By the time the Detroit Red Wings drafted Craig Butz, he was known in the Major Junior Hockey League as a fighter.
Those days are long gone. Now he's known as Dr. Butz, the mild-mannered new principal of Pepin Academies in Tampa, a charter school for children with learning-related disabilities.
"I'm probably the only guy to lead the Western Hockey League in penalty minutes two years in a row that has a Ph.D.,'' Butz said dryly.
A tall, fit-looking 48-year-old in a business suit, Butz never actually played in the National Hockey League. Having climbed through the ranks to the Major Junior Hockey League, a traditional recruiting pool for the NHL, he was drafted by the Red Wings 147th overall in 1983. That was the same year the Detroit team drafted Hall-of-Famer Steve Yzerman, the Tampa Bay Lightning's general manager. But Butz did not get a contract offer.
Everybody has their limit, Butz said recently. "It was a hard realization to come across, but I reached mine about the point where I played major junior and college hockey, and that was as high as I was going to be able to play. … I probably could have gone and played minor league hockey, but that's a tough grind.''
With his NHL dreams dashed, the Canadian native enrolled at the University of Saskatchewan, playing hockey there and graduating with a degree in education. He wanted to teach physical education, but the job market was tight in the late 1980s. He eventually accepted a job teaching physical education to kids with learning-related disabilities in the Los Angeles school system. His pupils included kids on the autism spectrum, those with dyslexia and other disabilities, kids whom Butz says "have the intellectual capacity, but they just learn differently.''
He had found his niche. "I brought a high level of energy to what I was doing, and they responded to me very well. I felt I could make more of an impact with those students than teaching PE to 80 kids at a time, where you're fighting with kids about whether they're going to dress for PE.''
Butz earned his master's degree at California State University, Dominguez Hills and his Ph.D. in special education at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas. After Los Angeles, he taught in New York. He became an administrator at a charter school in Las Vegas, and spent two years as principal of the Chicago Virtual Charter School before joining Pepin about three weeks ago.
The Tampa school offered him the job after a worldwide search involving hundreds of applicants, said Crisha Scolaro, a founder and community liaison for Pepin Academies. "He was awesome from the minute we met him, just so passionate about this population,'' she said.
Butz will be in charge of the kindergarten through 12th-grade program at Pepin Academies on Hillsborough Avenue in Tampa. Pepin also has opened a satellite charter school for special-needs children in Riverview.
Butz said creating a safe environment and establishing close relationships with these students help them thrive, and he views that as a key part of his job. It doesn't hurt that Butz's hockey record is available on Google. He has found that sports-minded students tend to know about his athletic background.
"Kids would say, 'Dr. Butz, we looked online. You were a hockey player. Hockey players are tough!' That type of thing," he said.
"I worked really hard to develop relationships with these kids because lots of times they've had really negative experiences in their education, so they don't necessarily tend to respond well to somebody that's the principal.''
But if the principal once led his league in penalty minutes, it can be a great ice-breaker.
Philip Morgan can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3435.