April 02, 2016

Brian Benning

The Benning family of Edmonton, Alberta featured no fewer than four excellent defensemen in the household.

But the only thing more important was education.

Oldest brother Jim put up incredible numbers in the Western Hockey League, was a top NHL draft pick and played more than 600 games with Toronto and Vancouver. He was too good not to give the NHL dream everything he had. The decision paid off wel.

Middle brother Mark was a little too small to play in the NHL, but he did play at Harvard, transferring from the University of Notre Dame. He studied Economics and Psychology. It was a similar story for Craig, the youngest of the lot. He played at St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, Nova Scotia.

But for Brian Benning, the choice was not so obvious. He had the skill and ability to play in the WHL like his brother, and maybe parlay that into a NHL career. But came at the expense of his own educational opportunities.

Ultimately Brian chose to pack his bags and endure the endless bus trips the Western Hockey League has to offer. He played in Portland and Kamloops, earning the 26th overall draft selection spot and joining the St. Louis Blues.

Brian Benning was not as prolific as his brother Jim offensively. He was a strong skater and smart with the puck, making him a natural to play on the power play.  He was a strong outlet passer from his own zone. Offensively he had a strong shot from the point and would occasionally sneak down the to the back side faceoff circle for a cross ice one-timer.

But he was more physical than Jim, allowing him to be arguably a better defensive player. Yet he was not large by any means and could get outmuscled at times, limiting his effectiveness. But he was certainly competitive and never backed down. He would surprise people with an unsuspecting mean streak.

The gamble on the Western Hockey League over schooling would end up paying off for Brian, as he played in 568 career NHL games himself.

Not that it was ever a sure thing.

In fact, Benning lost most of the 1984-85 season with a broken leg. But he was able to recover and become a solid blueliner with the Blues, Kings, Flyers, Oilers and Panthers.

Despite a strong start of his career in St. Louis Benning fell into the coach's doghouse in the 1989-90 season and was moved to Los Angeles. In California Benning was, for a short period of time, an effective replacement for the departed Steve Duchesne. Benning and the great Rob Blake formed an nice pairing.

Brian prepared for life after hockey while still playing. He created an excavation company in Edmonton which he continued to run in retirement. He also was active as a youth coach in the area. One of his pupils was son Matt, who went on to play at Northeastern University.

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