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Canadian Hockeyville winner nurtured Benn brothers

by Kevin Woodley

VANCOUVER -- Dallas Stars forward Jamie Benn led the NHL in scoring last season, but he didn't grow up dreaming about winning the Art Ross Trophy.

As kids, Jamie and his older brother, Stars defenseman Jordie Benn, didn't even dream of playing in the NHL.

For the Benn brothers, the early goal was always to play for the Peninsula Panthers, a tier-3 Junior B team that played in the 400-seat Panorama Recreation Centre Hockey Arena in their hometown of North Saanich, British Columbia, on the southeast tip of Vancouver Island.

"It was definitely a dream of mine," Jamie, who played for the Panthers in 2005-06 as a 16-year-old, told from Stars' training camp. "When I was younger all I wanted was to play for the Panthers. It seems like that was much bigger than playing in the NHL at the time."

Benn's childhood dream and his current reality will come together this weekend when the NHL brings the Stanley Cup to Panorama Recreation Centre Hockey Arena on Sunday to celebrate North Saanich being named Kraft Hockeyville 2015 in Canada. The Vancouver Canucks and San Jose Sharks will play a preseason game at the nearby Q Centre, all of which had the Benn brothers reminiscing about their minor hockey days on the Saanich Peninsula.

"Just being a young kid and seeing the Peninsula Panthers emblem up on that rink when our family would go to games; me and my brother, back then we thought that was the big time," said Jordie, who was the Panthers best defensemen in 2004-05. "We wanted to be a Peninsula Panther. Looking back now I know it's only Junior B, and I've got a smile on my face saying that, but I was so proud to throw on that jersey and a be a part of the Peninsula Panthers."

The Panthers are a big part of hockey and life on the Saanich Peninsula, which makes them a big part of North Saanich winning the ninth season of Kraft Hockeyville, a program committed to investing in community arenas to help keep the game alive from coast to coast. The winning nomination was written by Jason Fletcher, whose deep volunteer roots in the area include scorekeeping at Panthers games, and this year's players were active in getting the community to rally around it. In addition to all that, and providing inspiration for young players like the Benns, Panthers games at the Panorama Recreation Centre are a place for the community to get together on weekends.

Think of it as hockey's answer to "Friday Night Lights."

"It's funny looking back and now playing in Texas you see the high school football games and the whole community coming together for those games and how passionate they are about the football, and it was the same with the Panthers," Jamie Benn said. "Everybody gets excited to go to the Panthers game every Friday night and be a part of it and see a bunch of people you know and watch the game and meet the players. It really is a special experience."

It's an experience that can have a lasting impact, both on and off the ice.

While some teams at the Junior B level focus on winning, often by loading up on 19 and 20-year-old players short on better options, the Panthers have focused on providing a spot for younger kids in the area to transition into higher levels. In addition to the Benn brothers, the list of Panthers alumni includes one-time NHL defenseman Ryan O'Byrne, Canucks draft pick Taylor Ellington, and forward Kyle Greentree, who played a couple of games for the Calgary Flames and Philadelphia Flyers and, like O'Byrne, still plays professionally in Europe. Seven other Panthers have played in American Hockey League or the ECHL, and countless others moved on to Junior A, Major Junior and to the NCAA on scholarships.

"They were all local kids and we gave them the opportunity to get their first taste of junior," said general manager Pete Zubersky, who bought and coached the Panthers in 1999, sold the team in 2007 and returned as part-owner in 2012. "I always said it was the most gentle transition from minor hockey to junior and that's why all these young kids came here and why they still do."

Jamie Benn appreciated having a place close to home to start that transition.

"It was definitely a step up from minor hockey and it was just part of developing you game to try and get to the next level," said Jamie Benn, who was named the league's top rookie after leading the team in scoring during his one season with the Panthers.

Just as important are the bonds with the local community. Jordie Benn won the Panthers Community Leadership award in 2005; Jamie won the award the following season.

"As cool as it is that Jamie just won the Art Ross Trophy and was a Peninsula Panthers and as much as we celebrate that, it's even more cool when we have kids that used to be Panthers that are coaching our minor hockey teams," said Paul Warmhoven, president of the Peninsula Minor Hockey Association. "As they get settled in life, we try to get them back to coach our kids One of Jamie Benn's old linemates is now the head coach of the Midget A team."

Just as the Benn brothers remember looking up to the Panthers growing up, local kids still see Panthers players reading or playing floor hockey in local schools, taking part in parades or helping coach at minor hockey practices, and they are drawn towards the program.

"That's why my 14-year-old wants to go watch the Panthers game," Warmhoven said.

Warmhoven, who went to college in Vancouver, remembers being skeptical when a friend first invited him to watch a Panthers game after moving to the Saanich Peninsula six years ago.

"I was like 'who goes to watch Jungle B' and he says 'No, this is an institution here," Warmhoven recalled. "So I put my snobby Vancouver bias aside and I went to a game and I was like 'Holy cow.' It's standing-room only, everyone is catching up and it's 'Oh yeah, that's Tommy's kid and Bobby's kid, and that's his little brother and he'll be a Panther one day.' It really is classic."

Winning Kraft Hockeyville should make that experience even more enjoyable because it includes $100,000 for improvements to the Panorama Recreation Centre Hockey Arena. Some of it will be used to improve the storage facilities for minor hockey and other community user groups such as lacrosse. Some of it will be used for a dedicated home-team locker room, something the Panthers haven't had since relocating to the area in 1997.

"I remember having all the gear and packing it around not having your own dressing room, but I didn't know anything else," Jordie Benn said. "It was the little peninsula and just getting a Panthers helmet was awesome, but to have the NHL and Hockeyville come in and support the community and what they are doing is awesome. It's great to see them getting recognized."

It will be even better if it also results in a Panthers dressing room, Jamie added.

"Yeah I remember hauling in my gear," he said with a laugh. "It would be great for those young kids. When you have your own room it just feels like it's kind of your house."

For a franchise that has made itself so at home in North Saanich, that would be fitting.

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