Unlike his sidekick, Tyler Seguin, Jamie Benn has kept a low profile in Dallas. Until now. Although he doesn’t have much to say, the secret of Big D’s green monster is out around the league: don’t unleash the beast or he’ll run right over you.
The plan was perfectly in place…that is, until a scout named Dennis Holland came in and screwed it all up. Jamie Benn was going to take the hockey scholarship he had accepted when he was 15 to the University of Alaska-Fairbanks. He was supposed to play hockey in the winter, and in the summer he’d roam center field in the Alaska Baseball League, a six-team loop that boasts some of the best college talent in the world and where the likes of Barry Bonds, Jason Giambi, Mark McGwire, Dave Winfield and Mark Grace stopped on their way to the major leagues. You know, just so he didn’t burn any bridges. Back in 2006-07, Benn was a year removed from Jr. B hockey in British Columbia and was happily unaware of his potential, playing on Vancouver Island, which is a picturesque 90-minute ferry ride from Vancouver. But three hours round trip on a boat isn’t the kind of time a lot of hockey scouts have on their hands. Benn was playing in the British Columbia League but wasn’t even good enough to be named to Team West for the World Jr. A Challenge. Kyle Turris, Justin Fontaine and 20 guys who never made it to the NHL were, but Benn wasn’t.
Holland was the Western Canada scout for the Dallas Stars, and his first report on Benn from the 2006-07 season read something like this: a kid to watch but probably not to draft. The next report was better, the next one a little better than that, until the Stars found themselves on draft day in the summer trading their fourth-round pick to the Columbus Blue Jackets for three fifth-rounders. With their second of four picks in that round, they took Benn 129th overall, with a pick that originally belonged to the Boston Bruins, who traded it earlier that spring to Columbus for Adam McQuaid. Funny how things work out sometimes.
“He was a really naive kid,” remembered Tim Bernhardt, the Stars head scout at the time. “He wasn’t one of these 24/7 hockey guys. His conditioning wasn’t very good, not because he wasn’t dedicated, but because he didn’t have a clue what it took to be an elite athlete. He had no idea.”
Almost a decade later, there isn’t a whole lot different about the blissfully unaware kid from Victoria. All right, perhaps there are a few things. He pulls down $5.25 million a year. Since then, he’s won a Memorial Cup, a World Junior Championship, an Olympic gold medal and an Art Ross Trophy as the NHL’s top scorer. He’s one of the most eligible bachelors in Dallas, but that will be nothing compared to how coveted he’ll be if the Stars don’t manage to sign him to a long-term contract before the end of next season. He plays for one of the most offensively dynamic and exciting teams in the NHL, in large part because he’s on it. After his coming-out party at the 2014 Sochi Olympics, Benn has been one of the premier players in the NHL, and he’s captain of a Stars team that is a legitimate Stanley Cup contender. Yeah, so that part is a little different. But at the core, Benn is the same kid who still has no idea how good he is. Or how powerful. “He’s a beast,” said Jordie, his older brother and teammate on the Stars. “He’s one of those guys who you’d say he doesn’t even know his own strength.” More than anything, however, Benn is humble, perhaps to a fault. Stars GM Jim Nill compares him to Nicklas Lidstrom and Peter Forsberg. Not only are they a pair of Hall of Famers, they’re both Swedes, people who are as humble and down-to-earth as can be and aren’t the least bit impressed with themselves. That’s Benn right there. “There’s not much to get in there, to tell you the truth,” Nill said. “Well, there’s lots to him, but it’s not fireworks. He’s not going to do a big story in the newspaper and tell you his life story.” So we’ll have to let other people do that. Benn comes by his athleticism honestly. His father, Randy, won a gold medal with Canada’s softball team at the 1979 Pan-American Games and three years earlier was a key member of the Victoria Bate Construction senior team, which went to the 1976 World Championship in New Zealand and was named co-winner of the title with USA and New Zealand because a typhoon came in and cancelled the end of the tournament. (Randy remembers a game where a teammate hit one that looked as though it was going out of the park until it blew back to the shortstop.) Randy worked for more than 30 years as a municipal employee in water and sewers, while Heather still works for the provincial government. “The wife is sitting right beside me, and if I didn’t say most of it was from her family, I’d get a slap upside the head,” Randy said. “Her side of the family is bigger, with the longer legs.” And Heather’s first cousin is Dave Barr, one of the greatest golfers Canada has ever produced. So it’s pretty clear how Benn came by his fast-twitch muscles. The same ones that give him that lethal snapshot were also the ones that made him an outstanding baseball player in his youth. It’s not a stretch to say that if Benn hadn’t stuck with hockey and been drafted after that 2006-07 season with the Victoria Grizzlies, he could have been running baseball paths instead of playing hockey. “I still get people kicking me in the butt because I often said he was a better baseball player than he was a hockey player,” Randy said. “The kid can hit. I think his last year of ball he hit something like .600 or better.”
And those are not just the words of a proud father. Walt Burrows has been involved in scouting talent for MLB for a quarter of a century, first as a Canadian scout for MLB and now with the Minnesota Twins. Burrows played softball with Randy back in the day, but that’s not why he went to watch Randy’s son play. Benn couldn’t commit to playing baseball year-round because he also wanted to play hockey, so that left him off a lot of elite teams that demanded 12-month commitments from their players. Because of that, instead of playing with kids his own age as a teenager, he went under the radar dominating in a summer senior league with far more mature players. “I’m quite certain that if he had chosen baseball, he certainly would have had a shot,” Burrows said. “He had all the physical tools we look for in a prospect, no doubt about it. He generated a lot of bat speed. And I’m not a hockey guy at all, but I’m sure you have to generate a lot of stick speed. It’s basically all the same thing.” The shortcoming for Benn was always his size. By the time he had hit Grade 10, he was barely five feet tall. But that didn’t prevent him from dominating in both hockey and baseball, and his core strength, despite his size, was beginning to show. Many people think Benn is actually the older of the two brothers because he’s so accomplished as an NHL player, but the reality is Jordie is older by almost two years. And when Benn played, it was often with his big brother and his friends, kids like Matt Irwin, who has 155 NHL games under his belt, and Greg Scott, a former AHLer who is now playing in Sweden. Being smaller and younger than Jordie and his brothers’ friends, Benn always had to be that much more tenacious, that much better and that much stronger just to keep up with them. “And it obviously shows now because he’s 10 times better than me and my buddies ever were,” Jordie said, laughing. But there was something more, something far more difficult to quantify about him. The physical skills were evident to anyone who ever watched him, but there was something going on in his internal circuitry that was at a higher level than most other kids. Randy recalls a time in primary school when Jamie was sentenced to an after-school detention with the teacher who also ran the chess club. The way Randy tells it, Jamie got stuck in the room watching all the good kids play chess. The teacher asked him if he wanted to learn to play. It wasn’t long before he was not only beating the kids in the school chess club but competing and doing well in local tournaments, something that abruptly ended the first time he sat out a hockey game to play chess and was admonished by his coach. “In chess, you’re thinking five moves ahead, and that’s the way Jamie sees the game of hockey,” Randy said. “He sees all 10 players on the ice, and he sees where his checkmate is. He’s got an unbelievable, I don’t know what you call it, photographic memory, maybe? You know that memory game where you turn all the cards over? He beat everyone every single time when he was four years old. His idol was Joe Sakic, and if he watched Joe Sakic make a move on the ice, he’d go out the next day and do exactly the same thing.” We only tell you these things because Benn never will. He’s becoming more vocal as the captain of the Stars, and those close to him say he loves to get silly as much as the next person, but ask anyone to provide an example and they clam up in record time. It’s almost as though Benn has instructed them beforehand not to let out any secrets about him. It’s not that he’s shy, but there’s no desire to turn the spotlight on himself. Benn and Tyler Seguin, who are the heart of the Stars offensive engine, have developed something of a Frick and Frack-type relationship. It works, partly because Seguin is so extroverted, which allows Benn to stand off to the side a little more, just where he likes it. Seguin and Benn had prank calls to their mothers televised nationally in Canada, and they once did a photo setup that parodied the one done by Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly for the movie Step Brothers. The young kids call it a bromance. “I look forward to being his little sidekick for years to come,” Seguin said. Perhaps one of the reasons why Benn doesn’t put himself out there more is that he gets himself into trouble. On a Dallas radio station a year ago, he and Seguin were guests, and the topic got to players rooming together on the road. The sophomoric host made a crack about how the Sedin twins probably share a room. Then in a moment of bad judgment he’d like to take back, Benn said, “Who knows what else they do together?” Benn was horrified at the backlash and offered his regrets, which was followed by the Stars making an official apology. With the exception of that, however, Benn’s career has been without controversy, and things are usually pretty harmless between Benn and Seguin. This season, Benn has taken up the habit of not changing his suit as long as the Stars are winning, which earned him much derision when the Stars embarked on two five-game winning streaks. “Being a person that enjoys style, I wasn’t impressed with him, and let him know every time: that he’s wearing the same, dirty suit, and that it was all in his head,” Seguin said. “I’m not saying every suit in your closet is a good one. I’ve seen a couple ones that are below average, and I’ve been the first to let him know.” Benn has been known to turn his more impish side on Seguin by rubbing hot rub in his equipment or taking the plugs out of his sticks and filling them with sand. As far as Seguin’s assessment of his wardrobe, Benn acknowledges his friend probably suffers from the burden of having too high an opinion of himself. “ ‘Seggy’ says that stuff because he thinks he’s got the best haircut on the team, and probably second in the league, other than King Henrik (Lundqvist) there in New York,” Benn said. “Seggy’s still got some suspect style, but I think mine’s pretty good.” Truth be told, though, Benn is a triumph of substance over style. It’s not that he doesn’t have any elan because he does have a tremendous skill level for a big man, but he has made his mark as an NHLer with his size (6-foot-2, 210 pounds) and ability to hang onto the puck. It’s what Mike Babcock was so enamored with when Benn was part of Canada’s Olympic team in Sochi. When asked which players surprised him the most on that team, Babcock was always quick to say Benn, while marvelling at how heavy his game is and how much of a presence he has on the ice.
The kid who was so clueless about conditioning has definitely clued into what it takes to be a professional athlete. Each summer, Jamie and Jordie go home to work out with Tyler Goodale of the Canadian Sport Institute, who also happens to be the strength and conditioning coach for Canada’s national women’s Rugby Sevens team. Goodale said what sets Benn apart is that he has both strength and power, which means he can produce the force needed to push a lot of weight and he can do it quickly. It’s a lethal combination for a hockey player and is what makes some of the big men truly great. Eric Lindros had that kind of combination. And while Benn is nowhere as big as Lindros, he rivals anyone in the NHL in the weight room. “Jamie is up there with some of the strongest hockey players I’ve ever worked with,” Goodale said. “He’s strong and powerful, he’s athletic, and then you actually have a third thing that is really neat about Jamie: he’s competitive. He’s actually extremely competitive, so if you tap into that competitive nature of his, the training effect that he can get just exponentially increases.” The Stars saw that from Benn last season as he tried to get his team into the playoffs. Those around him said he was happy about winning the Art Ross, but not making the post-season was what really drove him over the summer. Benn played much of last season with a torn labrum in each hip, both of which were surgically repaired over the summer. There were a number of nights when he probably shouldn’t have played, but there was no keeping him out of the lineup. “He’s the type of person that you want to keep quiet,” Jordie said. “You don’t want to wake him up. If you wake him up and piss him off, then it’s over for everybody. He’ll run you over. He’s a beast if you piss him off.” The beast that lurks within is just scratching the surface here. He’s already reached 40 goals this year to usurp the career-high 35 goals he had last season. More than that, however, he’s rounding into the type of player who can play the game any way you’d like. If you want to play a skill game, he can certainly hang with anyone in the league in that regard. If you want to play that heavy Western Conference game that’s dominated by cycling in the offensive zone and battling along the walls, well, he’s pretty comfortable doing that. If you really want to play on the other side of the rulebook, he can handle that, too. “He’s starting to realize how he can dominate games,” Nill said. Benn doesn’t disagree with the notion that he remains a work in progress, which is understandable since he was something of a late bloomer. The Stars had hit a rough patch as the All-Star Game break approached, winning only three of 11 games in January and giving up not only first place in the NHL but also in the Central Division. It will be up to Benn to help pull his team out of its funk down the stretch, and that may require him to be more vocal and assertive with his teammates. That part of his personality is emerging, and Benn is beginning to realize he simply can’t lead only by example. The Stars are built to compete now, and Benn has done his part, just as Nill and coach Lindy Ruff have. “No excuses, we need to make a big step this year and get the job done,” Benn said. “I guess you could say we’re in the prime of our careers now, so now is the time to get the job done.” Part of that emergence won’t include Benn putting himself out more publicly, though. What happens with him stays in the vault, which is fine. The interview for this piece was done in November, and at the time Benn was asked if there was anything he could tell fans about himself, within reason, that they didn’t already know. Just one thing. “You know what, you got me on the spot here, I can’t think of anything,” he said. “If I think of something, I’ll shoot you a quick text and let you know.” We’re still waiting.
This is an edited version of a feature that appeared in the March 7 edition of The Hockey News magazine. Get in-depth features like this one, and much more, by subscribing now.