By Don Liesemer
“11 seconds, you've got 10 seconds, the countdown going on right now! Morrow, up to Silk. 5 seconds left in the game. Do you believe in miracles? Yes!” (ABC Announcer, Al Michaels)
The 1980 win over the Soviets by Team USA is known everywhere as “The Miracle on Ice”. Sports Illustrated named it as the top moment in sports in the 20th century. Likewise, the International Ice Hockey Federation chose it as the number one ice hockey story of the 20th century. Indeed, Herb Brooks' collegians pulled a David vs. Goliath upset over the highly favoured Soviet elite hockey team. Their line-up of super star, hockey legends put the Soviets in a completely different class from the relatively unknown, young American players. Just 13 days prior to the February 22nd epic battle in Lake Placid New York the Soviet skaters had crushed the young Americans 10 – 3 in an exhibition game at Madison Square Garden. In the minds of hockey experts everywhere the Olympic game would be a "non-contest, mail in the two points" event. However, Herb Brooks dared to defy the odds, as he stood before his team just moments before the opening face-off and read a seventeen word challenge that inspired a Miracle: “You were born to be a player. You were meant to be here. The moment is yours.”
And history was made that day in late February, 1980 in the packed field house in Lake Placid New York. A hockey miracle took place. Having fallen behind twice in the contest, the Americans tied it up at the end of the first by a last second Mark Johnson goal causing Russian coach Viktor Tikhonov to replace Vladimir Tretiak the highest ranked goalie in the world with his back- up netminder, Vladimir Myshkin. Going into the third the Soviets led 3 – 2, but goals by Mark Johnson and Mike Eruzione put the Americans ahead with ten minutes remaining. They held on to win. In the wrap up, Sports commentator Jim McKay compared the American victory over the Soviets to a group of Canadian college football players defeating Super Bowl Champion, Pittsburgh Steelers.
“I will just do the on-ice coaching. Keep me away from the Christian stuff.” (Bill Butters)
Fast forward 6 months, July 1980, Northwestern College, St. Paul Minnesota, the site of HMI's first ever Christian Hockey Camp on foreign soil. Another Miracle was about to take place. Instructors, Tom Reid, Whitey Aus, Dean Talafous, Mike Crombeen, Chico Resch and Billy Butters joined a group of 90 young hockey players, counsellors and leaders for a week of training on ice and in Christian living.
What was Billy Butters doing at a Christian Hockey Camp? It wasn't for the money because instructors volunteer their time; it wasn't for Christian fellowship because he hated Christians; it wasn't to advance his career as a few days prior to camp he had been told that his playing days were over. Billy still can't figure out why he agreed to participate: “Tom Reid asked me if I would like to work at a hockey camp...I asked Tom how much I'd be making per hour. He said 'it was a Christian Athlete Hockey Camp and the pros volunteer their time'. I laughed at him. First, I am not working for nothing and second I am as far from being a Christian that there is. Tom was persistent. He kept calling. I kept refusing. Finally after five calls I relented. But I quickly said, ‘I will just do the on-ice coaching. Keep me away from the Christian stuff."
I met Billy for the first time at the camp, although, I had encountered him once at a Tulsa Oilers vs. Oklahoma City Blazers CHL game. Before the contest, rumours had run through our locker room that hockey tough guy; Billy Butters was in the line-up for that night's game. If my memory is correct Butters fought our tough guy...they battled on ice...in the penalty box... back on the ice and eventually both were tossed. So, along with the rest of the hockey camp staff, I wondered how Billy's presence at camp was going to play out.
In his words: “What I saw at that camp was unbelievable. Young athletes sitting under shade trees with their counselors and instructors reading Bibles. Kids praying before meals. Players praying with their on-ice instructors before and during their workouts. No swearing. Kids listening and being respectful of speakers and coaches.” Curiosity got to Billy and he finally attended a chapel service at camp where he was confronted with the love of God through the worship leader and Christian testimony of a professional player and fellow instructor. Billy recounts some of the events of that life-changing evening: “The music leader started strumming his guitar and sang these words, ‘O Billy do you love Jesus?', then he looked at me for a response...Nothing! Nothing but tears and a red face caused by my embarrassment. I was embarrassed not because I didn't know the song but because I didn't know who the song was about."
After the evening chapel Coach Butters was invited to attend a huddle group in which a counselor meets with a group of players to discuss the evening chapel service and interact about lessons from the Bible. Bill Butters shared: “It was interesting to see boys with Bibles, reading and sharing with each other. The counselor looked down at his watch and said 'it's getting late, let's close in prayer'. I had never prayed. They stood up and we all held hands. I was uncomfortable holding a twelve year old boy's hand. Then they started praying out loud! I was so nervous that the boys would expect me to pray. Then calm came over me and I listened. Each boy began to pray for me. One prayed for a job. One prayed for peace in my life. One prayed that I might find joy and happiness. Finally, one twelve year old boy prayed that I could know Jesus Christ as my personal Lord and Saviour. I was a thirty year old tough hockey player attending a camp to teach some kids how to skate, pass and shoot and these boys and the HMI staff had taught me the love of Christ. After the prayer I was crying and all the boys hugged me and told me they would continue to pray for me. That night I got down on my knees and asked Christ into my life. I asked for forgiveness of my sins and thanked Him for giving His life for me. That day has changed my life.”
1980... Two inspirational miracles...one changed the face of hockey in the USA; the other, transformed the life of a player, his family and so many others, some told, some untold.