SOCHI, Russia – It was late August at the Olympic orientation camp in Calgary, more than five months from the official start of the Sochi Olympics, and Canadian head coach Mike Babcock delivered a message for those players not invited to take part.
“Do something about it,” Babcock said defiantly. “The great thing about life is you get to control what happens to you the majority of the time. Do something about it if you're not here.”
Jamie Benn was not among the 25 forwards selected to participate in that late summer camp, but it was the 24-year-old from Victoria B.C. who managed to emerge in Canada's tournament-opening win over Norway.
Though he played just under nine minutes in his first Olympic game – a team-low – Benn turned in the eventual game-winner and made himself a noticeable presence alongside John Tavares and Patrice Bergeron on an energetic Canadian fourth line.
He beat out 12 of the aforementioned forwards for the opportunity in Sochi, including the impressive likes of Claude Giroux, James Neal, and Eric Staal.
“It was just motivation,” Benn said of not being selected to the orientation camp, which saw 47 players gather in Alberta for a brief three-day meet-and-greet. “Obviously Canada can put some pretty good teams together and every guy that went to the orientation camp deserved to be there. It just gave me a little bit more motivation coming into this year.”
The first-year captain of the Dallas Stars, Benn totaled 22 goals and 51 points in the first half, his tantalizing combination of size, speed, grit and skill too appealing for Steve Yzerman and the Hockey Canada brass to pass up.
“I just went out there in the first half and focused on the Dallas Stars and what I had to do to win hockey games over there,” said Benn, a fifth round steal in the 2007 draft.
“I didn't change anything. I didn't try to impress.”
Upon arrival in Sochi, Babcock stressed that opportunity and ice-time would be earned amongst his 14 forwards. And though Benn didn't play a lot against Norway he did more than enough to get noticed, most notably in a dominant second frame of Canada's 3-1 win.
It was Benn who drew a penalty in the offensive zone just moments before Shea Weber scored the first Canadian goal, a blast that eased some tension from a jittery first frame. And then it was Benn just a few minutes later – he was nearly rocked by Ole-Kristian Tollefsen moments earlier – making no mistake on a terrific cross-ice feed from the intuitive Bergeron.
“Benn can skate and he's hard, shoots the puck,” said Babcock, who raved about Benn, Bergeron, Tavares and Martin St. Louis, the bottom group of Canadian forwards on this night.
“It was a key for us to win our shift each and every time we went out there,” Benn said. “It's taking a hit or getting a hit to get in it and I think that's what happened in the second there.”
One of eight Canadians making their debut on the Olympic stage on Thursday, Benn said whatever nerves may have been there in the furious buildup to a hard-fought match against the Norwegians disappeared quickly. And by night's end there was sweet redemption for a player who fought his way onto the team.
“It's great to be a part of, represent your country,” he said. “It was exciting to get it going today.”