Jamie Benn's rise to NHL stardom almost never happened
Baseball tugged at Stars captain's heart long before hockey success
Jamie Benn might be playing a different sport right now if the Dallas Stars hadn't picked their future captain late in the NHL draft nearly a decade ago.
Benn has rung up more points than Sidney Crosby, Patrick Kane and every other NHL player over the past two seasons and signed an eight-year extension worth $76 million US with the Dallas Stars this past summer.
But the remarkable, unexpected rise of one of the top Canadian hockey players almost never happened. Long before any of his NHL success, baseball was still tugging at his heart.
"I think if I never got drafted, baseball could've been an option," Benn said in an interview with the Canadian Press.
He was pretty good, too. One former coach called Benn the second-best left-handed hitter ever from Victoria, after Toronto Blue Jays all-star Michael Saunders.
Benn played centre-field, first base and pitched occasionally. He was a daring fielder and powerful hitter, the type who would typically bat third in the batting order. He was also a wily bunter who liked to beat defences with bunts to third base.
Benn got his love for the sport from his father, Randy. Bruce Hamilton, the owner, president and GM of the Kelowna Rockets, where Benn would later play junior hockey, thinks Randy would have been thrilled if his son pursued baseball over hockey.
"I think he would've loved it if I went that route," Benn concurred.
Benn said the love for the two sports is equal, though he does admit he could watch baseball all day.
"I knew his dad fairly well and his dad would always say how Jamie liked baseball better," said Ron Arcuri, Benn's coach with the Victoria Capitals.
Before the NHL draft in 2007, Benn had a commitment to attend the University of Alaska-Fairbanks where he would play hockey in the winter and baseball in the Alaska Summer League, which has seen the likes of Barry Bonds and Josh Donaldson roll through.
But after the Stars drafted him with the 129th overall pick in 2007 Benn decided to give hockey a go, agreeing to play for Kelowna.
It's a decision that still stings Arcuri, who said Benn had baseball scouts taking notice.
Benn had the eye of scouts in hockey, too. But as they remember it, his dedication to the sport was casual.
"Jamie was a really naive kid," said Tim Bernhardt, the Stars former director of amateur scouting who now works with the Arizona Coyotes. "He was out on [Vancouver Island] and he was just playing. He was a good baseball player and hockey player. I'm sure it was part of his life, but it wasn't his whole life."
Stats lacked weight
Because he wasn't lacing his skates up at every possible moment and hitting the diamond in the summer, Benn was rough around the edges as a hockey player early on. His skating and conditioning were concerns. He wasn't considered lazy, just unaware of what was actually required to succeed in hockey.
Some think it's why Benn sunk to the fifth round.
His stock also might have slipped because he played his draft year in a league (BCHL) that wasn't scouted all that seriously back then. Benn's impressive numbers then for the Victoria Grizzlies — 42 goals, 65 points in 53 games — lacked the weight they might have had in the Canadian Hockey League.
Bernhardt thinks a snub from Hockey Canada was a more likely reason for Benn's tumble at the draft. Benn wasn't picked in 2006 for the Canada West team at the heavily scouted Junior-A challenge.
The Stars were alerted to Benn by Dennis Holland, a B.C. area scout and brother of Detroit Red Wings general manager Ken Holland. Longtime Stars executive Les Jackson said Holland described Benn as a big, raw kid who could handle the puck. Smart, too. More substance over style.
The Stars chose four players before Benn, and only one ever played an NHL game. The organization evidently thought enough of Benn to keep him off even their own internal radar.
We always would laugh [at] what a steal Dallas got when they took him. But I don't know if you ever really anticipate or envision him being as good as he really is.- Kelowna Rockets owner/president/GM Bruce Hamilton on Jamie Benn being drafted to the NHL in the 5th round in 2007
"We didn't want his name out there floating around, people asking 'What about Jamie Benn?"' Jackson recalled.
Dallas knew they might have found something when Benn sparkled at development camp a few weeks after the draft. It was a reality check for Benn too. He not only saw how good he might be, but also how much his habits would have to change. He'd have to eat better and train more diligently, make hockey the centrepiece of his life.
Benn quickly became a star for the Rockets, leading the team to a WHL crown in his second season. He also caught the attention of Hockey Canada finally and landed a spot on the 2009 world junior team.
"We always would laugh [at] what a steal Dallas got when they took him," Hamilton, the Rockets owner, said. "But I don't know if you ever really anticipate or envision him being as good as he really is."
Less than six months after he tied for the Memorial Cup lead in scoring (the Rockets lost the championship game to Windsor), Benn was in the NHL. He scored 22 goals as a relatively anonymous rookie in Dallas. Tyler Seguin knew of him only as a "good player that had really long hair." It was only in summer 2013 when Seguin was traded to Dallas that he got caught a real hint of Benn's talents.
He asked the Stars for game video and was wowed by what he saw from his future linemate.
Comfortable in spotlight
Quiet off the ice, Benn's star probably doesn't shine as bright as it could. His production, the second most points after Crosby since the start of the 2013-14 campaign, can get lost in the shuffle. A successful stint on the 2014 Olympic team helped a little and Benn was among the first 16 players picked to Canada's World Cup of Hockey squad before pulling out with injury.
Seguin thinks Benn is growing more comfortable in the spotlight.
"I think really with the transition of him turning into this well-known player and one of the best in the world there's also the transition of his personality a little bit," Seguin said.
It's hardly unusual for late round picks to exceed expectations, but rarely though do they reach the peaks Benn has.
Over the last 20 years the NHL's scoring title has been won by 13 different players. Eleven were first-round picks. One was undrafted (Martin St. Louis) and the other was Benn.
Benn could be finishing up a season on a baseball diamond somewhere right now, but he's not regretting his choice to stick to the rink.
"I think deep down, I knew I had a better shot in hockey," he said.