VANCOUVER, BC -- Sam Bennett hasn’t had a lot of opportunity to impress. He’s seizing every one.
In just his second ever National Hockey League game, and in his first taste of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, the 18-year-old has caught the praise of Calgary Flames coach Bob Hartley.
And not just for his standout performance.
“Fearless is part of his personality,” Hartley said. “You’re talking about a fearless kid, a kid who wants to learn, a kid who wants to compete. Thank God we got him in the lineup. Probably the biggest pain I have ever coached. This year, every day, he was coming to me and wanted to be in practice, wanted to be in pre-game warm ups, and stuff like that. The kid wants to compete and wants to be in the lineup. It’s a great young player to have on our side.”
Bennett’s character is quickly becoming a trademark of Calgary’s top pick (No. 4) in the 2014 NHL Draft. It was even before the Flames drafted Bennett that the story of the Holland Landing, ON native started showing signs of his determination to be an NHLer.
At the NHL Scouting Combine in Toronto last May, Bennett was the subject of criticism after failing to complete a pull-up at the event, designed to test both physical strength and serve as an environment for teams to complete player interviews.
Thought to be a strike on Bennett’s fitness level at the time, Hartley understands it quickly represented something much more.
"There was many reports the kid was not a good worker and couldn't do pull-ups," he said. "When your shoulder is broken in pieces but you won't tell no one because you are a competitor and you want to be there, that speaks volumes about his character."
Hiding a shoulder injury that plagued him much of last season, through the combine and into training camp with the Flames, Bennett finally disclosed the injury and, as a result, underwent surgery to repair a torn labrum in his left shoulder.
It left him sidelined until late February.
"He wanted to make our team, so bad pain is not a problem," Hartley said. "Once we got him checked by our team doctors and the specialist, there was no way that he could keep going without surgery. That's the kind of player we need in this organization if we are going to make great strides forward.
“Yes, you need talent, you need speed, but you need character, and this kid is full of dynamite."
After a brief stint back in junior with the Kingston Frontenacs, Bennett returned to Calgary and, in Game 1, was one of Calgary’s biggest standouts and helped set up Kris Russell’s game-winner with 29.6 seconds remaining in regulation to put Calgary up in the series.
“I think that I have a lot of confidence in myself,” Bennett said. “I wasn’t afraid to make mistakes in the offensive zone. I’m a guy who’s going to take the puck to the net and I’m not going to shy away from anyone. I definitely didn’t try to change anything in my game and I just did my thing (Wednesday).”
Bennett wasn’t necessarily a lock to play in Game 1.
It'd be hard to imagine him not back for Game 2 of the best-of-7 series, resuming Friday in Vancouver (8 p.m. MT; CBC, SN960), after Hartley's praise.
“He’s fearless,” Hartley said. “He’s ready to do anything -- block a shot, drive at the net, get on the forecheck,” Hartley said. “His speed definitely helps him, but he’s tenacious, he’s relentless on puck pursuit, and he’s skilled. Look how many times that he beat their defenceman to go at the net.
“You can’t teach this. Here is a kid that brings lots of excitement to our team and obviously that’s what we wanted.”