Travis and Carmelle de Koning were initially hesitant when the Winnipeg Ice reached out about serving as a billet family for a young, incoming player named Zach Benson.

The de Konings had just decided they were going to retire from being billets after hosting another Ice player, Peyton Krebs, who they believed was one of a kind and the perfect addition to their home. After Krebs had his season interrupted by the pandemic and his time with the family cut short, Travis and Carmelle were worried that other prospects wouldn’t mesh with their family as seamlessly as he did.

So, when the phone rang and the de Konings' sons Ashton and Dane begged their parents to continue billeting, the family felt there was only one person who could make the decision. They reached out to Krebs to find out more about Benson and whether or not he’d be a good fit for their home.

“He said that he had spent some time with Zach before and thought that Zach was a really good kid and could use a good, stable household as he went into the next stage of his hockey career,” Travis de Koning said. “So, that was our first kind of foray into deciding that we were going to do it again. Then, obviously, Zach was such a good fit with our family and so good with our kids.”

Over the ensuing years, the de Konings had a front row view of the passion that has driven Benson from their backyard rink to a successful junior career and, most recently, to a dynamic training camp with the Buffalo Sabres that earned him a place on the opening night roster at just 18 years old.

Benson spends time at the ODR with his billet brother Ashton.

Benson spends time at the ODR with his billet brother Ashton.

A love for the game

When Travis and Carmelle opened their home to Benson, they thought having a kind and dedicated junior hockey player in the house would provide a great role model for their sons. Just as they had with Krebs, the de Konings brought Benson in with the intention of making him feel as if he was really part of the family.

Rather than sitting in the basement playing video games, Benson spent his free time playing mini sticks, cards, going on bike rides, and getting Dairy Queen with his billet brothers. But the majority of their time together was spent skating on "the ODR" – the outdoor rink.

“Playing mini sticks with them, going to the ODR with them, it honestly meant so much to me,” Benson said. “I really miss it, honestly. Whatever I did with them, it was always so much fun.”

The then 16-year-old spent hours each night on the ODR or playing mini sticks, even becoming the go-to goalie for Ashton, Dane, and their friends. While the de Konings made sure Benson was dressed appropriately for the weather, the passion he felt for the game of hockey was on display each and every night.

“I think being a kid from Chilliwack, BC, you don’t have an appreciation for the dark, cold winters of Winnipeg. I think it was more so, for us, that if he was going to go out, which was pretty much every night, that’d he’d actually have a hat and knit and boots,” Travis said. “And you know, he’s a stubborn teenager. I think he fought us for the first year and by year two, he was wearing my wife’s SOREL’S.

“It was just very clear that if he had an option of what he wanted to do with his spare time, it was either watching or playing or doing something around the game.”

The view from the outdoor rink in snowy Winnipeg.

The view from the outdoor rink in snowy Winnipeg.

His coach in Winnipeg, former Sabres defenseman James Patrick, noticed Benson was constantly bringing his skates home with him to play on the outdoor rinks. There was concern he would overwork himself, but Patrick decided he’d rather have that than someone who wasn’t putting in the work at all.

“He is a rink rat through and through. He’s the true story of a kid you have to kick off the ice. He’s the type of kid who would spend the whole day on a rink,” Patrick said. “We asked him not to do that because we thought it might be a little too demanding on him, but it was always a tongue-in-cheek for me because I knew the kid loved the game so much. If he wanted to be skating all night, I wasn’t going to stop him.”

During the 2021-22 season, Benson recorded 63 points (25+38) in 58 games and added nine goals and 14 assists in 15 playoff games. While his talent was on full display, the de Konings and Patrick learned more about the parts of Benson’s game that separated him from the rest.

His hockey IQ, tenacity, and two-way game shined as his passion for hockey beamed through the smile on his face. Patrick also noticed how receptive the young forward was to feedback and how he used it to get better and better each day.

“Not once did he ever question what I was telling him or have an answer back that I didn’t want to hear, or disagree with me,” Patrick said. “Like I said, he was so easy. He was very coachable, very respectful.”

Over time, Patrick and Benson developed a strong bond over their love and knowledge of the game. Patrick loved how Benson always wore his smile and brought the best attitude to the rink.

Even in Patrick’s most serious moments, like when he was discussing a bad game with his team, he couldn’t help but smile at Benson, who couldn’t shake the grin from his face. While trying to remain stern, Patrick would have to look away from Benson to regain his composure and get his point across to his team.

“I’d see Zach on the ice and I’d say, ‘Do you’ve got to be looking at me like that when I’m in a serious moment with the team? Can’t you just wipe that smile off your face?’ And he’d go, ‘Well, you know, I’m just excited about being here today.’ That’s how it was coaching Zach,” Patrick said. “He made it a joy. When you’d walk in the dressing room, he was in a fantastic mood every day. I loved that.”

Benson recalled the moments when Patrick would be serious with his team.

“You know, it’d be pretty funny. Sometimes he’d get so into it and he would start elbowing the wall or he’d be showing us what to do and he’d get so intense and he’d kind of slam his elbow against the wall,” Benson said. “And I’d just be chuckling because I was just thinking, ‘Aw, that must hurt his elbow!’”

Dane and Ashton shoot pucks by Benson in the yard.

Dane and Ashton shoot pucks by Benson in the yard.

Faith in the process

Approaching the 2023 NHL Draft, Benson kept thriving for the Ice and continued forming a dynamic duo with Sabres prospect Matt Savoie. The pair combined for 193 points during the 2022-23 campaign, including Benson’s team-high 98 points on 36 goals and 62 assists.

As Benson prepared for the draft, Travis and Carmelle began to understand another exceptional quality of his: his composure.

Even in the midst of a major home renovation when the de Konings had 15-20 people in the house at all times working, Benson was unaffected. And when he was doing Zoom interviews with teams and had Dane shooting ping pong balls at him while he was talking to get his attention, Benson didn’t mind.

“Just seeing the attention and the time that these kids have to spend on their draft year and just seeing how calm Zach was, and never got flustered. It really was impressive because I don’t know too many people who would have that calm presence,” Travis said. “I think it’s a testament to how hard he works and how prepared he is, but also the fact that I think he’s very aware that he’s going to try to get better every day and do the little things and those little things are going to add up. I think he has faith in that process.”

The same unflinching demeanor has been apparent at Sabres camp as Benson has gone toe-to-toe with the likes of Sidney Crosby and other established NHL players.

"He has a lot of natural ability there that means pressure really won’t mount on him because he can read and react to plays. He knows when to pass to this guy and when not to pass to that guy. That’s a sense and a feel. When you have that, you don’t feel pressure," Sabres coach Don Granato said.

Benson sits alongside his billet brother Dane.

Benson sits alongside his billet brother Dane.

A dream come true

When Benson was drafted by the Sabres with the 13th-overall pick in the draft, the de Konings were happy to see Benson join Krebs in Buffalo. They recognized the close-knit community and colder climate as the perfect environment for Benson as well as his ability to now grow alongside a young team.

“It’s also a position where he’s going to be able to grow with the team, so it’s very exciting to see. But I think with him, what you’re going to find is the passion he has for the game is contagious, and it’s hard not to notice,” Travis said. “He loves it.”

After tallying seven points in six preseason contests in Buffalo, Benson officially made the team’s 23-man roster on Monday. Patrick was the first person Benson talked to after finding out he had made the roster. While it isn’t the usual scenario for an 18-year-old chosen with the 13th pick, Patrick wasn’t surprised to see his former player get the opportunity.

“I felt that he was a steal at No. 13. I knew when his name kept falling to the Sabres in the draft, I knew they got a kid who was better than where they picked him. I knew that he was going to open up some eyes,” Patrick said. “I am very proud of where he is right now.”

When the Sabres host the New York Rangers at KeyBank Center for their season opener, Krebs and Benson will be reunited with their billet family once again.

While the de Konings look forward to seeing both young men, they remain extremely excited to see Benson receive the opportunity to further show what he can do on the ice.

Benson takes a late night skate with Dane.

Benson takes a late night skate with Dane.

“I really just sum it up with he’s in love with the game of hockey. I think some people do it because they’re good at it, some people do it because their parents put them in it. I think with Zach, this is his real passion, and I think when you’re as passionate about the game as he is, he wants to do more,” Travis said.

“He wants to get better, and he spends the time to do it. It’s not a chore, it’s not a job for him. I think when you see him in warmups and he’s bouncing the puck off his stick and then he kicks it with his foot and does it off the top of his head, he’s having fun. This is fun for him. Don’t tell Kevyn Adams this, but I’m pretty sure that Zach would do this for free. This is his passion.”