VANCOUVER – Jim Benning figures every top prospect in this year’s entry draft has been scouted 60 or 70 times by someone from the Vancouver Canucks.
The general manager isn’t sure how often each National Hockey League team scouted him as a player 37 years ago when Benning was one of the hottest draft prospects, but it must have been at least once. Because how else would he have gotten dinner invitations in Portland?
“I talked to a few teams,” Benning told Sportsnet. “Like, when they came through Portland, they’d take me out to supper. So I met with a few teams that way. Back then, a scouting staff was three or four people. Teams had a chief scout, who’d maybe be based in Ontario, then they’d have a full-time scout for Quebec and one for Western Canada and maybe one for the United States.
“I think the teams still knew what they were getting in the player.”
On June 10, 1981, the Toronto Maple Leafs used the sixth-overall pick to draft Benning, an offensive defenceman who had amassed 28 goals and 111 assists the previous season for the Portland Winter Hawks.
It was an outstanding draft class topped by Dale Hawerchuk, who went first to the Winnipeg Jets. Seven players from that draft logged more than 1,000 NHL games and Hawerchuk, Ron Francis, Al MacInnis, Chris Chelios (the 16th defenceman selected) and Grant Fuhr all went into the Hockey Hall of Fame when they were finished.
Benning never became the offensive star Toronto had hoped, but did have a solid NHL career, playing 610 games over nine seasons for the Maple Leafs and Vancouver Canucks, who acquired Benning and forward Dan Hodgson in a 1986 trade for Rick Lanz.
“In 1981, I was home in Edmonton for the summertime and I didn’t even go to the draft,” Benning, whose agent was the notorious Alan Eagleson, said of his draft experience. “Punch Imlach was the GM of Toronto at the time and he called me at home to say the Leafs had drafted me. I don’t even know where the draft was that year. [Eagleson] told me I’d been drafted somewhere in the first round and left it at that.
“The kids are way more prepared now than we were 35 years ago. You talk to these kids as 17 year-olds, like we did at the combine last week, and they have strength-and-conditioning coaches, dieticians and mental coaches, skills coaches and skating coaches. And they’ve had them since they were 14. So the preparation that goes into the players now at a young age is way more than back then.”
Benning said nobody taught junior players in 1981 how they were supposed to train in the off-season. He worked out on his own that summer in Edmonton, mostly lifting weights and running, then reported to the Maple Leafs free-agent camp that preceded training camp.
“And they invited to this free-agent camp every tough guy that was kicking around. Remember Kim Clackson?” Benning said, referring to the 1970s enforcer who had no goals and 370 penalty minutes in his 106 NHL games. “They had a bunch of guys like that.
“It was a five-day camp, but I got food poisoning and I was in hospital for the last three days. Then I was ready to go to main camp. After the free-agent camp, when I got to the main camp, it seemed pretty civilized.”
The Leafs dressing room that Benning walked into as an 18-year-old rookie included Darryl Sittler, Borje Salming, Rick Vaive, Ian Turnbull and Wilf Paiement.
“I think I was too naïve to be intimidated,” Benning said. “I worked hard all summer to come in good shape, and you show up and compete and see where you’re at.
“But that was still the era when a lot of guys wouldn’t have done anything all summer and then just showed up at camp. Camp was to break in new equipment and get in shape. Darryl Sittler, he always came in great shape. And Salming would run 10 miles a day and do stairs and he’d come in great shape. But for a lot of players, training camp was there to get in shape.
“I played for the Leafs as an 18-year-old, it was a big step – know what I mean? As a defenceman, especially, it was a big step to step into the NHL as an 18-year-old and play. But there were other 18-year-olds that year that played.”
One of them, Hawerchuk, had 103 points as a rookie and won the 1982 Calder Trophy.
Benning said he has no regrets about his playing career. The son of legendary Montreal Canadiens’ scout Elmer Benning, the current Canucks GM launched his NHL management career as a scout. He said the draft is his favourite part of the year.
“I don’t feel bad about the way my career was because I knew I did everything in my power to try to be as good as I could be,” he said. “I became a reliable two-way player. I wasn’t able to contribute offensively like maybe I would have liked to, but you see that all the time. You have to adapt to play and stay in the league, and that’s what I did.”
Asked if he thinks much about the time he was the sixth player chosen in one of the NHL’s great drafts, Benning said: “No, I haven’t thought about that in 20 years until you asked me about it. I’ve moved on.”