EDMONTON — There is a ritual that plays out between Michael Benning and his Dad, Brian, at their St. Albert home, just north of Edmonton.
“I come home from practice, and Dad’s there. He asks me, ‘What’s the hockey news?’” said Michael, 18. “Now when I get home, there is no hockey news. It’s quiet in the Benning household right now.”
If you think hockey’s absence has left a void in your life this spring, this is the story of an iconic Edmonton hockey family that’s living through the strangest spring of their lives this year.
The Bennings, a branch of that famous Edmonton hockey family that began with 45-year Montreal Canadiens scout Elmer and two of his sons, former NHLers Brian and Jim (the current general manager of the Vancouver Canucks) were looking forward to an unprecedented spring. All three of Brian’s kids — each a right-shot defenceman for their respective teams — were looking forward to memorable runs:
• Matthew’s Edmonton Oilers were looking pretty good to have home-ice advantage in Round 1 of the National Hockey League playoffs.
• Michael, the leading scorer among defencemen in the Alberta Junior Hockey League, played for the Sherwood Park Crusaders, who were ranked No. 1 in the country heading into playoffs.
• Abby was in her fifth and final season for the University of Alberta Pandas, who were ranked No. 1 when they arrived at the U Sports National Championships in Charlottetown P.E.I.
“We were feelin’ really good, had a good game plan,” said Abby, 23. “We played in the same rink last year, so it was a familiar environment. Not as much pressure as last year — we had a bit of an older team this year, and we felt pretty confident.”
The tournament opened last Thursday with two games, and the Pandas were set to take on the University of P.E.I. on Friday. These were to be the last games for Abby after five seasons as a Panda. The last at this high of a competitive level, really, as she knew she would focus on completing her Education degree and beginning life as a teacher.
They arrived in Charlottetown. Then the whispers began.
“We heard the NBA shut down (Wednesday). Then we heard the NHL shut down (on Thursday). But we were like, ‘We’re on an island. The tournament has already started. We’re fine.’ I don’t know if it was denial or what,” she said. “But everyone was in the same hotel, and you could hear the whispers in the hallway. Things on Twitter. Then, we got called into a meeting room with Howie (head coach Howie Draper) at about 10 o’clock at night. Howie’s wife, who is also our sports psychologist, she kind of came up behind me and kind of put her hand on my back.
“I was like, ‘Oh, no… It’s done.’”
“It’s kinda weird,” said her little brother Michael. “It feels like the season didn’t end, because you didn’t lose.”
That’s the hardest realization for a family with hockey in its DNA. Every season, for everybody, ends either with a heart-wrenching loss, or in triumphant victory.
This year the season — and for Abby, a career — ended with a sombre announcement from the coach or a league executive.
“We have eight fifth-year players,” Abby said. “One of our girls, she had a shoulder surgery (and missed nationals) last year. Her home is Halifax, and this was her second time to have the opportunity to play in front of her family. She didn’t get that. One of our girls broke her leg. She was rehabbing hard the whole year to get back. There was a whole lot of disappointment.
“Just no closure on the season. We didn’t get that closure on our senior year,” added Abby, who played her last shifts as a Pandas in the Canada West final — and didn’t even know it. “I never thought that those were my last shifts, my last game. Mentally, I just wasn’t prepared for that.”
Matt watched it all unfold at about the same time his own season hit the pause button.
“My parents were there too, to see Abby. That was disappointing — show up there, get all excited to play, and have it cancelled. But the biggest thing right now is safety,” Matt said. “My brother, they were getting ready for the playoffs. There are a few of them on the team where this is their draft year, so I don’t know how this positively or negatively affects that.
“These are some dark days in the Benning household.”
The Sherwood Park Crusaders have been a fixture in the Edmonton suburb since 1978, when Brian and Jim Benning were still manning blue-lines on outdoor rinks in the Edmonton Minor Hockey Association.
This was the best team they’d ever had in Sherwood Park, going 49-9-0 in the regular season. They sat through a first-round bye, then never laced ’em up again.
“We were such a good team too. It’s disappointing,” said Michael, who will go on to the University of Denver — if they’re ready for him next season. If not, he’ll likely move on to Dubuque of the USHL, where Matthew spent the year between his time in the AJHL and Northeastern University.
But right now? It’s all about competitive cribbage at the Bennings’ house.
“Crib’s a big hit,” Michael laughed. “We’ll take out Sequence. Apples to Apples.
“Everyone laying low right now.”