Friday, February 19, 2016

Growing up with Jamie Benn and the Stars

By Larry Wigge

Simple, but true. There are no shortcuts to success in hockey.

With two minutes left in a 4-1 win over Nashville in the last game last season, Jamie Benn scored an empty-net goal for the hat trick. Then, with his teammates pushing furiously, Benn picked up an assist on a goal with nine seconds remaining.

Benn edged John Tavares, 87-86, for the NHL scoring title.

Bittersweet success? You bet ...

"The goal is to make the playoffs," Benn exlained, "not win the scoring title."

Benn has only played in three playoff games in six years with Dallas.

The 6-2, 210-pound power forward and captain of the Dallas Stars understands the price you have to pay to gain success. Benn is a two-time gold medal winner in the World Junior in 2009 and the Olympics in 2014 in Sochi, Russia.

He has skill and tremendous hands -- he won the shooting accuracy at the All-Star game in 2012 at Ottawa. He is passionate. Full of character. His D&A is off the charts.

The best piece of advice that has stuck with him throughout the years.

"My dad said, "Go out there and have fun. Enjoy it. If you're not enjoying it, it's not worth playing," said Benn. "We defintely had fun every time I got to play hockey growing up."

Do you really think a 5-foot-3 Jamie Benn had fun in Grade 10?

"I didn't grow until I was about 15 years old," laughed Benn. "I was just a little guy 5-4. One summer I sprouted up ..."

He paused to think what scouts would say about him ... "Then, they said ... I couldn't skate."

Benn had this awkward looking skating stride. That, in part, is why he had to wait and wonder on draft day, when the Stars selected him in the fifth round, 129th overall, in the 2007 NHL Entry Draft.

Benn has turned out better than expected.

"He's a fierce competitor, he leads by example and he wants to win," explains GM Jim Nill. "The bigger the game, the bigger he plays.

"He wants to be a difference maker."

Jamie Benn has Dallas in contention for the Central Division title. On Febuary 18, he topped the 30-goal mark for third consecutive year. He added 36 assists and is second in the NHL to Alex Ovechkin and Patrick Kane with 13 power-play goals.

Steve Ott started with Dallas and now is toiling in St. Louis. He pointed out how a young Benn is developing.

"He's starting to figure out how good he's going to be, but he's still on the cautious side of it," Ott said back in 2011. "He's going to be a phenomenal, all-star player for his entire career. What he's doing now, leading a team, putting them on his back on a nightly basis.

"You can say we've only seen the tip of the iceberg. There is so much buried beneath the waters that you're going to see with Jamie Benn."

Echo newcomer Patrick Sharp.

"For Patrick Kane, he's a guy who wants the puck on his stick in all situations. There's a reason why he's scored a ton of big goals for the Blackhawks over the years. There's a reason why he’s scored the OT winner to win the Stanley Cup. He's that guy who wants to be on the ice. He wants the puck in big moments and there’s no stage too big for him," Sharp said. "If I had to compare him to Jamie, I could say the same thing. He wants to be on the ice."

Nill has been in this business long enough to know that no scouting trip is too far to find a game changing player.

You just don't hop in your car and drive to Victoria, which is on Vancouver Island, according to Stars scout Dennis Holland.

"You have to take a ferry or an airplane to get to where he played in junior," Holland said. "The Victoria Royals weren't in the Western Hockey League at the time and it was a process to get over there. You lost a day-and-a-half of travel because of the ferry. Lots of scouts decided to go see the (WHL's) Vancouver Giants or the Seattle Thunderbirds."

Said Stars assistant GM Les Jackson, “He was just scratching the surface of where he was going to go. Once he got into the Western League and eventually into the World Juniors, he was measuring himself against the best players in his age group and he was doing pretty well ... I think he saw that he could take his game to a higher level, and he has. Even at the NHL now, he's still a young guy. He's only scratching the surface of where he can go."

Then, Jackson paused, "We were lucky. If we were so smart, we would have had him earlier. If we knew he was going to be this good, he would have been a first-round pick."

Benn also was an extremely good baseball player. As a first baseman, outfielder and sometimes pitcher for the Victoria Capitals, he was the MVP of the 2006 provincial AAA champion midget team.

It was the next season that Benn stopped playing baseball.

"It was tough," Benn said of giving up baseball. "I always loved playing, and once hockey was over it was straight to baseball. But I think I always knew in the back of my head I was going to be a hockey player."

Being a Vancouver guy, he was a Joe Sakic fan.

"His shot was the thing that caught me eye," Benn insisted. "I had his poster and picture on the walls off my room."

Jamie Benn was not the only hockey player in the family -- older brother Jordie, who also plays with Dallas. There two years difference in the brothers.

"Tagged along with my brother," Jamie said. "Kind of just got thrown out there at age 3."

Kid brothers ...

Randy and Heather Benn were the proud parents. Dad ran a municipality, while mom ran a day care. Heather was a softball player, while Randy played won two gold medals at the 1976 world softball championships in New Zealand and 1979 Pan American Games in Puerto Rico.

So there's some kind of competition within the ranks at the Benn household.

I remember asking Jamie Benn to think back when he was 5-foot-3 whether he had been bullied.

"No," he responded confidently.

OK. Did you ever bully anybody?

"Yeah," he said. "I beat him up. I was 13 maybe."

A pause in the interview. Did you feel sorry? "No. It was my brother (teammate Jordan Benn). We had some good battles growing up."

Dads day with the team has always been fun for Randy, Jamie and Jordie.

"I used to bring a toaster on hockey road trips and fix up some peanut butter toast in the hotel room for breakfast or a late-night snack," said Randy.

"It was great, just like old times," said Jordie Benn of the fact his dad brought the toaster and served peanut butter toast at the swanky resort where the Stars are staying. "It really was a neat feeling, it took you right back to when we were kids and we did this on every single road trip."

Randy Benn said one of his proudest parenting moments was when he was getting on an elevator with toaster in hand during one of his hockey road trips and was stopped by Walter Gretzky.

For Jamie Benn there truly are shortcuts to success in hockey.

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