The return of Butler University Division 3 hockey in 2015 proved to be substantial and adequate. However, hockey on Butler’s campus is not new. In order for there to be a reintroduction there must be a goodbye, and prior to the goodbye, the Bulldog hockey team was a national leading force within the ACHA.
The 2000 National Championship banner hangs in the HRC
The Butler Hockey team has had it’s fair share of trials and tribulations. Before that, however, the Bulldogs won the first ever ACHA D3 national championship in 1999-2000. They are remembered with a large golden trophy which sits in the HRC, and more recently, with a banner that hangs above the basketball courts in that same building.
Thus, we remember that team, as well as the original founding of the hockey program, with a recollection as told by John Couture, a 1997 graduate and original co-founder:
“In the Spring of 1994, three of us got together to start the process of bringing hockey to Butler. Those three were Trey Shields, Andy Penca and myself. In November of 1994, we took the ice for the first time up in Carmel against Xavier. I believe it was a 7-4 loss, but my memory is a bit foggy some 23 years later. The following season we moved to the Pepsi Coliseum for our home games which helped students make the game. Highlights that year included playing at Kentucky at midnight and notching our first significant win for the program, beating IU down in Bloomington 5-4 on December 2, 1995. I believe 1996-97 (my senior season) was our first winning season. A few young players on that team would become stalwarts on the 1999-2000 national championship team, including Mike Latos, Martin Baldonieks, Anthony Koperski and Mike Barratt. Back in those days, Butler had a varsity lacrosse program and their head coach actually encouraged his players to play for us during the winter season. So, our team was rather unbalanced, we were really good before Christmas when players like D’Arcy Sweet would dominate, but a bit more middling after the break when the lacrosse players would turn their attention back to their full-time sport.
Upon graduation, I wanted to be involved with the team moving forward, but I didn’t think it would make much sense to coach until all the players that I played with had graduated. Besides, we had a pretty stable coaching staff at that point, but that changed at the beginning of the 1999-2000 season when the Coach got transferred and the team started the season without a proper coach. The faculty advisor (for some reason I can’t remember his name, but he was crucial in keeping the team together during those early years) would stand behind the bench, but he wasn’t really a coach. Meanwhile, I got involved with the ACHA and their startup Division III league. 1999-2000 was the first year of that division and I served as Western coordinator, which basically meant that I would compile scores and rankings throughout the year for the commissioner.
Remember, this was back in the stone age before the Internet was really a big thing, so things were a bit more cumbersome. Basically, for that first year, there were three regions for Division III: East, South, and West. Each team would rank all of the teams in their respective region and at the end of the season, the top team from each region and the host team would take the ice in Maryland at the Naval Academy to battle for the inaugural Division III championship.
As I recall, the 1999-2000 team started off a bit uneven and they gradually rose in the rankings through the season. It was really the strength of those last four wins against DePaul and Purdue, who were both D2 at the time, that helped to give them the boost they needed to reach the top spot in the rankings. Again, at the time, I kept a bit of an arm’s reach between myself and the team given my work with the ACHA. I didn’t want there to be any indication of homerism or impropriety. However, once they qualified for Nationals that all changed.
As mentioned in the article, Butler did give the team a grant to help fund the trip and provide transportation and lodging, it was with the stipulation that there would be an adult to supervise. The faculty advisor couldn’t go because of a previous commitment that weekend, so he asked me to go along and coach them.
1999-2000 Team schedule
I remember that the trip out to Annapolis was a long one. We left late Thursday night and drove through the night to get there in time for our game on Friday afternoon (March 3). The rink in Annapolis is on the base at the Naval Academy and we arrived just in time for our game against American University (East Region). The Navy/Georgia Tech game was ongoing when we got there and it was close one-goal game and I watched a bit knowing that we would play Georgia Tech the following morning. I was impressed with both teams’ speed and conditioning. I knew that we would have our hands full.
That first game against American University is still very much a blur. I remember that Chris Dietz and Mike Barratt scored early in the first period and the game was out of reach soon after. I believe we had a 4-0 lead after the first and extended the lead to 6-0 in the second before American came back with a couple of late goals in the third to make the final 7-2. Given that it wasn’t a true round robin (still not sure why they didn’t just have all teams play two games on Saturday so that each team could play each other), I knew that the 7-2 result was a good one since I believe the final from Navy/Georgia Tech earlier was 3-2, in favor of Georgia Tech.
On Saturday, we had the early game against Georgia Tech. If we won, we would be in the championship on Sunday. If we lost and kept it close, we would most likely earn the rematch on Sunday with Georgia Tech given our result against American. Having not seen any of these teams before, it was difficult to compare them and we wouldn’t know for sure until we took the ice. What followed were two of the best games that I have ever seen Butler play.
Freshman goalie Jon McMahan was in the absolute zone for those two games. Speaking as a goalie, he was easily the best one that he had up to that point and he simply took over those two games against Georgia Tech. I don’t have the exact stats anymore, but we were outshot heavily in both contests and I do remember that in the first game we penalized numerous times which lead to extended power play time for Georgia Tech, but Jon stood tall.
In that first game, we were very opportunistic and I believe Chris Dietz had a pair of goals, Paul Fedchak added one and I believe the fourth was scored by Mike Barrat. Martin Baldonieks had three assists, I remember that quite well. We won 4-2 and qualified for the championship. Georgia Tech had to await the outcome of the American/Navy game to find out their fate. If Navy won, Georgia Tech would get in based on their win over Navy. If American won, it would come down to goal differential between the two teams tied at a 1-1 record (American & Georgia Tech).
Navy ended up winning 10-1 or something absurd, so it was a rematch with Georgia Tech in the championship game. I remember being relieved that we didn’t have to play Navy, they were obviously well conditiioned and their cadets filled the rink, so the atmosphere was a bit intimidating to be sure.
This is a funny aside, but I’ll include it because well I have a degree in psychology and I find it funny. Most of Georgia Tech’s players were from the South and they announced the starting lineup before each game. As it turned out, we had quite an international lineup that we could send out there, so I purposely created the starting lineup with the most intimidating hometowns with the hope that it would give us an edge. I doubt it did, but I found it funny. So our starting lineup for all three games was the same.
Mike Barratt (Ontario, Canada)
Chris Dietz (St. Louis, MO)
Martin Baldonieks (Riga, Latvia)
Mike Latos (Wheeling, WV)
Anthony Koperski (Chigago, IL)
Jon McMahan (St. Louis, MO)
Article from the Butler Collegian (2000)
So, the championship game was more of the same from the day before. To be honest, Georgia Tech titled the ice against us, but Jon was again spectacular. I know that we were outshot by some ridiculous amount, but we found a way to push through. I believe Chris Dietz scored the game-winner midway through the second. Martin Baldonieks added two late open-net goals to secure the 3-0 result and the championship.
As defending champs, we were given an automatic bid to the 2000-2001 national championship, so I came onboard to coach full-time that season. I remember that we had a much better record that year, but we had a brutal draw at nationals. I believe they pushed the number from four teams to twelve that year. In our pod, we had national champions Wyoming and runners-up South Dakota State. We went 1-2 in the round robin and didn’t qualify to move on. For the life of me, I can’t remember who beat, but both of our losses were close and Senior Chris Dietz and Sophomore goalie Jon McMahan were the two leaders on and off the ice.”