A look around campus at the promo materials for the men’s hockey team reveals the athletic figures of two skate-clad forwards plastered on the walls. Ryan Benn torques his stick to shoot on goal and Shawn Proulx lugs the puck through the neutral zone after forcing a turnover. They’re the face of the MacEwan Griffins, and they’re breaking records to show it.
When Proulx graduates from MacEwan this year, he’ll leave his name behind in the record books. And when Ryan Benn returns to school in September, he’ll be working to beat Proulx’s milestone while extending his lead on a record of his own.
Both men boast an extended tenure with the MacEwan Griffins hockey team. St. Albert-born Benn, 25, assumed the Griffins captaincy this season in his fourth year with the team. Edmonton-born, Grande Cache Alta. native Proulx, 26, wears an “A” for the club, as he has for four seasons of his five-year career.
Their head coach, Bram Stephen, signed on to the Griffins around the same time, and grew along with them and the rest of the team. Now, the Griffins are reaching like never before for a post-season championship. But Benn and Proulx’s journey to become Griffins record-setters was far from straightforward.
Shawn Proulx grows alongside his coach, Bram Stephen
Proulx and Stephen go way back. Like several current Griffins and alumni, Proulx played under Stephen for a few years before joining MacEwan. After this spring, the pair will have worked together for seven seasons, including five straight at MacEwan.
“It’s more of a partnership, I think, after a certain amount of time,” Stephen says. “You stop looking at it as a coach and player relationship.”
They’ve both watched each other grow over that time, thanks to the family-like bond they share. Stephen’s first season as a the Griffins coach was also Proulx’s rookie outing.
“(Proulx) used to be a very energetic, very rebellious person,” Stephen says of the two seasons he served as assistant coach for Proulx with the Drayton Valley Thunder. “On the ice, he was a feisty player, (an) aggressive player who fought a fair bit.”
With 0.2 points per game and 342 penalty minutes posted in his junior career, Proulx’s primary contribution to his teams was one of character.
“I scored 11 goals in 171 games,” Proulx says. “I was not a not a goal scorer. I was a fighter.”
When Proulx reunited with his old coach at MacEwan, he noticed the change in Stephen right away.
“I could just see how much more confident he was in the dressing room talking to the guys, how much more intelligent he was when it came to the game,” Proulx says.
In his first Griffins season, Proulx’s teammates needed any offence they could get. One assistant coach even told the brazen forward to tunnel vision on the net on every rush.
“I was told not to pass the puck, so I listened,” Proulx says. “I wasn’t looking to pass. I was looking to shoot and score goals.”
Proulx’s role evolved as the team’s skill with the puck increased each season, and then he realized some of the bad habits he’d gotten into.
“I could have made that, you know, backdoor pass with his guy wide open, but here I’m trying to shoot the puck … and it doesn’t go in,” Proulx says. “You kind of look stupid when you’re watching video of something you could’ve done right, and you’re doing something completely wrong.”
But watch he did, and bit by bit, he matured into the shutdown, two-way centreman that the Griffins rely on every night.
“It doesn’t happen over a short period of time,” Stephen says. “It sort of evolves slowly, and you don’t really notice the change until the player is suddenly just different when you look.”
One year after Proulx joined the squad in 2012, Benn walked onto the ice at a Griffins tryout, and four years later, he’s captain to one of the most competitive squads the Griffins have put on the ice in years. His path to the tryout and eventual captaincy was a winding one.
Ryan Benn was a Junior A healthy scratch, but he knew he could play
Benn’s parents threw him on the ice when he was 18 months old. By the time he was five, he got his first feel for hockey, one touch at a time.
“I was terrible,” Benn says. “I was the worst kid. I touched the puck maybe once per time I got to play a game.”
But he steadily improved, and when Benn graduated from high school, he made the unusual jump from Midget AA to Saskatchewan Junior A hockey, one step below the WHL. He played parts of two seasons with the Kindersley Klippers of the SJHL in hopes of maybe playing his way into a NCAA scholarship, but his coach at the time, Rockie Zinger, had other ideas.
“I wasn’t playing the minutes,” Benn says. “I knew that wasn’t going to happen … I went and talked to the coach, and he didn’t see me as anything more than a fourth line, sometimes play, sometimes just scratched, player. So I said, ‘I think I’m better than that.’”
Benn had hometown friends playing with a championship-contending Junior B team back in Alberta, and they were nagging him to come home to play.
“They were chipping away at me,” Benn says. “They kept on me, like kinda joking and kinda serious, and it just wore on me, and then when I fell down the depth chart (with the Klippers) even further, I said ‘‘Kay, I wanna go home and win a championship with these guys.’”
He led the Spruce Grove Regals in scoring, and then to a CJHL title in spring 2012. The more subdued schedule of Junior B wasn’t doing it for him, so after he won the championship, he came to MacEwan.
“I wanted serious hockey again,” Benn says. “Then the huge opportunity that I got right off the bat to play on the first line — I was not expecting that at all.”
He aced his rookie ACAC season with an explosive, team-leading 37-point debut. He played all 32 games that year and hit a scoring mark that hasn’t been hit since Brad McTavish took second in overall league scoring for the Griffins in the 2002-03 season. It was a career year for Benn that saw him claim fourth on the league points chart.
“The opportunity was more than any coach had ever given me, which just felt good.”
Benn matures into a captain
Benn took that opportunity and ran with it. When he came to MacEwan, he came to play hockey first and study second, and while he’s balanced his priorities more towards school as he’s matured, he says he still puts everything he has into both. Stephen took notice.
“Ryan’s commitment level and dedication, and his heart towards his teammates, is second to none,” Stephen says. “You don’t find anyone who’s as passionate and just as heartfelt as he is towards the program, or towards his own play.” So Benn donned the “C” in fall 2016.
“I know what it takes to wear it, and I take it very seriously,” Benn says of his captaincy.
Several of Benn’s Griffins teammates wore captain’s letters at the Junior A level that spurned him as a 19-year-old, but Stephen says none of that matters due to the way Benn carries himself.
“It doesn’t take long before guys realize that he’s the real deal in the dressing room and as a player, and as a person,” Stephen says.
Proulx almost quit, but now he’s extending the Griffins’ games-played record
Proulx took big strides in his mental approach to hockey, too. He had hit a low point in his second year of Junior A with the Thunder, when he wasn’t developing as fast as he wanted.
“I was going to quit hockey,” Proulx says. “I wasn’t really enjoying myself anymore.” Then, a long talk with his coach Fran Gow gave him a new perspective on the game.
“You just can’t expect to rise that fast,” Proulx says. “That’s something I was a little impatient about. I had to learn it takes time and it takes work. It gave me another realization of what it’s like, and it gave me more love back to the game.”
A couple years later, Proulx found himself in the thick of an ECHL tryout for the Colorado Eagles. He didn’t make the cut, but playing against semi-professional players really opened his eyes to the importance of proper off-ice training, so he hit the gym.
“When I came back, I actually put on 13 pounds of muscle. I changed the way I trained. That’s when I really started to study the game, and learn, like, what do they do to get better? What do they do to get faster?” He couldn’t afford his own trainer, so he googled the NHL’s best and emulated them meticulously.
“I would actually study YouTube videos, like, slow-play to see what they’re doing, see how their body is positioned and make sure I’m doing the right thing,” Proulx says.
Now, after staying fit and competing hard for five straight seasons, Proulx holds the games-played record for the Griffins, and he’s edging it higher and higher. For now, it sits at 139.
“I try to keep my body in great shape and be healthy, and do whatever I can to be on the team and make the lineup,” Proulx says. “I never take that for granted.”
Benn and Proulx both vying for 100 points
While Proulx continues to push his games-played record further ahead, he’s also one of the first Griffins in the program’s history to have a realistic shot at reaching the 100-career-points point mark.
Proulx was incubating 97 points heading into a road game against the Red Deer College Kings on Feb. 3. He’d open the game’s scoring in the first period by burying a cross-crease feed from his third-year line mate, Nolan Yaremchuk. At the end of the game en route to a 6-3 victory, Proulx gave the puck the other way to Yaremchuk to assist an empty-net goal for his 99th point.
The other Griffin chasing 100 points? It was Benn, nursing 99 career points as he faced off against Red Deer the same night. And in the second period, he beat Proulx to the punch. With 6:22 left on the clock, Benn won a faceoff to the right of Kings goaltender Mike Salmon on a five-on-four powerplay. After the Griffins started a cycle along the wall, Benn kicked out to the high slot, tracked a pass from Yaremchuk, and then dropped to one knee to blast a shot through Salmon for his 100th career point, a Griffins hockey record. After potting two more goals the next night, helping the Griffins beat the Kings 5-1 at home, he now sits at 102 points.
With one more season of ACAC eligibility left to Benn’s name, Proulx wasn’t all that worried about the scoring race, though.
“It doesn’t even matter if I beat him by one point this year,” Proulx says with a laugh. “He’s going to put up another 30-something next year and I’m not even going to be close to him.” So instead, he focusses on the defensive things he can do to help the Griffins win each game in convincing fashion.
“Don’t get scored on,” Proulx says. “There’s no point scoring two goals when you get two goals scored on you, ‘cause in the end, your plus minus rank is zero, so you’re not helping the team.”
For Benn’s part, he’s proven himself an eminent scoring threat, even though a string of bad luck slowed his scoring pace this year compared to previous seasons.
“You don’t have to be a point producer,” Benn says. “But I think it does help when your leader is a guy that you can look to for offence in big moments.”
Playoff competition and outlook
And what bigger moment than the post-season dance? Both players are more focussed on winning games to earn a round-one playoff bye than on hitting any other milestones, but their coach knows the kind of asset Benn can be when he’s on his game. He scored five goals in three playoff appearances last year, an impressive performance he’s looking to match again this season.
“We can be a pretty dangerous team down the road here if he can find that puck luck,” Stephen says. And the Griffins’ opposition knows it, too.
This season, Trace Elson leads the ACAC and MacEwan’s 109 St. rivals, the NAIT Ooks, with 40 points in 23 games played. His team knows who to mark when they play the Griffs, and they held Benn to 99 points and scoreless when the Ooks took back-to-back victories against the Griffins on Jan. 20 and 21.
“We have some guys that we watch for on Grant Mac,” Elson says. “I know Benn is one of the leading scorers for their team, so we play a little tighter on him, knowing that whenever he has the puck … he takes the shot, because he’s got a good shot.”
Benn leads the way, but the rest of his team is following, too. The Griffins have beat every team in the league at least once this season, and they’re priming for a serious playoff push. They all want a championship, bad.
“We have the team to do it, and all the teams in the league know that we’re definitely contenders,” Proulx says. “If there’s a chance to win a championship, definitely this is the year for it.”
“Playoffs is a whole different animal,” Benn says, eagerly. “Playoff hockey is really the reason why I play …. We a have a legitimate chance to win the league. It’s a much different feeling, just to know that if we play our best game, there’s no reason why we won’t win.”
Photography by Kevin Pennyfeather.