Moose Lake Area boys’ varsity coach Joe McDonnell vividly remembers his introduction to Bryceton Butkiewicz.
Three years ago, the freshman proudly proclaimed to his new coach that he was going to score 25 goals for the Rebels’ varsity team, even though he was still eligible for Bantam hockey. McDonnell wasn’t so sure, but the youngster was undeterred, making a wild bet with his coach. If he won? Butkiewicz would get to ride atop a recycling bin down the stairs at the school, breaking not only the rules but quite likely a few bones along the way. If he lost? Somehow that never came up for discussion. Butkiewicz scored in his very first varsity game against Mora and kept it up all year, tallying 26 goals and 45 points to lead the Rebels in both categories.
To say Butkiewicz was plenty confident when he first joined the varsity lineup is an understatement. He backed up his words, however. “I wouldn’t say I was confident, but I just wanted to come in with my great teammates and see what I can do,” countered Butkiewicz. What he didn’t do was careen down those stairs on top of a recycling bin. “Thankfully he didn’t do it,” laughed McDonnell. It’s a good thing, for we may not have been treated to the outstanding career that has followed.
Three years later, the junior is more cautious about his bets, but he’s also the newly-minted program leader in career goals. Butkiewicz surpassed Josh Cisar’s 98 career goals and tied Tyler Cisar’s school record of 99 with four goals in a 10-4 victory over Ely on Jan. 23, then endured a rare three-game scoreless streak until netting a hat trick in a 4-0 win over Becker/Big Lake on Feb. 9.
“It’s nothing I could ever have imagined or dreamed of,” said Butkiewicz, who got his record-setting 100th on his first shift – and shot – of the night. “A very big load was released,” admitted Butkiewicz. “I got to the bench and took a deep breath. It was a lot of pressure off my shoulders.”
The Cisar brothers both left the program after a 2011-12 season in which Moose Lake Area won 12 games, including a playoff rout of Mora/Hinckley-Finlayson in the Section 5A first round. Josh was a graduating senior, while Tyler departed a year early for junior hockey in Aberdeen.
“They were the dominant force and the ones that got all the records,” said McDonnell. “(But) they left and well, hockey kind of fell apart in Moose Lake.” In the first post-Cisar season, the Rebels were on life support. With only nine players out for the varsity that winter, head coach Trevor Howe had to reach out to the team managers and anyone else loosely affiliated with the program to field a team. McDonnell was a first-year assistant for that team, and then took over the head coaching position the following year. “That was a tough year,” said McDonnell. “We lost every game and they weren’t even close. It would have been easy for them to quit, but they didn’t.” The Rebels went 0-25-0 and forfeited their first round playoff game. During the year, the team scored just 16 goals and allowed 253. It wasn’t pretty, but the Rebels held on to their program. “I sat down with the AD and we talked about (the future),” said McDonnell. “We knew it would take a few years before anything could happen.”
Boys’ varsity head coach Joe McDonnell has overseen a resurgence of hockey in the Moose Lake area. McDonnell grew up playing hockey on the Lower Chester outdoor rink in Duluth, spending untold hours in the frigid northwoods winters. He remembers trying to warm aching toes once he walked home from the rink. “It was probably borderline frostbite, they hurt so much, but that’s what we did,” said McDonnell, whose family was all hockey crazy. His brother also played, his mother helped out in the concession stand and his father ran the Zamboni.
McDonnell now teaches health and PE in Moose Lake, from the elementary level all the way up through high school. His love of hockey has suited him, as he’s tried to instill that excitement of the game in youngsters from the five co-operative schools (Moose Lake, East Central, Willow River, Barnum and Cromwell). “One of big things I wanted to do is create an atmosphere of working hard on hockey skills, but also having a lot of fun doing it,” said McDonnell, who has his varsity players skate with the youth teams during practice, as well as open hockey and on the outdoor rinks.
“We know we’re from a smaller town and we may struggle to compete with a lot of schools because we don’t have the numbers right now, but we want the kids to enjoy the game. They talk, and if they’re having fun, eventually you’ll get enough kids who want to play, too.”
The Moose Lake association also has “Junior Rebel” nights where youth players are announced with the starters during the varsity game, as well as mini-games between periods. They’ve taken kids on hockey trips to the University of Minnesota Duluth – all in an effort to generate excitement for hockey and the program.
Three years later, the wins are still tough to come by, but the number of participants is up. This winter, McDonnell had 28 players out to begin the year, which has allowed the Rebels to field a JV team as well. “We’re back on the right track where kids are getting more interested in hockey,” said McDonnell, who noted the resurgence of the Greenway program and the rise of Luverne as models for what he’d like Moose Lake to become. “The thing that has really put them both over the top is success,” continued McDonnell. “Nothing gets people interested like success. Greenway is doing that right now (20-4-0 and ranked in Class 1A) and that will do a ton for their team. “Richfield (which just folded its program this winter) didn’t have that. Their average class size is bigger than our entire school, but they had to fold their program. That’s always looming out there.”
McDonnell admits that it also helps to have a signature player like Butkiewicz, who is a recognizable face to the youngsters in town. While he’s had plenty of offers to leave school early for greener pastures, the four-sport athlete has chosen to remain at his hometown school.
“He’s had the right people in his year telling him not to rush things,” said McDonnell, who noted that Butkiewicz has been speaking with the same hockey agency that advises former Virginia star Matt Niskanen, who is in his 10th NHL season and stayed through his senior year of high school. “So many kids who leave early sacrifice the simple experiences of high school,” continued McDonnell, ticking off events like football season, homecoming and even just intramural sports with friends. “You miss out on all that and take a big chance that hopefully something will work out. There’s no clock on success. If you leave early and aren’t successful, you lose your chance at all that.”
“I wouldn’t trade the high school experience for anything,” agreed Butkiewicz. After scoring 47 goals and 72 points as a sophomore, defenses have focused more on Butkiewicz this winter. With two regular season games remaining, he has 29 goals and 49 points. But the rest of the team has stepped up, which is an indication of the rise of the program, pleasing McDonnell.
“In the past if we had a guy like Bryceton out, we would have been in trouble,” said McDonnell. “But we’ve become more of a team in the last few years.” “We’ve turned it around now,” said Butkiewicz, who helped lead the Rebels to regionals as a second-year Bantam with many of his current teammates.
“This group of kids that I’ve been playing with knew things were shaky (at the varsity level), but we also knew we had to step up and play the best we could.” Defensively, rugged junior Wyatt Lampel anchors the Rebels. The 6-3, 210-pound bruiser picked up the game late, according to McDonnell, but has become one of the team’s leaders. He has good athleticism and a shot that has given him seven total goals the last two years. In goal, junior Logan McNulty has started every game for the past two seasons, giving the Rebels a veteran presence. He won eight games as a sophomore, and has followed it up with five more wins this winter, albeit with even better peripheral numbers (.855 save percentage and 5.12 goals against). In Butkiewicz’s record-setting game, McNulty also earned his first career shutout.
Up front, besides Butkiewicz, four other forwards have at least four goals and nine points this year, led by senior Devin Murphy’s 10 goals and 23 points. Murphy also had a big game against Ely on Jan. 23, recording two goals and five points. Junior Nick Wegge (7-12--19), and seniors Alex Erickson (5-5--10) and Richie Parzy (4-5--9) are also dangerous.
“It’s always great winning hockey games, but if you ask any team, you’re never really satisfied,” said Butkiewicz. “You always want to get better. We’re happy with where we’re at now, but we can always go up from here.”
Photos: Tim Kolehmainen
Tag(s): Moose Lake Area