commissioner of the NHL, I think that much of him," Berenson said. "He would be perfect. He knows hockey, he knows business, he has a great education, he's the kind of smart, young guy that you want to see running things."
Botterill deflects the praise of Berenson and Morrison, saying he's perfectly happy to learn and grow into his new role in Pittsburgh. His career is starting, and he hopes there will be big things in his future.
"I couldn't be more excited to have this chance to do even more in helping this hockey club," Botterill said. "When you have players like (Sidney) Crosby and (Evgeni) Malkin, they make you look good. I am ambitious, I do want to be the best I can be doing this job. Sure, I do have the aspirations down the road to be a general manager, but that's all in time.
"I've worked hard to get to where I am, and I am very lucky to get to be around hockey every day. It's the best of both worlds for me."
Check back Thursday (Dec. 17) for a feature on Red Berenson and his influence on improving the knowledge of concussions in hockey, and Monday (Dec. 21) for a feature on the U-M Medical School's effect on the issue.