By Mike Zhe
Last year, during his junior season at Curry College, forward Payden Benning scored the biggest goal of all, an overtime strike that lifted the Colonels over Wentworth in the ECAC Northeast championship game.
But his offseason? That was more about assists.
The two-time defending league champion Colonels got off to a 4-1 start behind players such as Benning, a first-team All-League selection a year ago. They’re a seasoned bunch, with just three seniors graduating last spring, and they’re getting strong play from a freshman goalie, Derek Mohney, who through late November had won all four of his starts.
They’ve also got “The Puck.”
“The Puck” is a tradition started by 12th-year head coach Rob Davies, as a way for teammates to get to know each other better off the ice. With players coming from 13 different states and provinces, there aren’t a whole lot of shared backgrounds.
Each season, Davies will distribute a questionnaire. This year’s included questions about family and off-ice interests, and biggest insecurity, and also pressed players to give an example of a situation they were in — or read about — that required teamwork.
A few hours before each game, in the team lounge at home games or at a hotel conference room when the team is on the road, Davies will pick a player’s questionnaire and read aloud his responses to the team. That night, the game effort will be dedicated to the player; when the game is over captains will retrieve the puck and it will be ultimately displayed in a slotted case in the locker room — above a full Colonel decorative piece if the game was a win, or just the head of the Colonel in the case of a loss.
The first three players to do “The Puck” this season were Steven Mohler, a senior forward from California; Brett Kaneshiro, a junior defenseman and another Californian; and Greg Fossa, a junior center and transfer from Plattsburgh State. Benning was chosen for the honor before a 4-2 win against Western New England late last month.
“You find out the deep reasons a kid’s here or what motivates him to play hockey,” Davies said. “We get a few laughs, but it also tells us the most meaningful experience in their lives. Afterward, everyone yells out and claps him on the back.”
The question about teamwork was formulated because Davies knew what Benning had been involved in back home over the summer, working with fellow residents and volunteers to contain the massive flooding that had ravaged southeast Saskatchewan.
Officials released water from the filled Rafferty and Boundary dams, enough, according to reports, to fill an Olympic-sized swimming pool every five seconds.
“It was amazing,” Benning said. “We have two dams in town and they were overfilling. They had to release a lot of water. The rivers were overflowing.”
Hundreds of communities in the region were affected, property damaged and residents displaced. Volunteers and residents worked non-stop to preserve what they could.
“That was his response (on the questionnaire),” Davies said, “how the community rallied together with the floods. There were all kinds of battles to save homes and businesses.”
The work on the flooding took Benning away from his normal offseason job — driving trucks for his family’s business.
His grandfather started the company, L&C Trucking, in the 1950s, and his father and two uncles run it now. Benning got his Class 1A license at age 18 and will haul pipes and other equipment to and from the oil fields across the southeastern part of the province.
“I can pretty much drive anything, from buses to whatever,” he said. “I make good money, but it’s also taught me about hard work and long hours.”
And his driving record?
“It’s clean,” he chuckled.
This year, the Colonels are trying to not just win the ECAC Northeast title for the third consecutive year but also make a little noise in the NCAAs, something they’ve yet to do.
Two years ago, they were ushered out with a 4-1 loss at Elmira. Last season, after Benning’s heroics beat Wentworth, their offensive was quiet in a 5-1 first-round loss at Norwich.
“We know we have to work toward (winning the league) again,” said Benning, the team captain, who at the end of November was three points shy of 100 for his career, with three goals and four assists in five games, “but our goal is to advance in the NCAA tournament and put our team on a national level, more than just the league.”
Winning the league likely will require going through Wentworth again, and maybe Johnson & Wales, both of which are off to solid starts with plenty of good players, respectively, back from last year’s winning teams.
The 6-foot, 180-pound Benning, a right-handed shot, was the proverbial late bloomer. He didn’t think seriously about college hockey — or even take the SATs — until after his 20-year-old year of junior hockey, when he put up 57 points in 53 games with his hometown Estevan Bruins of the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League.
Former Curry assistant Bob Roche (Quincy, Mass.) saw him play and enticed him to come visit the school. Benning, who will turn 24 later this month, liked what he saw, liked the proximity to Boston and has crafted a productive Division 3 career, with 45-45-90 scoring totals entering this season, and two trips to the NCAAs.
“He has all the qualities you’d want in a captain,” Davies said. “Honor roll student. He could have gone to a couple good hockey/academic institutions, but he chose Curry because of the size.”
For Benning, it’s turned out to be just another right answer.
This article originally appeared in the December 2011 issue of New England Hockey Journal. Mike Zhe can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.