Editor's Note: Jim Leitner is the Sports Editor at The Telegraph Herald in Dubuque, IA and is a frequent contributor to USA Hockey Magazine and USHL.com. This article originally ran in The Telegraph Herald on January 1, 2017. You can contact Jim at email@example.com and read his Local Sports and Dubuque Fighting Saints coverage HERE.
Matthew Benning fulfilled a lifelong dream by earning a roster spot with his hometown Edmonton Oilers on the opening night of the National Hockey League season.
But the 6-foot, 202-pound right-shot defenseman quickly understood his journey has only just begun and he will have to continue to work on his game so the dream can become a long-term reality.
Benning, a stalwart defenseman on the Dubuque Fighting Saints squad that won the Anderson Cup and Clark Cup in the 2012-13 season, became the fourth player to reach the NHL since Dubuque rejoined the USHL seven seasons ago. He joined Buffalo’s Zemgus Girgensons, Calgary’s Johnny Gaudreau and Florida’s Michael Matheson.
“Once you actually achieve that dream, you have to immediately put that emotion aside and depend on your game and the little things that helped you get the opportunity in the first place,” Benning said earlier this week while on the NHL’s holiday break. “For me, I have to keep the emotions out of it, because, when your emotions are flying, that’s when mistakes happen.
“It was definitely an exciting time for me in the beginning, but now that I’ve played like 24 games, I’m kind of used to it and it’s a matter of trying to be as consistent as possible from night to night when I’m in the lineup.”
The humble 22-year-old signed a free-agent contract with the Oilers in August after spending the past three seasons at Northeastern University in Boston. While many in Edmonton expected him to spend this season with the Oilers’ top minor league affiliate, the Bakersfield Condors of the American Hockey League, Benning played his way onto the NHL roster with an outstanding training camp.
After beginning the season in Edmonton, he played a pair of games in Bakersfield and recorded a goal and an assist while posting a plus-2 rating before being recalled. Benning picked up his fifth assist of the season on Thursday in a 3-1 home victory over the Los Angeles Kings. He also has a plus-3 rating and six penalty minutes while playing 25 of the Oilers’ 37 games.
“Matt has been a real bright light,” said Peter Chiarelli, the Oilers’ general manager and a minority owner of the Saints. “He’s a very smart player and he’s getting better every game. He has the mobility and the passing ability that really adds to our transition game.”
Benning said he grew considerably as a player during his lone season in Dubuque.
The son of former NHLer Brian Benning contributed 10 goals, 26 points, 73 penalty minutes and a plus-25 rating in helping Jim Montgomery’s team to a 45-11-8 regular-season record. He added a goal, an assist, six penalty minutes and a plus-3 rating as the Saints won the Clark Cup with a 9-2 run.
“I learned a lot there,” Benning said. “All of the coaches — Monty and Joe Coombs and Mike Field — did so much for me that season. But the thing that really stood out about that year was our team was so special, the games almost came easy because our team was so good.
“Practice was hard. It was tough to defend all the forwards we had that year. It was hard to penalty kill against our power play. So I know I definitely improved a lot that year, just in practice alone.”
But the memories extended beyond the ice. And Benning frequently reaches out to his former teammates, as well as his billet family.
“That was a special group of guys, so I’m not surprised at all that I’ve stayed in touch with a lot of them,” Benning said. “I know I developed some friendships that will last forever.”
While many Canadian hockey players opt for the Major Junior system north of the border, Benning opted for a different path. After one season in Dubuque, he headed for Northeastern University and the Hockey East conference.
Major Junior hockey teams play a schedule that mimics the pro game, and players can receive paychecks that takes away their amateur status with the NCAA. College hockey, on the other hand, features a shorter schedule and considerably more time for development — on the ice, in the weight room and socially.
“For the most part, I could always think the game pretty well,” Benning said. “But the other components — getting stronger and better edge work in my skating — that’s where I saw the most improvement, and at school we worked on those things a lot. The off-ice aspect is such a big part of the game, and I was able to get stronger, work on my skating and work on my skills.”
Benning totaled nine goals, 56 points, 101 penalty minutes and a plus-8 rating in 110 games over three seasons with the Huskies. He then took advantage of his professional marketability and bypassed his senior year to pursue a free-agent contract.
Northeastern associate head coach Jerry Keefe said Benning acted like a professional throughout his career in Boston.
“Matt’s one of those players who shows up every day with a purpose,” Keefe said. “He’s a really smart kid, and every time he stepped on the ice, he was prepared. He understood why we were doing certain things. Players like Benz are real easy to coach because they lead by example and they’re always working to get better.
“He was completely focused every time we watched video. He’d ask the right questions. He’d bring things up to you. He was all business. And away from the game, he was just a tremendous kid who treated everybody the right way.”
The Boston Bruins originally drafted Benning in the sixth round, 175th overall, in the 2012 NHL Draft, and he attended their summer developmental camps. At the time, Chiarelli served as the Bruins’ general manager, and Benning’s uncle, Jim Benning, also worked in the front office.
Under the collective bargaining agreement between the NHL and its players association, teams must sign their college draft picks within four years of their draft year or they become free agents. Benning took advantage of the system and shopped for the right fit before signing a two-year entry level contract on Aug. 27.
“It really helped that Peter liked me as a player and knew me as a person, so we had that connection,” Benning said. “He knew where I started and how I developed because he’d been following me in Boston.
“In terms of picking Edmonton, I saw it as a great opportunity for me to play right away with an exciting, young team that’s starting to get over the hump as far as being a playoff team every year. When I made my visit, met with management and saw the new building, I knew right away I wanted to play there.”
The Oilers this season moved into the world class, $600 million Rogers Center. And, behind a talented young core led by former No. 1 overall draft pick and NHL scoring leader Connor McDavid, Edmonton has challenged San Jose for first place in the Pacific Division.
“It’s exciting that there’s a core group right around my own age,” Benning said. “We have a really good mix of younger guys and older veterans who have been great in showing the young guys the ropes. And it’s competitive. You have guys who are battling to get into the lineup, and, with any team in the NHL, you have to have quality depth to win.”
Playing in his hometown has been pretty cool, too.
“I know it’s pretty exciting for all my friends; almost all of them got my jersey for Christmas,” Benning said. “Fortunately, they understand that I only get a certain number of tickets for each game. But it’s been great.
“Edmonton is a great city for hockey because the fans are so loyal. Obviously, it helps that we’ve been winning more than in previous years. But it’s been a great experience so far.”
Benning’s immediate arrival in the NHL didn’t surprise Keefe.
“First of all, his hockey sense is really, really high, and he has such a great compete level,” Keefe said. “But one aspect of his game that I think is underrated is his toughness and grit. He plays the game with an edge, and I don’t think enough people realize that.
“He’s such a smart kid and he understands situations really well, so he has the capability of making a quick adjustment to a higher level. He did it in college after playing in Dubuque. Not many defensemen can come in and play 24 minutes a night as a freshman in college.”
Benning gained confidence and made a lasting first impression with a strong performance at the Oilers’ rookie camp in early September. That carried over to the main camp and exhibition games.
“Training camp was a war,” Benning said. “There are older guys there with families and houses to pay for, and they definitely don’t want to give up their jobs easily. So it was extremely competitive.
“It was really a matter of trying to learn something every day. I thought I played pretty well and deserved to stick around. And I’m very grateful the Oilers decided to keep me there.”
Benning played an average of 36 games per season during his three years at Northeastern. In November alone, the Oilers faced 15 games on a schedule compressed because of the NHL’s involvement in the preseason World Cup of Hockey.
“It’s a huge adjustment,” Benning said. “The first 20 games wasn’t too bad, and I always make sure I get enough rest, stay hydrated and eat the right things. But, when you’re playing almost every other night, you’re traveling a lot and you have a lot of nights when you’re getting in at the early hours of the morning, it takes a toll on your body.
“You kind of wear down, and that hurts the consistency in your game. That’s where you really have to pay attention to the older guys who have been through it and know their bodies and know the league. Myself and the other rookies are still kind of figuring that out.”
The consistency will come. The other intangibles that will help him turn his boyhood dream into a long-term reality are already in place.
“He’s not afraid to mix it up, which is something you get to know about somebody when watching them play,” teammate Mark Letestu told EdmontonOilers.com earlier this month. “There’s a real physical element to his game, he’s willing to learn, he’s attentive and he’s done a lot of things you want young players to do in this league. He’s another guy that it’s up to him with how good he wants to make himself. He’s got the attention to it and the want. Hopefully he’s a good player for us for a long time.”
Headquartered in Chicago, Illinois, the USHL celebrates its 15th season as the nation's only Tier I junior hockey league in 2016-17. 30 or more players from the USHL have been selected in four consecutive NHL Drafts, and more than 400 players on team rosters last season committed to NCAA Division I schools, further establishing the USHL as the world’s foremost producer of junior hockey talent.