BERNE - Sven Butenschön has played for 12 pro teams in his career, but the big German-born, Canadian-trained defenceman has only suited up for one national team. The veteran of 140 NHL games donned the black, red and gold colours of Germany for the first time five months ago, and is making his IIHF World Championship debut in Switzerland this year.
Butenschön, who grew up in Winnipeg, Manitoba, has seen it all since competing in two Memorial Cups with the junior Brandon Wheat Kings of the Western Hockey League and getting drafted by the Pittsburgh Penguins in 1994. This season, he had nine points and 44 PIM with Adler Mannheim of the German DEL. He's now following in the footsteps of other Canadian imports who have suited up for Germany, like forwards Wayne Hynes and Len Soccio. IIHF.com's Lucas Aykroyd caught up with the well-spoken 33-year-old after a practice at PostFinance Arena.
How did you end up playing on the German national team?
I was born in Germany. I've got the German roots, and I always knew I wanted to play in an event like the World Championship, or the Olympics, if I'm lucky enough to be there. When I finally called it a career in North America and came over to Germany, I needed to play two years consecutively in that country to be eligible. So I became eligible in September, and I played in a couple of tournaments and some exhibition games. I'm excited about playing in my first World Championship.
You were named the team's best player when Germany finished third at the Deutschland Cup in Mannheim in November. What was that experience like for you?
It was my first experience of playing for a nation, so I was pretty pumped up. I'd really thought about it my whole pro career, playing in an atmosphere like that. I was really motivated.
There's another guy from Manitoba named Mark McKay who played for the German national team. He was the leading scorer for the Moose Jaw Warriors in 1985, and played for years with Schwenningen Wild Wings in the DEL. Do you know him at all?
I don't think I ever did meet him. I might have skated with him when I was really young. In the summer, you're trying to get ice, and we'd skate at the University of Manitoba. I thought maybe he was there in some summer league. But I never got a chance to talk to him.
Has it been an easy transition for you, playing for Germany?
It's been a lot of fun, man. To have Uwe Krupp as your coach, a defenceman with the experience he has, he's just a good coach and a good guy. The players are great. It was a little bit of a weird feeling when [Mannheim] lost out [in the playoffs to Eisbären Berlin] and the rest of the Canadian imports went home. I'm sitting around in Germany and my family's back in Canada. But every day's been fun, and the practices have been fun. Even last night against Russia, even though we got a bit of a spanking, it was cool.
What do you take away from a 5-0 game like that?
They are the defending champions, so we knew it was going to be tough. We wanted to keep it close as long as we could. They got some early goals, but the goals they got were real mistakes by us. It wasn't like they had a ton of chances. But on their goals, we messed up a couple of times. A bad change, and then we took a too-many-men penalty, because Michael Bakos got hurt. So then the D rotation was a little bit messed up, and that affected the balance back there. You know, I think if we just played tighter, more conservative, a little more patient, we could have been in the game longer.
It's pretty challenging to contain the Russians with their speed and the way they use the stretch pass.
Yeah, but it was great. Now we know what to expect. We've seen one of the best teams. We've got to make sure we win games against teams that are in our kind of seeding area. To beat Switzerland is a really great challenge for us. If we want to make it to the quarter-finals, we've got to get some points against Switzerland.
Who do you expect to be paired with in the games ahead?
Now we've got seven defencemen, so I don't know. Last night, once Bakos went down, everybody was playing with everybody. I was playing with Christoph Schubert, so I'll probably play some more with him and see who else the coach throws out there.
When you started your NHL career in the late 1990s, Uwe Krupp's was starting to wind down. Did you ever get a chance to play against him?
I don't think I did. But I remember when I was in junior, my first year of junior, things happened really fast. You make the team and agents start calling you. Scouting reports are coming out and you're getting ranked. It was all really new to me, and I didn't have an agent at the time. So different agents would come into town, take you to dinner, and talk to you, and I had no idea who to look for. As one of the agents was leaving, who represented Uwe, I said jokingly: “Say hi to Uwe for me.” I was 17 or something. The next day, I'm at home, it's summertime, and Uwe calls me. We talked about the agent, Rollie Thompson, and how he helped Uwe when he came to North America and didn't know much about the language or the NHL. Getting that phone call, that was the difference-maker. I ended up signing with Rollie, who also represented Dan Cloutier and some other guys. I always remember that. It was pretty cool. I haven't really talked to Uwe about it since I've been here, though. [laughs]
Have you noticed many differences between the training methods they use in Germany and the ones in North America?
Yeah. Our training camps are really long here. With club teams, we have tournaments and tons of exhibition games. We'll have to be back in Germany by July 25. We skate for five weeks, two times on the ice a day. We go to Switzerland and Austria for tournaments, and play another tournament in Germany. This is when it's 35C outside. That's really tough. We don't have a players union, so the management can do whatever it wants. Back home, you don't have to be on the ice twice a day. But these are the rules. Training camp is tough. There is a lot more running involved, as opposed to biking back in North America, unless that's changed since I've been over here. Lots of stuff on the track, 10K runs once a week, hurdles. Track and field is big in Europe, so maybe that's where it comes from.
You've got another new Canadian-born kid on the national team here, Travis (T.J.) Mulock. What are your impressions of him?
Oh, he's been great. What a story he is, coming in from the second league in Germany. He's got incredible speed and work ethic. He just fits into that whole German mentality of hard work. He has tons of potential, and I think he'll be one of the star players in Germany in years to come.
How big, in your opinion, is the gap between the DEL and the second league?
It's quite big. If you win the second league, you get to move up, but it's hard for those teams to dig themselves out of the cellar. Smaller markets, smaller arenas.
In terms of other differences, what are the pre-game meals like in Germany compared to North America? Do you ever go with sauerkraut and meatballs instead of the typical chicken and pasta?
[laughs] Some of the North Americans complain about the food, but with my background, I'm fine with it. There are a lot of things made from scratch, less preservatives. The food's great. I think it depends on what hotels you stay at, too. In Mannheim, we get treated very well. We stay at great hotels with great food. It's pretty similar, really. You usually get spaghetti and chicken and things like that.
And Mannheim is co-hosting the 2010 IIHF World Championship with Cologne. What are the facilities like in Mannheim?
We've got a great facility with three ice surfaces. You go down one hallway and you've got the main rink, which seats 12,000 or 13,000. Then you've got the practice rink, which seats a couple of thousand, where the junior team plays and we practice. Then there's a third rink where the youth club practices. It's amazing.
You've played with a lot of teams in your career. What do you look back on as some of the biggest highlights so far?
Like everybody would say, my first NHL game was big. I also played in Wayne Gretzky's final game at Madison Square Garden when I was with Pittsburgh. That was really cool. Playing in Manitoba, where I grew up, during my last year in North America. I was in the starting lineup for the AHL all-star game, which sold out in Winnipeg. And this year, with Germany, we had to play in a tournament to qualify for the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver. That was intense. Four years riding on these results. We played against Austria on a Saturday night. Winner goes to the Olympics, loser goes away for four years. We got the lead early on, and we managed to hang on and win. It was probably like a seventh game in the Stanley Cup finals.
Who's the most talented guy you've ever played with in your career?
Well, when I was with Pittsburgh, there were a handful to choose from. We had Mario Lemieux, Alexei Kovalev, Martin Straka, and Jaromir Jagr. In practice, with one-on-ones, you'd try to move back in line to try to avoid those guys! [laughs]
What are your goals for the rest of this tournament?
We're trying to qualify for the quarterfinals. That's been our goal all along. It won't change, regardless of the outcome of the game against Russia. The game against Switzerland will be huge. The atmosphere with the Swiss home crowd will be great, and historically. Games between Switzerland and Germany are always tight. I've been part of one that ended up 1-0 for the Swiss at the Deutschland Cup. Real trap-it-up, boring hockey. But that's the way it seems to match up.