Jamie Benn continued his remarkable rise from unassuming, after-thought fifth-round draft pick out of the BCHL’s Victoria Grizzlies into the top echelon of NHL forwards by being named to the Canadian hockey team for the 2014 Sochi Games in a nationally-televised announcement Tuesday from Toronto.
During the last Winter Olympics, the then-NHL-rookie, who grew up in Central Saanich, took advantage of the league break to come home and see his No. 12 Peninsula Panthers jersey retired and raised to the rafters of the Panorama Rec Centre during an Island Junior League game.
Unlike Vancouver 2010, there will be no break this time for Benn.
Eleven players, including star forward Sidney Crosby of the Pittsburgh Penguins, and Vancouver Canucks goaltender Roberto Luongo, return from the gold-medal Canadian team from the 2010 Vancouver Winter Games.
VIDEO: Scroll to the bottom for a behind-the-scenes look at selecting the team
Benn told the Times Colonist in August that he would make the Canadian team for Sochi despite being surprisingly left off the initial 47-player list last summer. He was as good as his word. Benn and Patrick Marleau were the only two players not invited to the summer camp to be named to the Canadian team.
“Anytime you get a chance to put on the Canadian jersey and represent your country, it’s pretty special,” Benn said in a video posted to the Dallas Stars website.
“I’m excited to go over and represent my country. This is not an easy team to make. It’s going to be a pretty special experience. I’m confident in my play. I’m going to do whatever it takes to win gold. That’s going to be my mindset.”
After being snubbed initially, Benn knew he needed a boffo start to the NHL season with the Stars to change the minds of the Canadian team brain trust.
“It’s given me the fire for the start of the [NHL] season,” said Benn, while in Victoria last summer. “I want to be on that Olympic team. I’m going to have to go out in the first half of the season and make them want to pick me.”
210-pound power forward did just that, being named captain of the Stars in September and scoring 15 goals and accumulating 37 points in the first 42 games of the season for Dallas.
Benn skated with the Victoria Royals of the Western Hockey League during last season’s NHL lockout, and his subsequent salary holdout.
“[Canada] is such a tough team to make and this is great for Jamie considering he was on the outside looking in [when the selection process began]. It’s great that he’s had the start to the season that he’s had,” said Royals head coach Dave Lowry.
“I’ll maybe remind him that it all started here [Royals practices],” quipped Lowry.
Benn brings more than just scoring potential to the Canadian Olympic side.
“Jamie can play a heavy game. He’s got a nasty streak in him. He can be tough,” noted Lowry.
Royals GM Cam Hope said Benn’s attributes make him especially suited to the larger ice surface in Sochi.
“His skill sets will be dynamite on the big ice. This is great for Jamie and great for the Island,” said Hope.
Benn, a product of the Peninsula minor hockey system, will attempt to become the first Island player to win a Winter Olympics medal in hockey since Victorian Kent Manderville’s silver at Albertville in 1992. Russ Courtnall of Victoria placed fourth at Sarajevo in 1984. Rod Brind’Amour of Campbell River was also fourth at Nagano in 1998 following a searing shootout semifinal loss to the Czech Republic. Frank Frederickson, a member of the 1925 Stanley Cup champion Victoria Cougars, won gold when ice hockey was on the program at the 1920 Antwerp Summer Olympics.
International sport is ingrained in the Benn family DNA. Benn won a gold medal at the 2009 world junior hockey championship and represented Canada in the 2012 IIHF world championship. Dad Randy Benn won gold medals in softball at the 1976 world championship in New Zealand and 1979 Pan American Games in Puerto Rico and played on several of the powerhouse Victoria teams that won Canadian Senior A championships.
Both parents, Randy and Heather Benn, admitted to an anxious night before.
“We didn’t sleep that well. Then we got the call from Jamie at 7 a.m. He wanted us to be the first to know. We really appreciated that,” said proud mom Heather.
“We’re just so proud and happy for Jamie. He was so disappointed not to be invited to that summer camp but said he would work his butt off. He has played his way onto the team.”
Meanwhile, the rainy weather Tuesday was a sure indication that winter athletes are hard to come by on the Island. While there were a whopping 48 Island athletes at the 2012 London Summer Olympics, the lone representatives at Sochi so far are Benn and snowboarder Spencer O’Brien of Courtenay.