Botterill living the dream with Kraken

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SEATTLE — Jason Botterill’s hockey resumé was already impressively long for a guy who only recently celebrated his 45th birthday. The Winnipeg product is a former first-round NHL draft pick, NCAA national champion, three-time world junior gold medalist, Calder Cup winner, pro scout, assistant general manager of the Pittsburgh Penguins and GM of the Buffalo Sabres.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 08/12/2021 (254 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

SEATTLE — Jason Botterill’s hockey resumé was already impressively long for a guy who only recently celebrated his 45th birthday. The Winnipeg product is a former first-round NHL draft pick, NCAA national champion, three-time world junior gold medalist, Calder Cup winner, pro scout, assistant general manager of the Pittsburgh Penguins and GM of the Buffalo Sabres.

And so when opportunity came knocking to do something scary and new — help build a franchise from the ground up — the well-travelled Botterill didn’t have to think twice.

“The challenges of putting an expansion team together, in the world of COVID no less, certainly excited me,” Botterill, the assistant GM of the Seattle Kraken, told the Free Press in an interview Wednesday from the NHL’s newest market.

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So did the opportunity to partner with Kraken GM Ron Francis, whom he got to know when the two, along with current Pittsburgh GM Ron Hextall, worked together for Team Canada at the 2019 World Hockey Championship in Slovakia.

“We just really clicked. The three of us had a great time. You go through an experience like that and say if there’s an ever opportunity to work with these people again you jump at it,” he said.

Botterill, who played 88 NHL games before concussions derailed his career, later obtained his MBA and was viewed as one of the sport’s fastest-rising young executives when he was lured away from the Penguins and given the main job with the Sabres in 2017. But dysfunction in that organization ran deep, and he was shown the door after three difficult seasons. That’s when the Kraken came calling.

“There were different things that came into play. But the main reason I jumped at this opportunity was Ron Francis,” he said. “I’m very excited to work with Ron, but also the people he brought in to work here.”

His current role, which sees him based out of Michigan along with his wife and their two daughters, aged nine and five, is to ensure Seattle’s bare prospect cupboards can quickly get stocked with the kind of depth teams need to compete for Stanley Cups. That means keeping an eye on hockey at all levels, from the NHL to the AHL, Canadian junior and U.S. college and junior, along with what’s happening overseas.

“It’s been enjoyable, getting to know the leagues a lot more,” said Botterill. “That was a challenge for us last year, in putting this team together. Our lack of ability to move around and get to games (because of the pandemic and travel restrictions), to get to see these players.”

A perfect example was last week in Detroit, where Francis got to shake hands for the very first time with Matty Beniers, the high-flying 19-year-old selected second-overall by Seattle in last summer’s draft. Beniers plays for the University of Michigan and will star for the Americans at the upcoming World Juniors being held in Alberta, which Botterill will be watching closely.

There are also plenty of direct flights to Seattle from Detroit for up-close viewing of the newborn Kraken, who host the Winnipeg Jets on Thursday night for the first time ever at Climate Pledge Arena. Botterill knew there would be plenty of growing pains for a club that is currently 9-14-2. That’s about what you’d expect from a first-year club, although the Vegas Golden Knights certainly raised the bar when they exploded on to the scene in 2017-18, becoming an instant contender and never looking back.

“Let’s be honest, what Vegas has accomplished and continues to accomplish is outstanding,” said Botterill. “They’ve become one of the top teams in the NHL. It’s something we’re certainly striving for. Ron has stressed there’s different ways to put a team together. If Ron tried to do what Vegas had done (through side deals with teams), it wasn’t going to be successful. Teams adjusted and adapted. There’s different ways to eventually getting to where we want to be.”

And Botterill is being counted on to play a key role, one that’s been underlined this year with several current Kraken players sidelined due to COVID-19 protocols and the team’s razor-thin prospect pool stretched even thinner.

“It goes to show the importance of depth within the organization. It’s something our coaching staff is still trying to figure out. What are the best lines, what’s the best chemistry? Most teams, you’ll come into a season maybe trying to work one new guy into the top six (forwards), or one guy into the top four (defencemen). Here, it’s working six new forwards in, and four new defencemen,” he said.

Botterill described Seattle as a “great sports town,” one with a knowledgeable base of existing hockey fans that is going to grow by leaps and bounds.

“I believe our business side, everything they’ve touched they’ve hit a home run with,” he said. “Improving youth hockey in the area. That’s going to be the next step is developing players in the region.”

And when the going gets tough in his job, he always has his tight-knit family to turn to for advice. His father, Cal, is a renowned sports psychologist, while his mother, Doreen, is a former speed skater. The couple still live in Winnipeg. And his sister, Jennifer, is a decorated former Canadian hockey player who is now turning heads with her stellar work in the broadcast booth with Sportsnet.

“We’re all proud of Jennifer. When you go into a role like that that’s so high-profile, you’re a little worried about your sister being in that environment,” said Botterill. “She’s worked very hard. Why she had success on the ice is because of her work ethic, and with her new job you’re seeing that as well.”

Botterill said he’s also proud to work in an organization that is “anything but cookie cutter,” and progressive on several fronts, including having a pair of women in prominent front-office roles. Alexandra Mandrycky is the club’s Director of Hockey Strategy and Research, while Cammi Granato is a pro scout.

“We like the base we’ve developed here. We like the work ethic and pace our team is playing with,” he said “Are we a finished product? Far from it. I think it all bodes well for our future. All these players are still trying to get comfortable with each other. There’s still a feeling out process there.”

mike.mcintyre@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @mikemcintyrewpg

Mike McIntyre

Mike McIntyre
Sports columnist

Mike McIntyre grew up wanting to be a professional wrestler. But when that dream fizzled, he put all his brawn into becoming a professional writer.

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