For Jason Botterill, sports have always been a family affair - The Buffalo News

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For Jason Botterill, sports have always been a family affair

There's a family behind everyone in sports. It's a great cliche as well as a great truism. But for new Buffalo Sabres General Manager Jason Botterill, family carries a greater significance than the average former athlete or current executive.

Botterill, 41, has known nothing but achievement in his household since his days growing up in Winnipeg.

He's the only player to win three straight gold medals for Canada at the World Junior Championships, won an NCAA title at Michigan and eventually played 88 games in the NHL for the Dallas Stars, Calgary Flames, Atlanta Thrashers and the Sabres. After concussions ended his career in 2004 while with the Rochester Amerks, Botterill returned to school and earned an MBA from his alma mater, sending him on a path to become one of the most promising young executives in the NHL.

That's a resume certainly glossy enough to shine in most households. But when it comes to the Botterill clan, Jason simply has to line up with the others in his family because they're all high achievers. Consider this family tree:

* His father, Cal, is a former Canadian national team player and a longtime university professor in Winnipeg. The 69-year-old is considered one of the foremost sports psychologists north of the border, working with Canadian professional and Olympic athletes long before those kind of mental skills training exercises became a routine part of athletes' regimens. A young Jason was along for several of those trips during the late 1980s and early '90s.

* His mother, Doreen, was a speed skater for Canada during the 1964 Winter Olympics in Innsbruck, Austria and the 1968 Games in Grenoble, France. Both of Jason Botterill's parents have been inducted into the Manitoba Sports Hall of Fame. Doreen Botterill, now 70, was one of the torchbearers who greeted Prime Minister Justin Trudeau when the Canada Games came to Winnipeg in July.

* His sister, Jennifer, is considered one of the all-time greats in women's hockey. Jennifer Botterill, 38, won three Olympic golds for Canada, including a victory over Team USA in the 2010 Vancouver Games that marked her final international competition. While attending Harvard, she was the first player to win the Patty Kazmaier Award twice as the top player in U.S. women's college hockey. She scored 319 points in her career and would be the sport's all-time collegiate scoring leader, except for the fact women's hockey was not sanctioned by the NCAA in her first two seasons.

"My parents always pushed academics and it was something Jen and I always took very seriously," Jason Botterill said after a recent Sabres practice in KeyBank Center. "My father was a university professor and mom was an elementary school teacher and they were always about academics first. Junior hockey was a possibility for me but I really saw more I was going the college route.

"Because of my injuries, I'm thankful for that. At a young age, I got to be around NHL teams, Olympics teams, got to go to Olympic Games. You see these environments and how it motivates you. There's a little less of an awe factor because I had been around these kind of people and it made a great impression. Academics and athletics have just always been a big part of our lives."

The GM

Botterill's story has been widely repeated since he was hired by the Sabres in May. He played 36 games with the Sabres from 2002-04 and was forced to retire due to concussions after eight games with the Amerks during the lockout season of 2004-05. After brief stints as a scout with Dallas and an intern for NHL Central Registry, the Pittsburgh Penguins named him director of hockey administration in '07. He was promoted to assistant GM in 2009 and associate GM in 2014.

The lockout-year Amerks featured current Rochester coach Chris Taylor as well as the core of the Sabres' back-to-back Eastern Conference finalists of 2006 and 2007 – Ryan Miller, Thomas Vanek, Jason Pominville, Derek Roy and Paul Gaustad.

"It was the toughest thing in my life to tell the guys in Rochester I was done because it was a great team that we felt could go far," Botterill recalled.

"We had such a young team thriving with guys close to being NHL players," recalled Pominville, who started that season as a 21-year-old and was acquired by Botterill this summer at age 34. "He was one of the older guys pushing us, showing us the right ways. 'Botts' and 'Tails' (Taylor) and Doug Houda were the three guys were the head of the snake leading that ship in Rochester. They did a great job."

As his career was winding down, Botterill was already learning from those above him. He was initially thinking more about high finance than a hockey front office but there were interpersonal skills that could translate to both.

"I was a player that got sent down a lot and Lindy Ruff and Darcy Regier were always very honest with me," Botterill said of the longtime former Buffalo coach and GM. "I tried to take that into my time in Pittsburgh and my time here in the way I deal with people. Those are difficult meetings. You're often with young players who have spent an entire summer building up to making the team in training camp.

"It's a letdown for them but a lot of times it shouldn't be and that's what you want them to understand. You want people to understand there's a lot of roads for personal development."

Current New Jersey Devils GM Ray Shero hired Botterill in Pittsburgh when he was in charge of the Penguins and he instantly saw the impact Botterill could have in the NHL.

"He's so well rounded from having played the game at Michigan and in the NHL," Shero said while in town last month for the Sabres Prospects Challenge. "He's done everything the right way and one of his greatest assets is he's an incredible people person. He galvanizes a staff and really helped me in a lot of ways."

When he was hired in Buffalo, Botterill struck up conversations via phone, text and in-person meetings with his new players. Most of them were stunned that GM Tim Murray had been fired so Botterill needed to make a good first impression.

"The first meeting I had with him he said some things about my past where I played right off the top of his head," said winger Kyle Okposo, referring to Des Moines in the USHL and legendary Minnesota prep school Shattuck St. Mary's. "I was extremely impressed by the detail he went into and how prepared he was. He does his homework, his research on guys. He really has a plan in place. He's obviously well prepared and I'm excited to keep working with him."

Botterill lists influences like Shero, current Minnesota GM and former Pittsburgh compatriot Chuck Fletcher, and current Pens GM Jim Rutherford. Another huge one is former Michigan coach and longtime NHL player Red Berenson, who loved having Botterill in his program.

"I would love to see him as the next commissioner of the NHL, I think that much of him," Berenson said in a 2009 article on the school's web site. "He would be perfect. He knows hockey, he knows business, he has a great education, he's the kind of smart, young guy that you want to see running things."

"His passion for learning new things always struck me," said Botterill, who spoke at a Michigan alumni ceremony honoring the retiring Berenson this summer.  "He loved going to NHL camps watching different elements. He talked about a lot of small details but the great thing about Coach was he would join you. He was a forward and he'd go in front of the net and show you. You knew he had done it and he was still in great shape to do things out there. That competitive drive he had never left."

It was on recommendation from Berenson that Botterill was admitted to Michigan's business school for his MBA. The coach routinely asked his players what was next after hockey so Botterill was spurred to always ponder the answer.

"I owe so much to him," Botterill said. "He talked about things in the game and made sure you utilize your resources at Michigan. I was grateful for that ... He helped me out to get into Michigan's business school and it was crucial to my second career."

Jennifer Botterill, left, and teammate Cherie Piper show off their prize after the 2010 Olympic gold medal game in Vancouver (Getty Images).

The Sister

Before she became a household name on Canada's Olympic teams, Jennifer Botterill played ball hockey in the basement with her brother.

"I always looked up to my brother from an early age and I also went to watch him play hockey a lot," Jennifer Botterill said from her home in suburban Toronto. "I started learning from him at a really young age and to have this job now is a pretty special privilege. I'm so happy for Jason. He's worked so hard and done well succeeding in many different capacities. I'm thrilled for him."

Jennifer Botterill is now a highly sought motivational speaker and does television work for Sportsnet's "Hometown Hockey." In her early years, Jason Botterill remembers how his sister was a multi-sport athlete.

"She was an amazing athlete. She played everything," he said. "It's different in today's world. As much as she became a great hockey player, she was an excellent volleyball player, sprinter, basketball player. That developed her skills."

Jason Botterill watched on TV as his sister played the gold medal game in the 1998 Olympics in Nagano, Japan, while he was in Kalamazoo, Michigan, with the Michigan K-Wings of the old International Hockey League. For the 2002 final in Salt Lake, he was in Saint John, New Brunswick, while playing for Calgary's AHL team and ducked into a wives room of the Portland Pirates.

But at Torino, Italy in 2006 and Vancouver in 2010, Botterill was in the stands for his sister's games. And it was nervewracking to see her gold-medal victories.

"It was difficult for me to stop playing but it was amazing to go see my sister play in Torino and to go to Vancouver and watch her perform there," he said. "I would have not been able to do that if I had continued my playing career.

"It's amazing how dedicated and motivated my sister was. She didn't really start playing hockey until early teens. It was all ringette then. She was focused on 2002 and all of a sudden she was on the '98 Olympic team. It was very impressive."

Jennifer Botterill said it meant a tremendous amount to her to have her family in the stands.

"It helped me perform well," she said. "Jason was at different phases of his life and he made sure to be there and it meant a lot to me. I'm so happy for him that he's accomplished in his profession but I'm most happy about the way people speak of him as an even better person and they've very sincere. It's very exciting to follow his path.

"He was always a great sounding board for me. I feel very fortunate. He's been an incredible big brother to have."

The Father

Cal Botterill jokes he's the least known member of his family but he was a key member of Team Canada for many years, at both the Olympics and competitions like the Canada Cup. He also worked for many NHL teams. Jason Botterill went with his father for many trips, even working as a stickboy for Canada's 1988 Olympic team in Calgary.

"You can't match that. Most kids never get over awe of celebrities but then you go to the Olympics and we're sitting with Wayne and Janet Gretzky at the Canada Cup camp in Collingwood, Ontario," Cal Botterill said by phone from Winnipeg. "They learn these are real people doing extraordinary things. It's a whole different impact then wandering around saying they said hi to a celebrity. They got to know high-performing people and learned a lot from there."

Cal Botterill said Team Canada coach Mike Keenan was always interested in players' families, including Jason's presence around the team. Cal Botterill recalls longtime St. Louis player and coach Brian Sutter sitting with his son after a 1991 Canada Cup exhibition game in Quebec City, sharing stories about his path to the NHL.

From his father's trips to Chicago, Jason Botterill was soon befriended by Blackhawks star Jeremy Roenick. It was Roenick who planted the seed in the youngster's mind about prep school.

"They talked about it and next thing you knew he's scheduling interviews," Cal Botterill said. "He decided to leave home at 14 for St. Paul Prep in Concord, New Hampshire and we're still recovering from that. What he did there really set up his pro career."

Jason Botterill remembers going to the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics with his father as an 8-year-old, then helping the Canadian hockey team get ready for Calgary.

"That was my first interaction with future NHLers and you saw the dedication guys put in for their sport," Jason Botterill said. "That made an impression. When I was 12, one weekend in Chicago, I saw Bulls, Cubs, and Blackhawks in the playoffs. It was a great experience for a kid from Winnipeg. I was in the old organ loft at Chicago Stadium for the national anthem. I didn't know a place like that could ever exist."

Cal Botterill said his son was always perceptive about the game and had a zest to learn.

"We're driving to a game when he was 10 and and he says to me, "Dad, I think I'm really going to play good tonight,' " Cal Botterill said. "And I asked him why he felt that way and he says, 'I can feel it in my bones.' Well, he was using imagery, visualization and he played well. He never had a program for that but he was around when I would do a program for the public.

"One thing we feel most proud about our kids was when they would have their greatest moments and they were most happiest for their teammates. When he won the third gold at the Juniors, when nobody else had done it, the mics were in his face asking 'How does it feel to win the third gold?' and he said, "Look at this guy or that guy, they just won their first.'"

"He taught us in terms of thinking positively," Jennifer Botterill said of her father. "Little tools about using your visualization or imagery. When you're a kid, those things are just fun to do and you're not thinking deeply about all the science involved in them."

Mike Harrington: It's back to work for Botterill after one last celebration with Penguins

Cal Botterill said the impact of his son's people skills were evident in the spring as Pittsburgh wrapped up another Stanley Cup.

"You listened to the players that came up from Wilkes-Barre. Guys like Matt Murray and Jake Guentzel couldn't say enough about how he believed in them but how he got to them," Cal Botterill said. "He educated them and he mentored them. They're not sure they would have made it without him. His ability to relate to people is maybe his biggest strength. His love of the game is so rich."

Jason Botterill's mother, Doreen, was a Canadian Olympic speed skater and a holder of numerous national records during the 1960s (Photo courtesy Manitoba Sports Hall of Fame).

The Mother

Jennifer Botterill said Doreen Botterill was "the rock of the family" when her husband was away on business working with one of his teams. Her kids knew her as mom long before they learned about her athletic prowess.

"She's so humble about her career. But when she started getting into halls of fame, that sort of gives you a different outlook on it," Jennifer Botterill said. "It was always fun to go to our grandmother's house and see pictures of her on the wall with her Canada gear and her Olympic attire on. Certainly we asked questions and she had lots of fun stories for us. Both Jason and I didn't have to look too far for motivation and inspiration."

A 1978 trade journal cover story on coaching by Cal Botterill features a picture of Doreen Botterill on the bench -- holding 2-year-old Jason (Photo courtesy Manitoba Sports Hall of Fame).

Doreen Botterill's best Olympic finish was eighth in the Olympic 2000 meters in 1964 as a 16-year-old. She swept all four events in the inaugural Canada Winter Games in Quebec City in 1967 and retired in 1969 as holder of 31 Canadian records.

"We were doing activities with them. Hiking, camping, skating," Doreen Botterill recalled. "So they became quite aware of it as they got a little older. Jennifer did speed skate one year at maybe 9 or 10. If she had decided to be a speed skater, she would have been very good at it but she liked team sports playing ringette and leading to hockey."

"It's funny, the main reason I didn't play more in the NHL was I wasn't the best skater and here's a guy whose mom was an Olympic speedskater," Jason Botterill said. "Growing up you didn't know it was that special. But then you learn your mom is in the hall of fame here, hall of fame there, there's a picture of her skating in Davos, Switzerland, and you got the appreciation."

Doreen Botterill said she's thrilled to see her son continue his hockey career in the front office and is especially pleased he landed one of just 31 NHL general maanger slots.

"It's a little mind-boggling to see but he's worked hard for it," she said. "Pittsburgh was very good to him. They involved him in things right away. He worked under people who gave him good training. So when we watched his press conference in Buffalo, you could see he was ready for this and was going to enjoy this opportunity."

"I'm very proud of what we accomplished in Pittsburgh and there was so much built already before I was part of it," Jason Botterill said. "We are in a different spot here but the growth potential for this organization is huge. We know there's going to be bumps in the road. There's not going to be direct improvement day in and day out but it is exciting to get started."

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