Butters and the NAHL
Stu Hackel over at the New York Times hockey blog wasn't a big fan of yesterday's post on the Lightning's hiring of Mike Butters:
On his blog yesterday, James Mirtle was critical of Butters’ hiring, making light of his experience as a U.S. junior hockey co-owner (with Koules), GM and associate coach. Mirtle mentions Butters’ team, the Helena Bighorns, play in the Tier III Northern Pacific Hockey League.I did know that. Its relevance, however, is a bit questionable.
But what he doesn’t know is that Helena previously played in the North American Hockey League, which is a substantial step up from NORPAC, and the junior league where the U.S. National Team Development Program Under-17 and Under-18 teams play; and they are the teams where most of the U.S. players drafted by the NHL get their junior hockey experience. So Butters’ team competed at a pretty high level in a strong league. He moved the Bighorns out of the NAHL a couple of seasons ago because travel costs became prohibitive.
I believe the Bighorns lasted three seasons in the NAHL, a Tier II league which really is more of a stepping stone via the national development program than a "high level" of hockey. The best players** almost exclusively play for the one team, and do so at a very young age before moving onto better junior programs (i.e. the USHL) or the NCAA.
Nowadays, the rest of the teams rarely, if ever, produce NHL-calibre prospects, and I'm fairly certain Helena never had a graduate play anywhere close to that level.
I also don't see them on the list of teams that produced any AHL players, either. One current ECHLer, Chris Kaufman, played for the franchise in 2003-04.
(And Hackel wasn't kidding about travel costs. The Bighorns, at one point, reportedly had losses of $26,000 a month as a member of the league.)
To put it in context for Canadians, in my opinion, the NAHL is a considerably weaker league than Junior A circuits like the BCJHL and AJHL out west. It produces fewer NCAA Division I players per team than those Canadian leagues, and generally maintains a far lower profile.
Jumping from the NAHL to the AHL in a front office role is a pretty huge leap. The NORPAC to the AHL is unheard of.
Here's Hackel again:
Did he get the job because he’s Koules’ pal? Sure ’nuff.Vernon's been hired, in part, to work with the Lightning goaltenders, a role he's well suited for. He won multiple Stanley Cups as a starter, won a Conn Smythe, has played the 16th most games by a netminder in NHL history and picked up the 11th most career wins.
But so did Mike Vernon, who was recently made special assistant to the vice president of hockey operations. As Cristodero outlined quite well, Vernon is a crony of both Koules and Barrie ... and he has absolutely zero experience in hockey management or administration, which Butters certainly does. But Mirtle wasn’t at all critical of that hiring.Why is Vernon’s hiring acceptable and Butters’ hiring not? Hardly fair treament…
Vernon very well could be one of the most decorated goaltending consultants in the league in terms of his playing career.
Note the difference?
It's probably also worth noting Stu Hackel is the former director of communications for the NAHL.
Some noteworthy NAHL alumni include Keith Ballard, Rick DiPietro, Ron Hainsey, Erik and Jack Johnson, Patrick Kane, Ryan Kesler, Mike Knuble, Mike Komisarek, David Legwand, John-Michael Liles, Todd Marchant, Ryan Miller, Peter Mueller, Patrick O'Sullivan, Brian Rafalski, Brian Rolston, Ryan Suter, Tim Thomas, R.J. Umberger, Doug Weight, Ryan Whitney and Justin Williams. Almost every recent grad played in the league as part of the USNTDP (formed in 1997) at a very young age.
UPDATE I hit up Marc Foster from the Junior Hockey Blog for his take, as I'll admit the American junior leagues aren't my forte:
"The NAHL is decent," he said. "It's Tier II A like the provincial leagues, and ranks up there quality-wise with the the western provincials like the SJHL and AJHL, but not as high as the BCHL, which IMO is not too far beneath the USHL. Mileage, of course, can vary because players of different abilities sometimes go into various leagues/levels for their own reasons, usually related to the pro vs. NCAA question.
"No, the NAHL-NHL numbers aren't there, but except for the NTPD (whose purpose other than being a $3-million a year sinkhole I cannot fathom) the focus has been more geared towards the NCAA. It doesn't help that the league has no real vision or strategic plan, and all the owners are anything but aligned (another reason Helena left)."
UPDATE A friend of mine who works with a BCJHL team had this comment on the NAHL: "For a manager to go from that league to the AHL is crazy. You have to have friends in the hockey business — it's still a boys club!"