Seven years ago, Jason Botterill was enduring a bout with post-concussion syndrome and was unsure about of his hockey future.
He was 27-years-old and hoped a solid season in the AHL with the Rochester Americans during the 2004-05 NHL lockout would land him a fulltime gig with the Buffalo Sabres.
He started with a bang by scoring six times in the first seven games. In the eighth game, however, his hockey life came crashing down when he suffered the fourth concussion of his career, this time on Halloween against the rival Syracuse Crunch. It would be the last pro game Botterill would play. On the advice of doctors, he announced his retirement a few months later.
"The first three, I didn't remember the hit. I didn't remember the situation," said Botterill, now the Pittsburgh Penguins assistant general manager. "The last one, I remember it. I remember being hit. I felt a little off, but I finished the game. When the adrenaline wore off I knew something was wrong."
Botterill wishes there were easy answers with the concussion problem that has infected hockey. But this is a puzzle that as Sidney Crosby best stated on Friday, is "a tough injury and not clear cut all the time."
"Do I have one thing we need to change to help reduce the number of concussions? No, not at all," Botterill said. "I think the NHL has tried to be as proactive as it can. From the standpoint of the Matt Cooke hit [two years ago] the league changed a rule in the middle of the year.
"You don't want injuries. You don't want a skill player like Sidney Crosby not playing. It's so much fun to watch him play. Sure you're looking for answers, but do I have it? No. Everybody is looking for answers and different options. The good thing has been the line of communications have been open.
"It's a difficult situation and there is a balance with this because I absolutely love the way our game is being played right now with the excitement level. We've tried to open up the game and from a fan's perspective it's a fun game to watch. You see the skill, the physical aspect, the intensity of each game and the parity we have in the league."
Plan after hockey
Botterill never anticipated that his career would be cut short after only eight pro seasons (521 regular season and playoff games), but he had a plan for after hockey. The Winnipeg native played four years at the University of Michigan and earned an economics degree. His coach at Michigan, Red Berenson, always stressed that his players have a plan for after hockey.
In fact, Berenson, himself, who played more than 1,000 regular season and playoff games combined in the NHL with the Montreal Canadiens, New York Raners, St. Louis Blues and Detroit Red Wings, gained his MBA. Botterill's Michigan teammate, Warren Luhning, whose pro career also ended because of a concussion, went back and earned his MBA at Yale's business school.
This notion fit for Botterill. Sports always has played a big part of the Botterill family, but so has education. His mother Doreen was a Canadian Olympic speedskater, his sister Jennifer a Canadian national team player and his father Cal is a sports psychologist. Jennifer went to Harvard. Cal teaches at the University of Winnipeg.
So Botterill headed back to Michigan for his MBA because he had a fondness for numbers and kept an eye on a career either in commercial banking or corporate finance. But while back at Michigan, he attended a few hockey games, took a part-time scouting position with the Dallas Stars, the team that drafted him, and was hired as an intern with the NHL.
With the NHL, he worked in the league's central registry, helped interpret the collective agreement with NHL general managers and aided the league in summertime salary arbitration.
It was at the 2007 NHL entry draft that Botterill was interviewed by a few teams about a possible front-office role. Then Stars GM and current Blues GM Doug Armstrong recommended Botterill to Penguins GM Ray Shero and his then assistant Chuck Fletcher.
They were impressed and Botterill was back with a team, chasing a championship.
Of course, now Botterill has a Stanley Cup ring from 2008-09 to go with his NCAA championship in 1995-96 with Michigan and his three world junior gold medals, the only Canadian to accomplish the feat.
"We got to the final in my first year and won a Cup in the second. I thought this would be no problem at all," Botterill said.
"What I've enjoyed so much since I joined the Penguins is that we have a staff that is fairly young. We have a good work ethic and good communication between management and the coaching staff. We're not afraid to challenge each other. It's fun to put together a team as a group and have success."
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