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A Golden Experience

by Frank Seravalli / Dallas Stars

OTTAWA – In the hockey world, there wasn’t much that Stars prospect Jamie Benn had not yet discovered. He has endured the usual rites of passage at the major junior level: early morning bag skates, brutal weight room sessions, and interminable weekends on the bus.

As a fixture in the Western Hockey League for nearly two full seasons now, Benn thought that he had seen it all.

That was until this past week.

On Monday night, Benn helped Canada capture its fifth consecutive gold medal in the prestigious World Junior Championship. He just happened to do it in Ottawa, where a new tournament attendance record was set in front of a raucous hometown crowd. The tournament, which began on Boxing Day (Dec. 26), is a wildly popular tradition north of the border.

Oh, yeah, it also happened to be Benn’s first crack at international competition while representing “hockey country.”

The tournament was such a whirlwind for Benn that he could barely put Monday’s 5-1 championship victory over Sweden into perspective in a coherent manner.

“I am pretty speechless, to be totally honest,” Benn said. “I don’t think that there is a feeling like winning the gold medal in this tournament.”

It has just been that type of “speechless” season for the Victoria, B.C. native. His early season play with the Kelowna Rockets helped earn his way onto his country’s squad. It is rare to have a fifth round pick suit up for Canada; the team is usually comprised of lottery selections or high end prospects.

His showing in the elite tournament is proof of the late blooming of a prospect with an extremely bright future. While his 65-point rookie season in Kelowna was impressive, the 6-foot-2 forward has followed that up with a brilliant sophomore campaign.

Prior to the tournament, Benn had already racked up 45 points in just half the amount of games as the season before. Though he has missed games due to the tournament and Team Canada’s training camp, Benn still sits at 18th on the WHL’s scoring leaders list.

Benn’s game in the WHL can only be aided by 10 days worth of games and countless practices with the best competition in the world.

“Absolutely, this is the best group of guys that I have ever played with,” Benn said. “The players here are not just the all-stars from one league; they are the best players from the country. These are the best players in the world.

“It is really competitive. There is nothing like representing your country. I like representing my club team too, but playing for your country is a big step.”

Aside from the step up in competition, playing in a tournament of such magnitude on home soil brought with it intense mental perils. At different points during the tournament, the press corps following Canada rivaled the NHL contingency in Toronto or Montreal.

“I have learned a lot from what we went through in this tournament,” Benn said. “With all of the media coverage and how big the tournament is here, we have fought through a lot of adversity. All we have heard is that we aren’t the best Canadian team in a while. We have really fought through a lot to win this, it is an unbelievable feeling.”

While the media circus may have been a tad nerve racking for Benn, an impressive tournament in the spotlight made him a household name across the country if he wasn’t already.

Benn netted four goals in just six games for Canada and he also posted two assists. Humble in nature, Benn was quick to deflect praise about his performance.

“I just tried to go out there and play hard every night,” Benn said. “I tried to do the most that I could with the time that I got, and I tried to not do too much.”

It was fitting though that Benn’s first experience as a member of Team Canada came in Ottawa. Nowhere else is the World Juniors such a spectacle and tradition. More than 20,380 rabidly red fans packed the ScotiaBank Place to the gills every night.

“It was unbelievable playing in Ottawa,” Benn said. “You know that millions of people are watching you around the country. We have had a full rink every night and we have had the support of the entire country.

“You really couldn’t ask for anything more than that.”

For Benn, the skating, workouts, and bus rides all paid off.

“It is night’s like [Monday] that make all of the hard work worth it.”

Now, Benn hopes that extra time at the rink will equate to something a little loftier: a trip to Dallas.

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