Tuesday, March 30, 2021

Canucks GM Benning takes things Day By Day

I was once a Contributing Writer for Hockey magazine, which was published in Southport, Connecticut. It billed itself as “The Quality Hockey Magazine” for its collection of great writers. This brought me absolutely no notice in my own country, however, since it didn’t circulate in Canada. I had made the acquaintance of its Montreal correspondent, the late Keith Bellows, through a mutual friend there. He was soon named editor and asked me to cover the west. I wrote stories out of Calgary, Edmonton, Vancouver and L.A. My lone cover story was on Dave Taylor of the Kings, who leveraged it to negotiate a contract that was even richer than Wayne Gretzky’s then was. You can still buy a copy of that issue on eBay for $20. Hockey magazine went out of business in 1982, owing me $550.

Since he played in the WHL for the Portland Winterhawks, Bellows asked me in 1980 to write a profile on top draft prospect Dave Babych. I started by interviewing his brother Wayne, who played for the St. Louis Blues. I always remember him relating how his bear-like younger brother started shaving at age 10. I traveled to Victoria to see the young defenceman play and to arrange an interview. Unfortunately he was injured and couldn’t suit up for that game, but a very helpful Victoria Cougars PR person let us share a tiny scout’s box to watch the game. We were joined by my hockey-playing buddy Rolf Maurer, who had once worked with me at The Province and tagged along on my assignment because he was chasing some woman on the Island. We had a great talk with Babych which mostly focused on business aspects of the sport. These interested Rolf and I so much that his New Star Books published my Red Line, Blue Line, Bottom Line in 2004. Babych, however, was focused throughout the game on his stand-in, who was running the power play and penalty kill. I recall that the 16-year-old had a breakout performance as a result of the opportunity. Jim Benning would go on to score 139 points in 72 games the next season and be picked fifth overall by the Maple Leafs, for whom he scored 51 points in 1983-84. He even spent a few years playing for the Canucks while I was a season ticket holder in the late 1980s. His lack of size, however, held him back in what was then a very different NHL. If Benning had played under today’s rules, he would have lit up the league like Quinn Hughes is doing now. Instead the Canucks finally demoted him in 1990 to their minor-league team in Milwaukee and his career was effectively over.

Little did I know then that Benning would one day be charged with running the Canucks and finally delivering the Cup for which we long-suffering fans have thirsted. His drafting has undoubtedly been the team’s best ever, and the collection of young stars he has assembled is acknowledged by most to be its finest core yet. Canucks fans are notably impatient, however, and after enjoying top-10 draft choices from 2016-19, they want results now. The team’s surprising performance in last year’s post-season bubble only piqued their appetite, to mix metaphors badly. Getting to the Final Five only to lose in a heart-breaking seventh game was what I compare to a “false spring,” that 15-degree sunny day in February which provides a preview of warmer weather to come. This year, of course, the whole world has been turned upside down by a pandemic in which the team was unable to even play pre-season games, yet still fans and some nattering nabobs in the online media demand results now. They don’t understand that this team was not built to play in a speedy all-Canadian division but instead to compete against the heavier California teams and then win in the playoffs. They don’t realize that the Canucks had a record of .333 against Canadian teams last season, so they were surprised when the team opened the season at a similar pace. Slowly but surely the team has pulled itself back into the playoff race by briefly hitting .500 and it currently sits only two points back of fourth-place Montreal with 19 games to play. But still the naysayers howl that Montreal has games in hand and urge Benning to trade off his pending free agents. Luckily he knows much better how to run the team than do the nattering nabobs of negativity. A patient man, he will stay the course and we will all thank him in the end. Well, most of us, anyway. It seems that Benning has some downright haters.

Worst of all, they mock the slow-talking Albertan. Honest and genuine to a fault, he keeps handing them ammunition, like a recent comment about PowerPoint presentations and things jotted down on pieces of paper. The latest came when he gave his first press conference in a long time and responded to a question by saying that the team was about two years from contending for the Cup, which seems about right given the youth of his squad. The trolls had a field day with that one. But a more enduring meme has ensued from his mention that “we live day to day, like we’re in today’s world.” It seems a sensible strategy in a business with yearly timelines. You still have to be vigilant enough to jump on opportunities like Benning did recently, picking up Jimmy Vesey and Travis Boyd on waivers from talent-laden Toronto. The phrase has been hung around his neck like an albatross, however, by fans and media members who want him fired for poor performance.

But those who have been following the Canucks for the past 50 years well realize that, aside from a few overly-generous UFA signings, Benning’s performance has been outstanding. Taking things day to day can actually be a recipe for success, like the slow and steady tortoise that wins the race. It brings to mind a song of similar title by local band Doug and the . . . er, Slugs.

Day By Day

Bad news don't ruin my appetite
Don't let the papers tell me if it's wrong or right
I just do what I do and I do it
Day by day by day by day

Live a life, might take it slow
Made mistakes but oh that's the way it goes
I just know what I know and I know it
Day by day by day by day

Day by day I'm feeling stronger
Day by day I'm lasting longer
Day by day you help me make my way

I’ve got a great idea. Just like Blues fans did a couple of years ago with the song Gloria, true Canucks fans should make this their theme song. They can learn its lyrics by heart and sing it before, during, and after games in an effort to spur the team on and pay fealty to its visionary GM. It could even be the theme song for the Larschcast. I fully expect it to be playing at Rogers Arena soon.

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