“It’s my passion, it’s my life and it’s something I look forward to being involved in 12 months out of the year,” says Joe Butkevich, the North Bay native who is currently the Head Coach of the Etobicoke Jr. Dolphins of the Provincial Women's Hockey League.
“For as long as I can remember, I’ve been a hockey nut. Everything about it has kept me in and around the game. My family lived so close to Memorial Gardens, in fact, my wife and I were married at Memorial Gardens at centre ice. I still remember getting home from school and throwing my school bag in the corner and running over to the Gardens to watch the Centennials practices and getting to stand on the bench and watch Bert Templeton coach his teams.”
Butkevich had the opportunity to coach in the same rink as Templeton just a few years ago when in September of 2016, Butkevich brought the Etobicoke Jr. Dolphins and the Aurora Jr. Panthers to Memorial Gardens to play two regular-season games at a neutral site. He says that was a big moment for him personally.
“It was huge to be able to promote that league in my hometown,” says Butkevich.
That team is coming off a silver medal performance at the Ontario Women's Hockey League U22 Elite Championship and for Butkevich, he says the on-ice success of the team is only part of what fuels him as a coach.
“I’ve been very fortunate that for five straight years, every single one of our players that has graduated has secured either an NCAA or U Sports scholarship,” says Butkevich.
“That’s something I’m very proud of. We’ve won championships and we finished first in the league two years ago, but success now turns to how many kids we can help get to that next level and get that free education and continue on with their hockey careers.”
It’s a noble philosophy for someone who didn’t seek to make coaching his initial focus when he left North Bay.
“I moved down to Toronto to be with my girlfriend at the time, now wife, Cherie Piper who was still playing with the Canadian Women’s National Team at the time and we wanted to be around where she had accessibility to training centres and her club team which was part of the now-defunct Canadian Women's Hockey League,” says Butkevich.
“I just happened to be at a CWHL game and was chatting to the General Manager of my wife's team, the Brampton Thunder, and she said that I had a really good mind for the game and asked if I wanted to help, and so my first role down here was as the goalie coach for that team. It was a great opportunity at the time and then I moved over to coaching the U-18 AA Markham-Stouffville Stars for two years.”
Butkevich says he helped rebuild that program and then was offered a job as the Head Coach of the Etobicoke Jr. Dolphins of the Provincial Women’s Hockey League.
“I’m just finishing up my sixth year here and it's been great.”
Butkevich says their goals are not just to make their players better hockey players, but “a better person as well.”
“We have three words up in our dressing room and they are; accountability, work ethic, and pride. Those are the three things we try to instill in our players. We have a motto on our graduation board outside our dressing room that says, ‘leave your jersey in a better place than you found it.’ It’s about making sure you’re carrying yourself the right way,” says Butkevich.
Butkevich says he told his players this past weekend to “Live your life the way you want to be remembered.”
“We love to win, we love to be competitive, but we’re all about culture. Our social media hashtag is ‘#CreatedByCulture’ and when you’re around these people more than your own immediate family you want to make sure you’re surrounding yourself with good people, that are hardworking and will make you better. My dad has always told me, to surround myself with people that are better than me.”
Another goal for Butkevich is to grow the game for the next generation of female hockey players.
“Visibility is crucial,” says Butkevich.
“From the female side of the game, it can’t just be every four years and a gold medal game at the end of the tournament that matters, it has to be more of a visible and accessible game.”
He says showing their games isn’t always the easiest thing to do.
“We have to rely on rinks that have live streaming opportunities to promote our game, which usually comes with a fee and that can be frustrating. I think there are still a lot of barriers that we need to be collectively knocked down, to promote who we are and what we are doing. One day that could trigger that passion and interest from more girls at a younger age and the more opportunity people have to play, the more opportunity there is for the game to grow.”
Butkevich says they are trying to get the PWHL to have the same recognition that the men’s junior side has.
“I have a niece and if she chooses to pursue hockey at a high level, I want her to have the same opportunities that her male counterparts have,” says Butkevich.
“We’re just trying to push the envelope. We try to use social media a lot to promote what we are doing. We have a pretty big and healthy staff, everything from a Mental Health and Performance Coach, North Bay native Dr. Cassidy Preston, to a full-time nutritionist, physiotherapist, a full-time photographer, a communications manager, a strength and conditioning coach, everything an OHL team would have and then some.”
Butkevich says they have also upgraded their dressing room which is something he is extremely proud of.
“Our dressing room is a talking point in female hockey,” he says.
“I’m proud of what we’ve been able to build from. When we started it was like looking into the ‘Mighty Ducks’ Disney movie dressing room. Since then, we’ve had $100,000 in renovations, which has included partnering with some of the big brand and sponsor names like BioSteel, Stark Hockey and Under Armour. We’ve been fortunate enough to talk to them and get them on our side to bring in things like recovery machines, massage guns, and retrofitting our room to make it something we are proud of.”
Butkevich can also point to a couple of personal accomplishments that he can take pride in from his coaching resume.
“In the span of six months, I got to go to the U-18 National Championships in Manitoba and represent Team Ontario Red and Team Ontario Blue at that tournament while winning a Gold Medal with Team Ontario Red, to then be a part of the Team China coaching staff and help them win their first-ever medal at a U-18 World Championships,” says Butkevich.
“We took home the bronze at the event in Katowice, Poland and I think what we were able to do with Team China in such a short time was remarkable. We were able to change the views and the expectations of the Team China officials because they wanted things done a certain way, but we wanted to do it the way we knew.”
Butkevich says they built a lot of trust with them and the players who bought into a system that brought a Canadian identity to the players.
“We got them into shot-blocking and being hard on the puck and pursuing the puck with pace – systems that had a methodology to it,” says Butkevich.
“They played within that and it worked out really well. Then we capped off the year by winning the PWHL championship that year as well.”
Butkevich says even with the season over, the work is not done.
“I do a lot of skills work with a lot of University and Junior players and in the summertime, I run a camp with NCAA coaches and three-time Olympian Haley Irwin.”
As for what’s on the horizon, Butkevich says he’s hoping that he can be a trailblazer for women’s hockey and leave this level of the game in a better place than where he found it.
“I’ve been fortunate enough to be offered the University of Windsor Women’s Hockey Head Coaching job, as well as the Toronto Six Head Coach job, but I feel like I’m making more headway and more progress at this level with the U-22 junior level than I could at those two levels right now in my coaching career,” says Butkevich.
“I’ll be coming home this summer to run a four-day camp with the North Bay Ice Boltz doing skills sessions. I’m excited to work with local players and keep growing the game in the North and showing that there are opportunities after that program.”