By HOWARD BERGER
TORONTO (May 21) – He was projected to be among the spring-chicken saviors of the Harold Ballard era, which is likely all you need to know about Jim Benning’s inauspicious term as a defenseman with the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Just more than three decades later, Benning will be in charge of finding and developing his own spring chickens as GM of the Vancouver Canucks. My fingers are crossed for him to have better success.
VANCOUVER CANUCKS’ NEW GENERAL MANAGER JIM BENNING.
Not that Benning was a terrible player in the National Hockey League; after all, he did hang around for parts of nine seasons (1981-82 to 1989-90) and appeared in 610 games with the Maple Leafs and Canucks. But, he never came close to his advance billing as a “can’t miss” junior phenom with Portland of the Western Hockey League. In his final junior season, he had 28 goals and 111 assists for the Winter Hawks. His 30-game points streak from Jan. 18 to Mar. 25, 1981 remains a WHL record all these years later. So, it’s obvious why big-league clubs were high on him approaching the ’81 amateur draft at the Montreal Forum. In the end, five teams passed. Winnipeg took Dale Hawerchuk first overall. Los Angeles took Doug Smith; Washington Bobby Carpenter; Hartford Ron Francis and Colorado Joe Cirella. Benning went No. 6 to the Leafs.
Given that draft hindsight is always 20/20 in the NHL, Leaf fans can be less nauseated 33 years later over the fact Grant Fuhr and Al MacInnis were still available in the first round; Chris Chelios in Round 2. Benning got the call amid the usual chaos at the Gardens during Ballard’s ownership helm. The calamity that was Punch Imlach’s second term as GM of the Leafs has been well documented through the years.
Imlach had managed and coached the Blue and White to four Stanley Cup titles in the 1960’s but was stuck in a time-warp when Ballard re-hired him in 1979 to replace Jim Gregory. After a pair of tumultuous seasons, Imlach suffered his second heart attack – nearly a decade after being felled, in 1971, while coaching the Buffalo Sabres. As Ballard plotted behind the scenes to oust him, Imlach oversaw the draft that landed Benning in Toronto. In his 1982 memoir – HEAVEN AND HELL IN THE NHL (written with Scott Young) – Imlach recalled the ’81 lottery:
At the amateur draft in Montreal, I’d done better than I had a right to. After Dale Hawerchuk, the kid who was automatic first pick overall by the Winnipeg Jets, the one I wanted was Jim Benning, an 18-year-old defenseman who’d played with the Portland Winter Hawks. As we were drafting sixth, I didn’t think he’d still be available when our turn came, but he was and I grabbed him. He’s a very smart offensive hockey player and frankly, if he develops as he should, he might be the best defenseman Toronto has ever come up with. He has to work on his skating and maneuverability but when he’s in full flight, he has the capability of penetrating the other team’s defense. I said at the time he could be a superstar and I mean it.
These are words ‘ol Punch took to his grave 6½ years later. Thankfully, they were not part of his epitaph. That side note about Benning having to work on his skating and maneuverability may rank as the hockey understatement of all time in Toronto. Though Benning did have some play-making ingenuity, he could not adequately get from Point A to Point B in the NHL. He was a terribly awkward skater – moving up ice bent at nearly a 90-degree angle, as if suffering abdominal cramps. Many of his passes were therefore intercepted by fleeter opponents. Given the free-wheeling nature of the early Wayne Gretzky era, Benning put up what today would be respectable numbers for a blue-liner in the NHL – his best season, in 1983-84, resulting in 12 goals and 51 points. At the time, however, he was nothing more than a marginal big-leaguer.
JIM BENNING’S ROOKIE BIO IN THE 1981-82 TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS MEDIA GUIDE (LEFT) AND THE COVER OF PUNCH IMLACH’S 1982 MEMOIR.
That said, it must be noted that Benning was among a handful of Leaf defense prospects at the time rushed into the NHL without adequate development – the club hoping that a young phenom might slow its downward spiral. Bob McGill, Gary Nylund, Fred Boimistruck and Viteslav Duris were among others prematurely elevated by the Blue and White. It was far from a glorious juncture in Maple Leaf annals.
Whatever physical deficit Benning brought to the NHL has long-since been erased by his discerning eye for talent. First as a scout with Buffalo; then later with Anaheim, the Edmonton native – now 51 – worked his way into the good graces of Boston GM Peter Chiarelli. Along with former Bruins’ sniper Cam Neely, the trio has overseen one of the great success stories in the NHL: Stanley Cup champion in 2011; finalist last year, and the President’s Trophy winner this season before being upset by Montreal in the playoffs. According to most accounts, Vancouver’s hunt to replace Mike Gillis did not spread much beyond the Bruins’ executive suite. Benning appeared to be the Canucks’ choice all along – his coronation having to wait until Boston was finished competing for the Stanley Cup. The move will be made official on Friday by Vancouver’s new president of hockey operations, Trevor Linden.
Here’s hoping that Benning never again wades through the NHL at a 90-degree angle. From Bud Poile in 1970 to such other GM’s as Harry Neale, Pat Quinn, Mike Keenan, Brian Burke, David Nonis and Gillis, the Canucks are still seeking their first Stanley Cup title. Neale got them to the final in 1982 whereupon New York Islanders swept to their third of four consecutive championships. Gillis guided the club to Game 7 of the 2011 Cup final before Tim Thomas slammed the door at Rogers Arena.
Jim Benning now becomes the 11th person in the manager’s chair on the left coast. He has earned the appointment.
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