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Former Flames have fond memories of Panthers’ Sam Bennett: ‘A warrior’


Sam Bennett has come a long way from not being able to do a chin-up.

A decade after making headlines at the NHL Draft Combine, the 27-year-old has flexed his way into the NHL’s spotlight with a pair of rugged plays that have turned Florida’s series with Boston on a dime.

First came the rabbit punch that knocked Bruins captain Brad Marchand out of action, then came the crease-front cross-check that led to his crucial goal in the Panthers’ latest win.

The fact that he got away with both controversial plays has plenty to do with the fact his Panthers are on the verge of delivering a knockout blow to a Boston club that is getting out-Bruined by the man they call Benny.

Casual observers may see Bennett as a revelation, but those who watched him enter the league as a skinny teenager would like to remind everyone he’s long spent his springs terrorizing top talents.

“The real story behind the chin-up controversy was he had a torn shoulder that needed surgery, so once he got that done he rehabbed and joined us for the start of the (2014-15) playoffs as a scrawny kid who wasn’t scared of anything,” said former Flames coach Bob Hartley, who coached Bennett his first two seasons in the NHL. 

“We played Vancouver and then Anaheim and you remember how big the Ducks were back then? He was an 18-year-old who was lacking experience, but not lacking desire, and you could count on him to take runs at the Sedins, or at (Ryan) Getzlaf.

“It was just part of his job, and he enjoyed it. He was a stud.

“To get the other team pissed off at him doesn’t rattle him, it makes him better.

“I’m not surprised at all he’s having this sort of impact. We saw it then. I always knew he would be a good player.”

Despite having just one NHL game of experience before those playoffs, the kid who was picked fourth overall finished with three goals, four points and the admiration of teammates who saw how selfless, dedicated and borderline reckless he was when the games mattered most.

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“I was a healthy scratch against the Canucks his first playoff and was in the dressing room when he came off after taking a hit that had him in a lot of pain,” recalled Mason Raymond.

“In my mind I was going in the next game because he couldn’t move and it sounded like someone broke his leg. Turns out he got his rib popped back and was good to go.

“He played the next game. I just remember thinking, ‘this rookie is hurt badly’, but the fact he was so determined to get back in and help the team was enormous. He’s a warrior.”

And one hell of an irritant, whose toolbox includes the ability to mix a brilliant blend of offence with his offensiveness.

After teasing fans by scoring 18 goals in his first full season with the Flames, the native of Holland Landing, Ont. never scored more than 13 in any of his next five years, frustrating fans and coaches who lost sleep trying to figure out how to tap into Playoff Sam Bennett as he became known each spring.

“The regular season he wasn’t consistent, but in the playoffs he was willing to go above and beyond to make it happen,” said Martin Gelinas, a Flames assistant coach throughout Bennett’s seven-year stint in Cowtown.

“Funny how some players elevate their play either by getting points or with their physicality and he was able to do both in the playoffs.

“I just remember how competitive he was at such a young age. Sam is not a big, big body (now six-foot-one, 195 pounds), but he played a big game, and he embraced that physicality. He loves the battle and the one-on-one. What I remember most was how relentless he was to do it shift after shift.”

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Panthers fans have seen much more of that since the 2021 trade deadline when the Flames fulfilled his relocation request, breathing new life into a career that clearly needed a fresh start.

Combining for 34 goals and 30 assists in his first 81 regular-season games with the Panthers, he’s still managed to ramp things up in the playoffs,

Last year he was an integral part of the Panthers’ run to the Stanley Cup Final, with five goals, 15 points and 60 penalty minutes in 20 games, averaging almost 21 minutes of ice time a night.

In the two games back since his injury, he’s notched two big points and made 11 hits, including a doozy on David Pastrnak, and the collision with Marchand preceded by a sly punch to the face he insists was part of bracing for impact.   

“I’d say it was intentional – a suspendable offence,” said Kris Versteeg, who played on a line with Bennett in Calgary in 2016-17 during the playoffs 

“I wouldn’t say he meant to get him on the button, but he was following through.

“I’m not on board for something that results in a concussion, but I am on board for getting into the battle and that’s what he does, and has to live with the repercussions.”

That’s not to suggest Versteeg isn’t a fan.

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“What makes him good is playing on that edge and on that line,” said Versteeg.

“It’s not shocking how successful he’s been in the playoffs.  

“Knowing Benny, and understanding him for two years, in the regular season he was trying to do too much. He was young and trying to live up to the hype. He was still trying to play junior hockey, not pro hockey.

“In the playoffs it’s simplifying his ice, moving the puck and battling, the type of hockey he knows how to play.

“Seeing how much trouble he likes to cause on the ice and be in the mix, he’s a very valuable asset when he buys in, as he’s done in Florida.

“Some guys can flip the switch and he can ramp up that intensity.”

The Bruins, and the rest of the hockey world, are witnessing that once again.  

“Once in the playoffs it comes down to character and I think that’s one of his biggest assets,” said Hartley.

“He has that pitbull mentality.

“Benny doesn’t choose which part of the game he wants to play, he’s going to play every part.

“There’s not a big enough stage to scare Benny.”

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