EDMONTON, AB - May 1, 2006. Matthew Benning remembers that day very well.
“It was wild.”
One row up, four seats to the right of the penalty boxes, a young boy sat with his father watching the hometown team battle the Detroit Red Wings in Game 6 of the Western Conference Quarterfinal.
As season ticket holders, Benning and his father, Brian, enjoyed many Oilers memories together but this is one of his favourites.
“That was a crazy game,” said Benning. “Obviously, the Oilers had that playoff run that year and went to the Final. They were successful and just the atmosphere of that building, it just erupted. I could remember that like it was yesterday. People behind me, spilling drinks on me and fingerprints all over the glass. You could barely see.”
As a St. Albert native, Benning remembers the City’s passion for its team very well. He remembers going to the games and listening to local sports talk on the radio. Everything was all Oilers all the time. His father also played 18 games for the Oil during the 1992-93 season. So imagine his emotions when he inked a two-year deal with the club.
“I am really excited to be a part of an organization that’s in my home town and that I watched growing up,” Benning said. “I’m just really excited for the opportunity and just appreciate how the Oilers trust in me and signed me.”
Benning was drafted by the Boston Bruins in the sixth round of the 2012 NHL Draft. After going unsigned by his former organization, Benning drew interest from four to five other teams around the league. The Oilers were one of them.
When it came to choosing where to continue his career, reuniting with Oilers General Manager Peter Chiarelli was the right choice.
“Obviously, there were some teams interested,” Benning said. “With it being my home town, that was a big part of it. Also the opportunity to grow with the young players in Edmonton and be a part of something good. Obviously, Peter Chiarelli drafted me in Boston and he has seen me develop over the years and change as a player. I think the main thing for a player is having a team that really wants you, and that’s what I felt in Edmonton. I felt comfortable with Edmonton.”
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So what are the Oilers getting in Benning? Other than an excited young prospect, eager to return home, Edmonton is getting a solid, right-shot defenceman with hockey in his blood who has spent the last three seasons developing at Northeastern University.
Son of a former NHLer and nephew to the GM of the Canucks, Benning has been fully engaged in the sport his entire life. He has that to thank for the position he is in today.
“(My family has) meant a lot,” he said. “Obviously, with my grandpa being in the game he brought up my dad and my uncles. They’ve shown me the way. They’ve taught me the way to play my game. All of them being defencemen definitely has helped me get better. All of the hard work and conversations have contributed to the point where I am at now. I’m really appreciative of how nice my uncles and my family have been to me. My dad, volunteering and coaching when I was a young player and spending those 6 a.m. mornings driving out to practice, I am just really appreciative of all they’ve done for me.”
The Benning family guidance has helped Matthew hone his game over the years. He developed a passion for his defensive game and a desire to improve the offensive.
“I take pride in my d-zone. I think number one as a defenceman, you have got to take care of the d-zone,” said Benning. “For me, growing up, what my dad taught me is as you get older and as you get to higher levels, the forwards are good and all you need to do is make a good pass. That’s what my dad focused on so much, is finding the right pass to the forwards because they’re so good when you get older that they can handle the puck. Growing up, I focused a lot on passing and finding the right pass and just making the right decisions, whether it’s pinching at a time or not. I think him teaching me that was an attempt to limit your mistakes and I think that’s a big thing for a defenceman.”
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At Northeastern, Benning became a key contributor on a team that won its first Hockey East title since 1988 this past season.
“At Northeastern, I knew I needed to get better,” said Benning. “I needed to get quicker and work on my foot-speed. That’s what college is all about, working on your game. You play less games than you would in the WHL or OHL. That’s where I knew I needed help. I needed time to work on my game. I think when I got to Northeastern I was focused on my defensive game. Coming in as a younger player, I focused in on that. As I got older and went on to my second and third year, coaches really put trust in me. They wanted me to develop my offensive game and I really appreciate that from the coaches. They put the time and effort in to trust me and develop the offensive side of my game. As I developed from year one to year three I got better and just got used to the quickness of the game. My offensive side of my game took off I think.”
In 2015-16, Benning posted 19 points (6-13-19) in 41 games for the Huskies. He now sets his sights on tackling the challenge that is becoming a professional.
“I’ve never played pro hockey,” he said. “It’s obviously a lot different than what I’m used to. Anytime you jump from a league to another league, there’s an adjustment period. I think for me the goal is to just make that adjustment period as quickly as I can. My jump from USHL to college was short. I just want to keep getting better to give myself the best opportunity to contribute and play for the Edmonton Oilers. Hard work goes a long way. It’s going to be a big jump, obviously, but I’m excited for the challenge.”
Benning fondly remembers watching the Oilers growing up. He was in awe of the passion the fans displayed during the 2006 playoffs. Benning recalls the crazy scene of fans leaning over a young kid to bang on the glass as their favourite players skated by. He hopes one day Edmonton fans will bang on the glass and celebrate him as he skates by a member of the Oilers.