Ex-NHLer Sven Butenschon leads the ’Birds into important stretch of regular season

The UBC men’s ice hockey team has not had the best of luck with coaches. Three past coaches — Milan Dragicevic, Tyler Kuntz and Adam Shell — have departed from the team for different reasons in the span of three years. Now at the climax of their most trying season, the team has a mysterious bearded leader at the helm — Sven Butenschon.

The German-born Canadian was the assistant coach under shell before becoming the head coach in the summer of 2016.

Before that, he had an extraordinary career in hockey.

Butenschon was born in Itzehoe, Germany, and raised in Manitoba. He played hockey early on in life, including playing junior hockey with the Brandon Wheat Kings.

In 1994, the Pittsburgh Penguins drafted Butenschon in the third round. He went on to make his NHL debut for the team three years later. As a Penguin, he got to play in Wayne Gretzky’s final game on April 18, 1999 at Madison Square Garden.

In 2000, Butenschon was dealt to the Edmonton Oilers where he played 21 games over two seasons and scored his first NHL goal. In 2002, he was traded once again, this time to the New York Islanders where he played 78 games. With the Islanders, Butenschon racked up 11 points and had the most successful stretch of his career — an experience he sees as incredible.

“There’s a lot of adrenaline, there’s a lot of emotion,” said the former defenceman. “The atmosphere and the intensity is exciting. You can try to be a sponge and listen to the old guys in the dressing room and the leaders, and try to pick up a few things. Overall, it’s an incredible experience.”

He was also once a member of the Vancouver Canucks. After leaving the Islanders and spending a year with Adler Mannheim in Germany, he signed a one-year deal with the team in 2005.

Butenschon made the decision to move to Vancouver three years before signing with the Canucks.

“I moved here about 15 years ago and I’ve always made Vancouver my family’s off-season home,” said Butenschon. “Wherever I was playing, I would come back to Vancouver.”

While he spent most of the season with the Canucks’ farm team, the Manitoba Moose, Butenschon did appear in eight games for the NHL squad.

His lone season with Vancouver turned out to be his last in the NHL.

After his departure from the Canucks, Butenschon returned to Germany. He spent seven seasons playing for Adler Mannheim and the Thomas Sabo Ice Tigers. He also represented Germany at the 2010 Olympic Games in Vancouver. Butenschon retired from professional hockey in 2013.

“When I retired, I started teaching kids and working in clubs,” said Butenschon. “I started getting back to the rink and networking myself. Everything happened pretty quick and organically.”

Butenschon has built up an impressive resume. He has played in four professional leagues — the National Hockey League (NHL), the American Hockey League (AHL), Germany’s Deutsche Eishockey Liga (DEL) and the defunct International Hockey League (IHL). With a wealth of professional playing experience, he turned his attention to coaching.

He joined the Thunderbirds in 2015, becoming the second ex-NHLer to join the coaching staff. The other is current goaltending coach Alex Auld, who has also had a successful career with eight different NHL teams, including the Canucks.

Butenschon has had his share of success this year. In front of a record crowd of 5,039, the UBC coach led the ’Birds to their first ever Winter Classic victory. The ’Birds also upset the first-place University of Saskatchewan Huskies in six-goal thriller.

But the most important part of his rookie season is up ahead. The team is currently battling for the sixth and final playoff spot, and has two games left in the regular season.

It looks like the fate of Butenschon’s rookie season is going to come down to the wire.

The T-Birds will face the Mount Royal University Cougars away on February 10 and 11 in their final games of the regular season.