UMDNJ Brainiac: Dan Butensky
words by Maryann Brinley / photograph by Andrew Hanenberg
hink about it: Out on the ice, you are standing on razor blades and carrying a weapon. This can be a little dangerous,” explains Daniel Butensky, third-year student at New Jersey Dental School, especially when surrounded by up to 60 unpredictable, developmentally disabled children, who vary in age from 6 to 20 and have a range of diagnoses from autism to Asperger’s and Down’s syndrome. But Butensky wouldn’t miss this opportunity to coach ice hockey every Saturday afternoon from 2 to 4 at South Mountain Arena in West Orange. He loves it and so do the kids he is teaching on the New Jersey Dare Devils.
“You have to laugh, too,” he adds. “A lot of the players are in their own little worlds. I have to tailor everything I do with them and think on the fly to make it work.” Even then, he’ll spot someone choosing simply to skate around the end of the rink during a game. “As long as they aren’t bothering anyone, I’ll let them do their own thing because the idea behind this program is to have fun. It only gets tricky when someone out on the ice decides to just drop down during a game and make snow angels. Then, I’ve got to intervene.” Butensky is one of six senior coaches who are assisted by local high school hockey players who volunteer to pitch in. In spite of the age differences and skill levels, the Dare Devils, originated by John Schwartz who is one of Butensky’s regular teammates in an adult league, play real games and participate in tournaments as far away as Rochester, NY. “These kids have so much heart. I always tell them, ‘Never give up, no matter what…if you are five feet or five hundred feet behind someone, keep skating.’”
Butensky always loved playing ice hockey when he was growing up in West Orange. At first, he dreamed of becoming a goalie. “The New Jersey Devil’s goalie, Martin Brodeur, was my idol.” To give him an upclose view of that tough position, his father took him to a local high school game when he was about 7 and had him stand behind the glass and the goalie during the action. “Tell me after this game if you still want to be a goalie,” he told Dan, who is still laughing today about the experience back then. Dan says, “I wanted to play forward after that.”
His high school, Solomon Schechter, had no ice hockey program but that didn’t stop him from playing for two different independent teams. Because his parents — pediatrician Arthur Butensky, MD, and ophthalmologist Deborah Fruchtman Butensky, MD, met when they were at New Jersey Medical School, class of 1980 — were busy working, they weren’t able to take him on all the road trips required by traveling teams. “My grandfather, who had been in the fixture business and was used to getting up at 4 or 5 a.m. in the morning, volunteered. As a result, we developed a strong relationship and spent quality time in the car driving to games in Connecticut, Delaware, Pennsylvania and all over New Jersey. I’ve been so fortunate. Now he’s one of my patients,” this dental student says. Phil, who is 86, comes into the NJDS dental clinic where his grandson has been building him dentures since last July. “We’re almost done. It’s been a slow process but he loves coming. Everyone recognizes him.”
In the pre-med program at Union College as an undergraduate, Butensky decided on dental school in his sophomore year. “I’m very hands-on, meticulous and felt this is the best professional fit for me.” He had considered plastic surgery and medical school. But “I had crooked teeth when I was growing up and when I finally had them fixed, it was very empowering. That’s what pushed me in this direction. I want to help people in the same way, to make them smile and feel good about themselves.” Though he applied to several dental schools, he chose UMDNJ because “it’s all in the family. My parents’ pictures are up there in the composite photos hanging in the medical school. This was my first choice.” He also loves the University because of its Med Wings ice hockey team which has snowballed in popularity after only a few seasons. “We have two teams now, an A and B, and we play at Montclair State’s Floyd Hall Arena” — no matter what time of day or night, even when it means getting up at 5 a.m. or heading off to the rink near midnight. “I’ve had people tell me I’m crazy. But ice time is hard to get so you play whenever you can. I’ve always had this passion.”