EDMONTON — When we first crossed paths with left-winger Tyler Benson back in 2012, he was a 14-year-old Bantam looking to become the first player to attain Exceptional Player status in the Western Hockey League.
Across the continent, a fairly exceptional Richmond Hill, Ont., kid had just embarked on his 15-year-old season with the Erie Otters, and, as he rolled towards a 25-goal, 66-point season in the OHL at 15 years of age, Benson allowed himself to dream.
“Seeing him being able to do it, maybe I can too,” he said of the player, one Connor McDavid.
That season, 2012-13, Benson tore through the Alberta Bantam AAA circuit with 57-89-146 in just 33 games — obliterating the six-year-old points record of an Airdrie, Alta., kid named Ty Rattie. Today, Rattie occupies the right wing spot next to McDavid in Edmonton.
If there was some, it was the last that Benson would see for a long while. He never ended up with exceptional status, but would become the WHL’s No. 1 draft pick. He went to the Vancouver Giants, where Benson would embark upon a string of injuries that defines that old cliché, “whatever doesn’t kill makes you stronger.”
The only people who use that line, however, are the ones who don’t go through the injury hell that Benson has endured.
“It’s been tough,” he admitted this week at Edmonton Oilers rookie camp. “I’m not sure it’s made me better on the ice — it would have been nice to have a couple of years of development — but it’s been nice to know that I can overcome obstacles like that.”
The kid does everything big — including injuries.
He had a cyst on his spine that required surgery. Cost him all but seven games in his first WHL season. Then, a groin issue called osteitis pubis, perhaps originating from the spine problem, sewered his draft season, turning the supposed fist-rounder into a guy who was still available when the Oilers’ second-round pick came around at No. 32.
So, Edmonton pounced on Benson, a local product out of the South Side Athletic Club (Dion Phaneuf’s old team), and Benson rewarded them with another aborted, 33-game campaign. A shoulder injury, then further core/groin issues were finally solved with hernia surgery.
Finally on Sunday, at his third Oilers camp, he was healthy enough to play in his first rookie game against the Flames. There, of curse, he took a stick in the mouth and busted off two of his front teeth.
“Could’ve been way worse if I wasn’t wearing my mouthguard,” he whistled through a crooked gap in the Chiclets. “Just chipped two. Guess I can get ’em fixed today.”
Through it all remains the exceptional player. Or at least a damned good one. In his final year of junior hockey, Benson gave the Giants 69 points in 58 games as their captain. Now, he turns pro as a guy who’s used to being the best player on the ice — even he hasn’t gotten too far away from the trainer’s table over the past few years.
“I feel 100 per cent confident. I’m not even thinking about it anymore. Hockey is all that’s on my mind. I’m not even worried about my body,” he said. “I still believe in myself, a lot. I’ve competed with a lot of players my age, and some are playing in the NHL right now. Just the past couple of years have been tough ones, but I’m on the right path right now. The next couple of years are key in my development.”
He’s smart, and can make plays on the backhand, a defining trait of former Oiler Doug Weight that often separates the good from the truly gifted. But when we spoke in 2012 Benson was five-foot-11, 180 pounds, largely why he was so dominant as a bantam.
Today he is only a half-inch taller and 10 pounds heavier. He’s not a McDavid or John Tavares comparable anymore, but perhaps more like a Kris Versteeg or Tanner Pearson.
But on an Oilers team with two top centres in McDavid and Leon Draisaitl — who will need to be furnished with skill on their flanks — that kind of player could have much value here in Edmonton.
“His gift is his vision, and his ability to make plays in tight, either on his forehand or backhand,” said Bakersfield coach Jay Woodcroft, the former Oilers assistant. “That’s usually a sign of a special player who has unique offensive instincts.”
If it works out here, in Benson’s hometown, he’ll be thrilled.
“I grew up wearing the jersey, cheering for Ryan Smyth, Ales Hemsky,” he said. “It’s pretty exciting to be able to put that jersey on for the first time (Sunday). Playing against Calgary, ‘Battle of Alberta,’ all of that.”
It’s been a long time coming, for Tyler Benson. He smiles at that.
“It sure has.”