Patrick Reusse
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Minnesota's hockey historians will tell you that White Bear Lake was home to Francis "Moose" Goheen, the greatest star of the sport's earliest decades of prominence in this state.

St. Paul's prep sports reporters from the later 1960s do not immediately think of Goheen when coming across the information that Saturday's Hockey Day in Minnesota will be centered in White Bear Lake.

As one such reporter, my first thought was: "I wonder what Billy Butters is doing with himself these days."

White Bear Lake had an outstanding group of athletes in that era, and at the Pioneer Press, we took particular note of the Bears on football Fridays, and hockey Saturdays in the winter at Aldrich Arena.

Butters became one of my prep heroes. Hard-charging fullback in football (including the unbeaten Bears of 1968), and "look out, here he comes" menace on the ice — plus, you could get a quip if you tracked him down after covering a game.

A half-century later. White Bear Lake athletics. First thought … Butters.

Found him on Thursday. Butters was heading home from Duluth, where he had talked to groups of hockey players from the UMD Bulldogs and at Wisconsin-Superior as part of his Christian ministry in which he's fully involved.

Which is all part of the tale that starts with Bill growing up with two older sisters and his mother, Audrey, in the "central part of White Bear."

Those were the people with "little money," Butters said. "My dad split when I was 4. We never owned a house. He had another family and I'd see him once in a while.

"He didn't come to games when I was a kid, and my mom was too busy, and now that I've seen the way parents can act at those games, I think, 'I was lucky.' "

Butters was a sophomore when White Bear Lake went to the state tournament in 1967. "Like all of our teams, we didn't get out,'' he said. "Hibbing beat us, 4-2.''

Meaning, "get out" of the first round. Only Mariner, in the brief period when White Bear had two high schools, has been able to advance — reaching the final in 1982 before losing 6-0 to Edina.

Non-hockey question, Bill: You were an outstanding fullback, linebacker and front-toe kicker in football. Any offers?

"A couple of smaller schools said I could play two sports," Butters said. "The fact my time in the 40 was about 10 seconds didn't impress the recruiters."

Hockey was a different story. He wound up with the Gophers. He played as a freshman for Herb Brooks and then Glen Sonmor on the varsity.

After a time, Butters was able to talk Debby Savage into a date. She was a Gophers cheerleader in hockey, basketball and football, and would be selected for an eight-person All-America cheer team in 1973.

"The night of our first date was also the night I went into the Colorado College bench for a fight," Butters said. "Her question later was, 'Is there something wrong with you?' "

Many opponents would later make that a declarative sentence, not a question. For instance: Butters played 103 minor league games for the Oklahoma City Blazers in two years and compiled 366 penalty minutes.

"It was the era of the Broad Street Bullies," Butters said. "Teams wanted tough guys. I wasn't going to make the NHL on my skills. I tried to fight my way there."

Where he wound up was with the aptly named Fighting Saints in St. Paul, thanks to Sonmor, the general manager.

Greatest brawl? "Saints at Hartford Whalers — April 11, 1975, a playoff game," Butters said. "Look that up on the internet. There's audio at least.

"Glen was in the press box and [Coach] Harry Neale didn't play me, Jack Carlson or Curt Brackenbury in the first period. Glen came down between periods and started screaming at Harry, 'Play those three,' and told us to go after 'em.

"I lit up Larry Pleau right away and the brawl lasted for a half-hour."

Lots of crazy guys on those Saints — and none more so than young Butters. Eventually, he was able to fulfill the NHL aspiration, playing 72 games for the North Stars over two seasons from 1978 to 1979.

Debby and Bill had married on July 28, 1973. He became a Christian after attending a hockey ministries camp at the urging of Tom Reid in 1980.

In between, he admits fully to "violating the trusts of marriage" for seven raucous years. Drinking, hell-raising, and you know.

He proved himself over a period of time to Debby, she forgave him and they will celebrate a 50th anniversary this summer. Many years as a coach, now involved with Hockey International Ministries, with camps around the world.

The long journey aside, from crazed character to a man of "great character'' (as Debby says), he'll always be Billy Butters for me — mostly as a fullback smashing forward for the unbeaten Bears of 1968.

"Remember that game with [Alexander Ramsey]?" Butters said. "They were strong, too, and the game was moved to O'Shaughnessy at St. Thomas to handle the crowd.

"We were up 42-0 at halftime. There was no playoff, and Albert Lea was named state champion in the media, and with us No. 2.

"We never did believe that. We were outstanding."