This story appeared in the Minnesota edition of the Jan./Feb. ESPN RISE Magazine.
Joey Benik has spent much of the last four years terrorizing opposing goaltenders. His 120 career goals entering this season are evidence enough. But there is one Minnesota goalie who has had quite a bit of success stopping the St. Francis senior center.
It's his twin brother, Andy.
In fairness to Joey, Andy has had more practice than anyone else. "He used to shoot on me in the garage for hours when we were kids," Andy says. "I know all of his moves now. I know which way he's going to go. I move one way and I can get him to shoot at my glove. I know how to kind of trick him."
Don't expect Andy to give up these secrets. He's the starting goalie for St. Francis, and he likes it when his brother is torching opposing netminders. Joey, a St. Cloud State recruit, set a state record for regular season goals last year with 63. Including the playoffs, he put 65 pucks into the net and added 37 assists for a total of 102 points.
If those sorts of numbers make Andy feel better in goal, imagine how they make St. Francis head coach Tony Hoops feel. "The impact he's had on our program is huge," Hoops says of Joey.
But playing again was not going to be easy, and there were hurdles Johnson would have to clear before football even became a consideration.
There were a lot of options. I wanted to leave and then I wanted to stay. I couldn't really decide.
-- Joey Benik
Hoops is merely glad his star scorer is back at all. Many elite boys' hockey players leave their high schools for prep schools or junior hockey, often at the request of their eventual collegiate programs. Hoops figured Joey leaving was a foregone conclusion. "If I had a dime for every time someone told me he was going to play juniors, I'd be rich," the coach says.
Benik weighed the pros and cons of such a decision for months. In the end, he decided another season with his high school teammates was incentive enough to stay put for one more year.
"There were a lot of options," Benik says. "I wanted to leave and then I wanted to stay. I couldn't really decide."
Ultimately, Benik decided to stick around one more year to play with a local junior league team in the fall, then join the high school team, then play golf for St. Francis in the spring.
"I figured it had worked out pretty well my junior year," he says.
Had it ever. Benik's junior season went about as well as any player could have hoped. He started by scoring five goals and adding three assists in a win over Monticello/Annandale/Maple Lake. One game later, he had a two-goal, two-assist performance against Robbinsdale Cooper. By the end of last December, Benik had already recorded 33 goals and 21 assists in just 12 games.
The state record for goals in a season was 62, set by former Little Falls forward and current St. Cloud State sophomore Jared Festler in 2006-07. (The record does not include the postseason; that year, Festler added nine goals in the playoffs to finish with 71.)
Benik wasn't even paying attention to his stats until one of his teammates pointed out his pace. "Somebody told me there was a story about it on the Internet," he says. "I read the article and thought, 'This is pretty cool,' but I didn't let it bug me or affect my play."
But for coach Hoops and the Fighting Saints, the pressure of chasing the scoring record was apparent, even if Benik was doing an awfully good job of blocking out the distractions.
"It took a mental toll on the entire team," Hoops says. "It got to be overwhelming. People were filming him getting dressed. People couldn't find parking spots (at the rink). There were whole arenas full of people every night."
Benik says he worried about the record only once — right after the record-tying tally against Benilde-St. Margaret's.
"I started thinking, 'They are going to be focusing on me more and making it tough for me,'" he says.
It didn't help that, with only two games remaining, people were already congratulating him. Hoops tried to give him the record-tying puck and Benik declined. Former Minnesota Wild and current New York Rangers star Marian Gaborik called him after the game. Benik was starting to feel like there was unfinished business.
Fortunately, one game later, the record was his. Benik broke the mark against Robbinsdale Cooper in the second-to-last contest of the year. The game was stopped as Benik was presented with the puck at center ice with Andy at his side. This time he accepted the keepsake.
But the feeling of unfinished business never went away. St. Francis fell in the first round of the sectional playoffs to Princeton/Milaca despite Benik's two goals and one assist. The Saints had beaten their opponent easily in the regular season, making the loss especially tough to swallow. Benik hated the dream season ending so abruptly. "I think we were overconfident," he says.
Golf season helped him leave his frustrations behind for a while. He works at an area course, Hidden Haven Golf Club, and when he wasn't working, he was playing. At the course's junior club championship in August, Benik shot his best round ever, an even-par 71, to claim the title.
While golf is a passion for Benik, nothing comes remotely close to hockey. Some of his favorite memories are of going to Minnesota Wild games — although he says he's never seen the team win in person. "I'm kind of bad luck, I guess," he says. And last year he wrote an English paper about the history of the Detroit Red Wings.
His dream is to play in the NHL. It could happen sooner than later — the NHL Central Scouting Bureau, which lists potential selections for this year's draft, has Benik as a Player to Watch. Still, Benik says he's not in a rush. He's looking forward to a season or two of junior hockey, then heading to St. Cloud State before the pros come calling.
Opposing goalies should start asking Andy now for his best tricks. They're going to need all the help they can get.