From the first landings in the American frontier, pioneers faced toil and hardship for the sake of opportunity and a better life. The aspiration of finding something better, in a different horizon, embarked a quest into the unknown.
Junior defenseman and Avalanche draftee Will Butcher and junior forward Evan Janssen play collegiate hockey for the Denver Pioneers, but as Wisconsin natives, their stories of leaving home tell familiar stories from the new frontier.
As the Denver Pioneers and Wisconsin Badgers prepare for their two-game series this weekend at the Kohl Center, Butcher and Janssen will return to the state they left behind to advance their hockey careers at the University of Denver.
“After coming off my most successful season playing under Coach Montgomery for the Dubuque Fighting Saints, I knew that a lot of our success had to do with the way Coach Montgomery led our team,” Janssen said. “Following our championship season, he was offered the DU head coaching job and asked me to come along with him.”
The Wisconsin Badgers hoped to pick up Avalanche draftee Will Butcher during the 2013 recruiting year, but Butcher ultimately decided on a landscape 1,000 miles from home.
“Denver spoke to me in a different way than Wisconsin did, in terms of both school and hockey,” Butcher said. “I thought it then that going to Denver would give me the best opportunity to develop as a hockey player, and I still think it now.”
But as the weekend approaches, Sun Prairie’s Will Butcher and Green Bay’s Evan Janssen look forward to playing at the venue and taking on the team that lured them into the world of collegiate hockey.
“My family had season tickets to the Badger hockey games for as long as I can remember,” Butcher said. “As a young kid, I always wanted to be one of those players on the ice.”
For over 40 years, faceoffs between the Pioneers and Badgers served as WCHA conference games, but after the formation of the NCHC and Big 10 Hockey Conference in 2013, the regular games disappeared.
The Pioneers hosted the Badgers last November in a one-game showdown for the first time since 2012. The Pioneers led the Badgers 3-2, with Janssen tallying two of his four assists from the 2014-2015 season.
“That game had been marked on my calendar for a long time, and I was ready for it,” Janssen said. “I have a lot of former teammates and good friends who play for the Badgers, so for me, I knew it was going to be a fun one.”
The currently unranked Badgers (3-4-3) have a winning percentage of .445, but according to Janssen, the Badgers have proven that they can play just about anyone. The Badgers beat No. 1 ranked North Dakota (9-1-2) by a two-point lead at the Ralph Engelstad Arena two weekends ago.
“We need to stick to the process and treat this series like we’d treat any other,” Butcher said. “Denver hockey is a fast-paced game that is played with smarts, we score by getting pucks and bodies to the net.”
The non-conference game between the Denver Pioneers and the Wisconsin Badgers will be Denver’s second stop in a stretch of three consecutive away weekends, broken up by a break for Thanksgiving. Butcher and Janssen’s arrival at the Kohl Center marks the end of their academic Fall Quarter, and the conclusion of the two-game series marks the beginning of their time off in Wisconsin.
Janssen, an avid sportsman, will be devoting several days to hunting and hopes to get the 30-point buck. Janssen will also make a trip to Lambeau Field Thanksgiving Day with his dad and brother to see the Packers retire the jersey of Janssen’s childhood hero, Brett Favre.
Like Janssen, Butcher plans on hunting during his time off, but mostly looks forward to spending quality time with family.
“In the past, Thanksgiving break was always my family’s attempt to condense a lot of stuff into a few short days,” Butcher explained. “This year, I’m mostly looking forward to relaxing and enjoying my time back home.”
Butcher earned a spot on the U20 U.S.A. World Juniors team and spent last Christmas and New Years in Canada and the year before in Sweden for the 2014 and the 2015 IIHF World Junior Championships.
But as the Denver Pioneers return to the Midwest and prepare to take on the Wisconsin Badgers Nov. 20 and 21, Butcher and Janssen will answer the question that western folklores leave out: what happens when the pioneers return home?