Hockey paved a wide-open highway for a 17-year-old defenceman from Edmonton’s north end back in 1981, when he racked up 111 assists and 139 points for the Portland Winterhawks. The Toronto Maple Leafs drafted Jim Benning sixth overall — ahead of blueliners like Chris Chelios, Al MacInnis and James Patrick — and, if memory serves, it was Leafs scout Floyd Smith who made that fateful comparison to Bobby Orr that Benning would never be able to live up to.
Benning was, perhaps, the right guy in the wrong place back then. Today? Quite the opposite. The blue-collar son of a firefighter named Elmer, who was the hockey director for a tiny Delwood community able to put 26 teams on the ice back in the day, and a nurse named Liz, looks to be the next general manager of the Vancouver Canucks.
“Jim’s paid his dues,” said little brother Brian, who played his NHL hockey in St. Louis, Los Angeles, Philly, Edmonton and Florida. “He’s been a student of the game. Lots of scouting, lots of time. It’s a long road, but you’ve got to travel it. You have to form a good network, and that’s how you do it.”
Jim Benning was a marvelous puck-handler whose skating was deemed average once he arrived in Toronto. Alas, he was the first of 10 consecutive top-10 draft picks for Toronto, a sign of an organization that was eating its young at an alarming rate, starting with Benning.
"We could argue if he was ready, I suppose," mused Brian, who came up 42 games short of his big brother’s 610 NHL games played. "Jim was always so talented. He played above his age group every year. He was 15 years old in the (Junior A) Alberta Junior Hockey League. He was 16 in the WHL, and 17 when he scored 140 points for Portland."
He was 18 and overmatched in Toronto. Today, Jim Benning is 51 and couldn’t be more prepared for his first manager’s gig.
He is exactly what the Canucks organization needs: A talent evaluator who has for his current team, the Boston Bruins, helped to collect a gritty, sizeable group fronted by men like Vancouver native Milan Lucic, who grew up and played his junior hockey right under the noses of the Canucks brass but was somehow overlooked by the Canucks back in 2006.
The Canucks haven’t drafted well, they need size and grit up front, and their pro talent evaluation has been questionable. Enter Benning, who is no superstar — just one of those high-in-the-corner hockey scouts who has lived the game for a half-century and is more than ready.
He began his post-hockey career as an Anaheim scout in 1993, moved to Buffalo the next year, and became the head of the Sabres amateur staff from 1998-2004. He’s been the assistant GM for Boston since 2006, but after plenty of interviews along the way, he appears to have secured his first GM job in Vancouver.
"He was in Buffalo for about 12 years, director of player personnel, in charge of scouting. He learned a ton there from Jack Bowman, Scotty’s brother, who is no longer with us," Brian said. "When he got to Boston, they were in 26th place."
The Bruins are getting calls on Benning, presumably also from Pittsburgh and Washington, two teams looking for GMs. They may also lose Don Sweeney, the other assistant GM to Pete Chiarelli in Boston, leaving a hole in Beantown’s front office.
"We have given permission for Jim to talk … to a couple different teams," Bruins president Cam Neely told the Boston media at a wrap-up news conference on Tuesday. "That’s what happens when you have success. Teams look at other organizations that have success and start inquiring about your management group. It’s something that a lot of good organizations have had to deal with over time and we are dealing with that right now."
Trevor Linden hopes to have that problem one day in Vancouver. Jim Benning is a good first step.
Said Brian: "He’s ready."