EDMONTON — Tyler Benson isn’t even trying to pull the old "just another game tonight " thing after a morning skate inside Edmonton’s Rogers Place.
"I’m really excited…"
Benson grew up on in the Blackburn neighbourhood in southwest Edmonton, playing his hockey at the Kinsmen and Millwoods Arenas for a Southside Athletic Club that gave the National Hockey League Jay Bouwmeester, Dion Phaneuf and Jason Chimera. He’s been an Oilers fan since he could pronounce the word "Edmonton," and they drafted him with their first pick in the second round of the 2016 draft, No. 32 overall.
After a string of injuries that slowed his progress in junior, then 115 American Hockey League games in Bakersfield and press box watching the Oilers play their past two games, Benson finally gets his first NHL game Thursday.
"It’s been a dream of mine for a very long time, cheering on the team while I was growing up," said the six-foot, 190-pound soon-to-be 22-year-old. "The time has come to be able to wear an Oilers jersey in a game, it’s going to be special. And having my family to be there for me, it’s going to be awesome."
He’ll wear jersey No. 49. It will feel, of course, like winning the 6-49.
"For him, just playing in the NHL is a dream come true," said long-time friend and Oilers defenceman, Matt Benning. "To play your first game at home, in front of the people who have watched you in Pee Wee, Atom, Bantam and Midget hockey… It’s a lot to think about.
"For him it’s about turning off your phone, sticking to your routine. He’s been a pro for a while now. He knows what to do."
Benson’s first NHL game is a feel-good story, regardless of where he grew up.
As a Bantam, Benson was the top player on a team that tore through Western Canada, winning all the major tournaments. There was talk of him being granted exceptional status to enter the Western Hockey League, and he would eventually find his way to the Vancouver Giants as a 16-year-old. But after scoring 45 points in 55 games as a WHL rookie, Benson suffered through a series of serious injuries that limited him to 30-, 33- and 58-game seasons to finish his junior career.
And they weren’t small injuries. He had a sports hernia that was at the route of some issues that ended up as a hip injury. He had a cyst on tailbone that was much cause for concern. In the end, injuries likely cost Benson a spot in the first round of the draft and slowed his development.
He spent his summers rehabbing, instead of improving.
"It’s definitely been a long road, but it makes it more special to get to this point. I definitely feel ready for it, excited to do the best I can out there tonight," he said. "To be able to face all those injuries, all the doubt, it kind of makes it a little more special that I was able to overcome and make my dream come true."
Head coach Dave Tippett will ease Benson in tonight, on the left side of fourth line with Gaetan Haas and Alex Chiasson.
"I believe a young guy should come in, get his feet wet, and get going," Tippett said. "We did the same thing with (Kailer) Yamamoto for a game, and Yamo took off. We’re going to do the same thing with Benson."
Tippett shuffled his lines a bit after a 3-0 loss at Arizona on Tuesday, taking right winger Zack Kassian off of Connor McDavid’s line and playing him on a third line with Riley Sheahan and Jujhar Khaira. Sam Gagner will play with McDavid and Josh Archibald.
"Just tweaking a bit," Tippett said. "We want to get Kass going, on a line where he can really some real hard work in."
Mikko Koskinen will get his second straight start tonight against San Jose.