Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Remembering Butchy

Meeting Butch
          It seems like everyone who knew Butchy remembers the first time they met him. For me, I was working in my first hockey job, selling gear. The owner asked me to help this big, friendly guy find a new pair of skates. He was affable . . . nope, that doesn't even come close . . . he was enthusiastically gregarious. If I didn't know better, I would have thought I'd known him for years. Butchy told me I was fitting him for his last pair of free skates. Certain that my penny-pinching employer wasn't giving anyone anything for free I asked, "How's that?"
         Butch told me the NHL was paying for them. Given the big guy's . . . erm, decidedly non-athletic build, it didn't make sense until he told me he was an official. Working the big show is something a guy could brag about. That wasn't Butch. He just was making conversation. Having met him about 5 minutes earlier I knew he wasn't bragging. I instantly liked him, but little did I know how much I'd come to appreciate him.
          I've been thinking a lot about Butch these last days. I came to a realization. The presence of a referee is not unlike that of a waiter:
  • A bad one often ruins the evening.
  • A good one is nearly invisible.
  • A great one almost always improves the event
          Butch's presence on the ice made every game better. He always brought a smile. He was quick with a compliment. Somehow he made time to visit guys on the bench without missing a call on the ice. He did so much more than just that though.

He Kept Us Sane
It's a rare referee who has such control over a game that participants never seem to lose their control. In several years goal-tending in a league where Butch was frequently our referee, this was certainly the case. Butch was always quick with the right word or proper question to diffuse a situation before it actually became one. Guys who were bordering on angry often ended up laughing at themselves as Butch escorted them to the sin bin.
          This was a phenomenon I strictly attribute to Butch. Games he didn't ref those seasons were very different. One kid, certainly a bit immature to be reffing angry adult-league players, was famous for escalating tensions on the ice. When a player questioned a call the kid tended to resort to swearing and name calling. Nothing diminishes tensions like being heckled by the official. Well perhaps nothing except having a guy return to the bench, his sentence served, answering his own question, "You know what that ref said to me? He called me a . . . " (Sorry, if you're not accustomed to sarcasm I likely lost you there . . . also I'm not actually sorry about being sarcastic).
          Even without that type of provocation things often went sideways without Butch. One memorable game sans Butch involved all ten skaters on the ice in an all out brawl. While ten guys pummeled one another with more than harsh words I looked on from my end. The other goalie, Al, skated to my side of center, away from the fracas. With a huge smile on his face, he tossed off his gloves. We mocked our teammates by attempting to pull the jerseys over each other's heads.
          When Butchy was around, things like that just didn't happen. I remember one game when Butch was partnered with a less talented partner (to protect his identity I shall call this other official Blind Mustachio). Playing defense rather than keeper that night, I was the victim of a terrible call. Mark, a guy on the other team had gotten behind me and was breaking to our net. I was so far behind him I probably couldn't have hit him with my stick if I threw it. However, as Mark drew back the puck to shoot, I lunged. This was done with the desperate hope my stick would appear in his peripheral vision and somehow terrify him. I doubt he even saw it leering at him from ten feet back. But lo and behold, he managed to trip himself up, lost the puck, lost his feet and crashed headlong into the boards. I picked up the puck; a whistle instantly blew. I skated to Mark, a longtime friend, to ask if he was OK. Blind Mustachio pointed in our general vicinity yelling, "Get in the box."
          Both of us looked at each other unsure to whom he was talking. In unison we asked, "Who me?"
          Blind Mustachio pointed to me, "Two minutes tripping."
           I don't remember another call so bad that a member of the team it benefited protested, but Mark complained even more vehemently than I. "I just tripped! He wasn't anywhere near me."
           "Easiest call I'll make all night. I could have seen that from a hundred miles away." the ref replied.
          I went to the box, no doubt shaking my head. When my team managed to clear the puck, Butch skated slowly by. He showed me thumbs up, thumbs down then gave a questioning shrug. I replied with an enthusiastic thumbs down. He gave an apologetic smile and skated back to work. Later when I had returned to the bench and Butch was patrolling the blue line he told me, "I figured that was a bad one, Scotty. I never heard you complain about a call."
          In another instance, the other team managed to skate for almost a minute with an extra player on the ice. This wasn't the sort of thing Butch tended to miss, but it was an odd situation. Somehow the sixth guy jumped on the ice during the first shift. Even with the extra skater, my team kept them pinned in the other end. I was screaming, "Six skaters on white! Six skaters on white!" At the other end of the ice all anyone could have heard was Charlie Brown's dad swearing loudly. When there was a whistle and shift change I skated to my center to inform him of the missed infraction.
          Minutes later when the other team finally visited our end, Butchy skated to the side of my net. The action was pretty lively in our end. I was trying to focus on the game. Admittedly, I can be a bit chirpy when I'm in net. But, I tend to quietly down when giving the appropriate attention to action near my net (go figure). Nonetheless, as players and the puck were cycling around me, Butch said, "Six guys for a full minute huh? Your team just had the worst line change I ever saw. There were like eighteen guys on the ice there and I let you slide. Can we call it even?"
          In the midst of the action, he came to my net to essentially crack a joke. Even with imminent shots which needed to be saved, I couldn't help but laugh. That was classic Butch and it was how he kept tempers cool.

He Kept us Safe
          Most of my experience on the ice with Butch was as a goalie. Even in net I'd hear him warning guys, "Heads up," or "Take it easy." He wasn't just there to enforce the rules. He was there to keep players from injuries which could be avoided. He was pretty good at it in my opinion.
          I was extremely thankful that he was there one night. I took point-blank snapper right in the gap between my pads and thigh guard. The bruise it created would eventually fall short of wrapping all the way around my thigh by about half an inch. Needless to say it hurt. I had come out pretty far to make the save. Immediately, the pain reduced me to crawling. The puck had rebounded toward the open side. I was far too tenacious (that's goalie lingo for stupid) to give up. I was less worried about the oddity of my current orientation, which left my ribs, legs, and neck rather exposed, than I was about the imminent threat of a goal against. I crabbed painfully toward the battle for the puck. Butch spotted my predicament at once and blew the whistle. With my relief dawned the realization that I probably would have taken a bigger thrashing if I attempted to make another save.

We didn't always pay him back in kind
          My favorite two stories about messing with a ref involve Butch. They both go together. I attest that they both were unintentional.
          The first story involved a breakaway. My opponent was skating hard. He shot from pretty far out. I gloved the shot. As it should be, he continued to skate--crashing my net. So, I held up my glove. The act was about 50% "Ha! Stopped you!" and 50% "Please don't fall on me and tear my hamstring." Seeing my Statue of Liberty impression, Butch blew the whistle. The shooter threw his stick in the air yelling a single agitated obscenity. I turned around to see that the puck was actually resting a foot behind me. Without the premature whistle my opponent would have had an unimpeded path to the net.
         Butchy skated to my net, clearly chagrined at his bad whistle. "Why'd you hold your hand up, Scotty? I thought you had the puck."
         I apologized, "Sorry, I thought I had the puck too."
         Not coincidentally, the second story also involved a breakaway. In fact it was one week later when almost the exact same situation materialized. I faced a shot on a breakaway. It hit my glove, but as the guy crashed the net, I wasn't sure where the puck ended up. Not wanting to cause Butch another faux pas, I looked everywhere to determine the location of the evil little piece of rubber. It wasn't behind me, but I had no idea where it could have landed. After an excruciatingly long time, Butch blew the whistle. He skated over to me and asked, "Where's the puck?"
         I stood up. I looked in the normal places pucks try to hide. I tried to shake it out of my pads. Eventually I shrugged. "I have no idea."
         "Open your glove."
         I did. To my surprise the puck was there. Butch shook his head. "You're killing me, Scotty."
         Yeah, sorry about that Butch.

Farewell, my friend
         I'd say I was privileged to count Butch as a friend. But honestly, it wasn't as rare a thing as privilege implies. Butch was a friend to almost everyone he met. He was that rare person who loved everyone and found that love reciprocated. Still he was such a kindhearted, genuine person that even lacking any rarity, it was a privilege.
         A bit of light seems to have faded from this world without Butch. The smile Butch always wore leaves a void which will be impossible to fill completely. Butch's time on earth was all too brief. His departure was too sudden. Our hearts feel slow at the random, nonsensical nature of his demise. But, I don't think that our hearts have emptied nearly as much as they were previously filled from knowing Butch.
          I found myself breaking the news of Butch's passing to a customer as I was sharpening his skates. Like me, he found it heart wrenching. He was clearly broken up. But before I finished his skates we'd swapped several remembrances of Butch. We were both laughing. In the end he left smiling. And in the end I was smiling as well. Maybe that's the whole take away here. Yeah, if we sit and ruminate on the fact that he's gone, it's like a kick in the gut. It's going to make us sad. It might make us angry. It won't be pleasant. But if we remember him, that bit of light which seems to have faded from the world is still there. Every time we remember him with a fond smile and a chuckle, there's still a bit of Butch in the world.
          Farewell, my friend. I'm thankful to have been among the privileged many.

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© 2016 Scott Noble. 
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1 comment:

  1. well said! I've also spent the last few days remembering how great Butch was on and off the ice. Gone too soon, for sure. But I know he'll be remembered by all the folks whose lives he made better!