WINNIPEG - His own hockey career ended because of concussions.
So watching the rock ’em, sock ’em start to the Stanley Cup Playoffs, and his own team’s leading role in the mayhem, had to get Jason Botterill thinking.
Of course, thinking is what the former Winnipegger does best, anyway.
The assistant GM of the Pittsburgh Penguins for three years running, Botterill is considered one of the NHL’s bright young executives.
Which means he’s smart enough to choose his words and interviews carefully.
But in a wide-ranging chat from the Toronto airport, Tuesday — he was on his way to Game 1 of the AHL playoff series between the Baby Penguins and Baby Jets, a.k.a. the St. John’s IceCaps — Botterill acknowledged the troubled start to the Stanley Cup chase, and the implications.
“I worry about players’ health,” he said. “Without a doubt. You obviously want to see these players all right. We all want to see Sidney Crosby out there playing.
“The league has done a good job in at least trying to communicate to players, at least try and improve the standards, whether it’s a hit to the head or when players do cross the line, making sure there is a punishment in place.”
Concussion awareness and treatment have improved, too, Botterill said, recalling how lucky he was to be with a relatively proactive organization, the Buffalo Sabres, when head injuries forced him to the sidelines seven years ago.
The experience put him in a position to pass a nugget or two along to Crosby.
“I talked to him a little bit about it,” Botterill said. “Just about how my concussions occurred, and some of the symptoms I dealt with. It was exciting to see him back at the end of the year ... hopefully he has a good summer, is able to train healthy and go from there.”
But where is the league going?
The infamous Shea Weber head slam of Henrik Zetterberg in Round 1, which didn’t produce a suspension, suggested a nasty place.
The 25-game penalty on Raffi Torres for his hit on Marian Hossa seems to have settled things down again.
“Players realize they have to play with emotion, because there’s such parity in the league right now that if you don’t bring full effort you’re not going to have success,” Botterill said. “But once you go over that line and play undisciplined ... that was obviously one of the things that hurt us in that first round.”
Yes, Pittsburgh’s loss to rival Philadelphia still stings for the man who’s enjoyed his share of winning — a Stanley Cup with the Pens three years ago, a national championship with the University of Michigan and three World Junior gold medals with Team Canada decorate Botterill’s resume.
“We felt it was a good opportunity not only to get by the first round, but go further and make a Cup run. I was a little disappointed we maybe didn’t play our best hockey at a crucial time.”
But Botterill didn’t have time to sulk, shifting his focus to the farm.
A salary cap expert who dabbles in contract negotiations and scouting, the 35-year-old also oversees the Penguins’ AHL team in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton.
Last year, Botterill cracked The Hockey News top-40 under-40 list of the most powerful people in the game.
Not bad for a guy who thought he was headed for a career in corporate finance when he went back to Michigan for his MBA.
“I absolutely love it,” Botterill said of his job with one of the NHL’s marquee franchises.
You can’t help but wonder if he’ll eventually get a chance to run one of his own.
“I feel comfortable where I’m at right now, working with good people,” he said. “We’ll see where it leads down the road.”
Talking to Botterill got me thinking, too.
That he’s one of the lucky ones.
And not everybody playing the game today will be.