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It’s not surprising to Kelowna Rockets fans that Jamie Benn expects to be ready for the Dallas Stars’ season opener on Oct. 8.
Despite surgery on both his hips — which normally means a four to five-month rehabilitation — the Stars’ captain and 2014-15 Art Ross trophy winner as the NHL’s top point-getter (35 goals, 52 assists) has been back skating since early summer and fully intends to be in the lineup on opening night.
Benn, who joined the Rockets in October of 2007 after a 65-point season with the Victoria Grizzlies of the B.C. Hockey League, has always been a battler — and has made hockey “experts” look anything but.
The Saanich minor hockey product never was drafted by a Western Hockey League team. He played a season with the junior B Peninsula Panthers, before joining the junior A Grizzlies and then moving on to the Rockets after two games into the 2007-08 BCHL season in Victoria.
At the time, Bruce Hamilton, the Rockets’ president and general manager, said the team had been pursuing the 6-foot-2, 185 point leftwinger for the past two years — since Lorne Frey the director of player personnel, had put him on the team’s 50-player protected list.
Frey admitted in a recent interview with Regan Bartel, the Rockets’ play-by-play announcer, that he didn’t see Benn as a bantam, but figured he was too small (5-foot-8).
“I never saw him as a 15-year-old, but at 16 I’m checking the leagues and all of a sudden I notice he’s leading his junior B league in scoring as a rookie,” recalled Frey. “I quickly called up another scout of ours, Corey Curtis, and I asked him if he had seen this Jamie Benn play. Curtis went out to see him the next day. I asked him (Curtis) if Jamie had grown a bit and he told me he was about six feet tall. I listed him right away.
“I knew how good he was at 5-foot-8 and I knew that if he got to six feet he would be something. I went out and saw his mom and dad and told both of them and Jamie that he would be playing in the National Hockey League at 20.
“Len Barrie, Tyson Barrie’s father, also had a lot to do with getting Jamie to play in Kelowna as an 18 year-old,” noted Frey.
Meanwhile, Hamilton was optimistic about Benn joining the Rockets:
“Obviously by looking at his stats, he’s a guy you want on your team,” understated Hamilton at the time. “Now, we understand there is a difference between the two leagues (BCHL and WHL), and we know he’ll need some time to get adjusted, but we feel he has what it takes to move up and on to the professional ranks.”
The step up proved to be a smaller one than Hamilton or Benn thought. Following his rookie-of-the-year season in Victoria as a 17-year-old and after being drafted (fifth round, 129th overall) by the Stars, Benn matched his point total (65) with the Grizzlies by scoring 33 times and assisting on 32 goals in his first season with the Rockets.
He capped his junior career by leading the Rockets with 46 goals in 56 games in the 2008-09 season and collecting 82 points, second only to Colin Long, who never did make it to the Bigs, but is still playing in Germany.
At the Memorial Cup tournament in Rimouski, Que. (the Rockets lost to the Windsor Spitfires in the final), Benn continued to play beyond expectations by accumulating nine points in eight games to win the Ed Chynoweth Trophy as the tournament’s leading scorer. He was also selected to the first all-star team along with Rockets defenceman Tyler Myers, now with the Winnipeg Jets.
For the icing on the cake, Benn — along with the likes of Cody Hodgson, John Tavares, Jordan Eberle and P.K. Subban — helped Canada win gold at the 2009 world junior championship tournament in Ottawa.
Not expected to make the Dallas team in the fall of 2009, Benn did just that, and went on to post a 41-point season in his rookie year. He now has 359 points in 426 NHL games.
In a story written by Mark Stepneski at nhl.com, Les Jackson, assistant general-manager of the Stars, admitted the team a was “lucky” in their pick of Benn.
“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.”
Jackson revealed that Benn was identified by Dennis Holland, then a scout in the B.C.-area region that included the BCHL.
While Benn was putting up big numbers for Victoria as a 17-year-old, he wasn’t on the radar of NHL scouts despite growing to 6-foot-2, 205 pounds. That he wasn’t even invited to the Canadian Challenge tournament featuring the top junior A tournament also didn’t bode well for his moving up on the prospects list.
“He was a young man who didn’t get a whole bunch of viewings and didn’t get a whole bunch of respect from his league,” Holland explained to Stepneski in the 2012 nhl.com interview.
But Holland was among the scouts who did see Benn play and he saw a kid with some good attributes and plenty of potential.
“He was a player with outstanding stick skills and an NHL shot back when he was 17. He had real good vision,” Holland explained to Stepneski. “What I noticed about him was his improvement potential. He was just a raw, raw kid. When talking to the coaches and talking to people, he was an outstanding baseball player and really never physically trained for hockey. You could tell his strength and conditioning wasn’t there.”
But one of the weaknesses noted by a lot of the scouting reports on Benn at the time was his skating. The Red Line Report, an independent scouting service, was particularly harsh, ranking Benn among the five slowest players in the draft.
“We’re not sure if he’s really that slow, or he just refuses to move,” Red Line Report said in its 2007 Draft Guide.
Holland saw the skating issue differently.
“His skating was just OK at the time,” said Holland. “Looking back, it was due to lack of leg strength. It was tough for him to get out of the blocks, his speed was just OK at the Tier II level. But once he had the puck you didn’t get it back from him. He made the right play every time.”
“As far as his skating, he was one of those guys who was a lot better when he had the puck than when he didn’t – he seemed to be energized and showed flashes of high-end (skill) with it.”
When everything was added up, it didn’t make Benn – still that “raw talent” – someone projected to go in the upper end of the draft.
Central Scouting had Benn ranked 107th going into the 2007 draft, and that was among forwards and defencemen playing in North America. International Scouting Services, an independent ranking service, had him 154th. Another independent service, McKeen’s, had him ranked 174th. The Red Line Report, which had ripped his skating, didn’t have him listed among its top 300 players eligible for the draft.
Holland remembered Dallas — without a first-round pick that year — having Benn slotted in the fourth round, and the Stars entered the 2007 draft with two picks in the fourth. But they ended up trading one of them (94th overall) to Columbus for three additional fifth round picks (128th, 129th and 149th).
The Stars’ first pick in the second round (50th overall) was Nico Sacchetti, a high school centre in Minnesota, who went on to the University of Minnesota and retired after the 2013-14 season after two yeas of playing in Europe.
In the third round (64th overall), Dallas took Sergei Korostin of Russia. He went on to play right wing for the London Knights, and after a season with the Texas Stars in and a return to Russia, retired in 2011.
Dallas had better luck with their fourth-run pick — Colton Sceviour of the Portland Winter Hawks. He’s played 99 games with the Stars, 71 of which came last season.
At the start of the fifth round, Jackson looked at scout Tim Bernhardt and said, ‘what about Benn?’” Holland recalled. “I said, ‘we were willing to take him in the fourth round, we certainly can him take in the fifth.’”
With their first of four picks in the fifth round (128th overall) the Stars took right wing Austin Smith, a Dallas native, who had played at a Connecticut prep school that season and is now playing in Europe. He never did make it to Dallas.
And then — finally — with the next pick, the 129th overall, the Stars selected Benn.
“I’d like to say he was a first-round potential. There was lots of growth left and lots of potential, maturity and strength work that needed to be done,” Holland said. “I knew, if nothing else, at least he had the stick skills. He worked on the other parts. He’s gotten better in the gym. He’s matured.”
And that skating issue?
“Talking to other scouts, they can’t believe how far he has come with skating,” Holland said.
Benn, who had been planning on attending college at Alaska-Fairbanks when he was drafted, changed his career path. On the urging of Frey and Barrie, he decided to play in Kelowna with the Rockets.
“He was just scratching the surface of where he was going to go,” Jackson predicted three years ago. “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 obviously has.”
Benn has made some impressive strides in his six-year NHL career. His 359 points ranks second only to Patrick Kane of the Chicago Blackhawks (selected first overall) among all players taken in the 2007 draft.