Veteran amateur scout Elmer Benning ready to get back in game

Veteran amateur scout Elmer Benning ready to get back in game

The great amateur scout Elmer Benning, who has worked for the Montreal Canadiens for nearly 50 years, is just back from a clinic in Mexico, hoping to slow his prostate cancer, so won’t be at the NHL draft on June 22-23 in Dallas.

But he’s anxiously waiting to see what name his employer calls at No. 3.

Who are they taking?

“I didn’t ask, I don’t want to know. I might tell somebody,” laughed Benning.

His travel-weary Camry, which traversed snowy roads in Saskatchewan and Alberta, has been retired even if its owner hasn’t after, “a million, three thousand clicks.” He gave it to his mechanic for a dollar and then it was moved to a Toyota dealership on Calgary Trail where it sits proudly with a new paint job in a large indoor showroom.

“It had some rust spots but nothing was a disaster,” Benning said.

Son Brian gave him a nice Lexus to drive, but Benning also has a Chevy with 350,000 clicks on it, which might be his new travelling baby.

“But I don’t think I’ll get to a million with that one,” he said.

It was Elmer, 77, who quietly pushed for Carey Price in 2005, not that he’ll ever tell you that because blowing his horn has never been his thing. But he didn’t care that picking a goalie at No. 5 seemed a bit of a reach. And he was right, of course.

He also had a soft spot one year for a huge, raw kid named Dustin Byfuglien and when asked along with other Montreal scouts to go to bat for a long-shot in the later rounds, called out his name.

But, Chicago Blackhawks got Big Buff, instead, at No. 245 in 2003. Montreal had the 241st pick that year, taking Montreal Rocket fighter Jimmy Bonneau.

Benning has always had an abiding interest in the draft selection process more than most talent-evaluators, of course. Sons Jim and Brian were first and second-round picks in the 1980s, and grandson Matt a sixth-rounder six years ago.

And none went to Montreal. Like, where’s his pull?

Jim, the Vancouver Canucks general manager, went sixth to Toronto in 1981. Brian, who owns an Interstate Battery franchise, went 26th to St. Louis in 1984, just into the second-round. Matt, the Oilers defenceman, was the 175th name called in 2012 by Boston, out of Northeastern University.

“I never asked why my children or grandchildren didn’t get drafted by Montreal,” said Benning. “I didn’t go to the draft the year Jim was picked so didn’t sit in on their (scouts) meetings so didn’t know where he was rated. I don’t know if Montreal had a shot or not.”

Montreal were picking seventh that year and took winger Mark Hunter, the former Toronto Maple Leafs assistant general manager.

“Brian went in the second round and missed half of his (draft) season because he broke his scaphoid (bone). Montreal took a feisty forward who played in Edmonton for a while (Shayne Corson, No. 7 overall) with their first pick,” said Benning.

In Round 2, Montreal didn’t select until 29th and got Stephane Richer.

“I was involved when Matt was drafted and can’t or won’t say he should have been picked by Montreal,” Benning said. “I gave my opinion of Matt but it’s not in my personality to go up to (head scout) Trevor (Timmins) and say, ‘why aren’t you taking my grandson?’ Every team had lots of time to take Matt higher.

“In Matt’s case when he became a free agent, six teams really wanted to sign him.”

Benning didn’t scout last winter because of his illness and watched Oilers games on TV, but hopes to scout the junior rinks this year, God willing, with some new treatment and a diet, which cuts out all sugar, white flour and salt.

“A weakness of mine has been desserts and I’m not ashamed to say it,” he said. “I can’t go to Costco and have a hot-dog anymore … no more fat foods. But how can you go wrong for a buck fifty?”

His health has been an issue for some time.

“I went to this cancer clinic May 8 and I’m not going to jump up and down and say they cured me but I feel a lot better, I’m a bit stronger and I have some hope now,” said Benning, who had treatments twice a day in Tijuana and is going back with nurse-wife Liz in three months for 10 days to see how things are. “I’m trying to buy a little time.”

Everybody misses his face. He belongs in arenas across the West, watching kids.

“I’ve really missed the rinks but Montreal has been good to me and I’m still employed by them,” Benning said. “The way I’m feeling now I can go (to hockey games).”

E-mail: [email protected]

On Twitter: @NHLbyMatty

Nicklas Backstrom celebrates a Bryce Harper homer with the Stanley Cup

Nicklas Backstrom celebrates a Bryce Harper homer with the Stanley Cup

The Nats are playing the Giants in Washington today. As so often happens in a Nationals game, Bryce Harper hit a homer. A solo shot in the bottom of the fourth which extended the Nationals lead to two runs. It was quite a blast, too:

In attendance at the game: Nicklas Backstrom, centre and alternate captain of the NHL champion Washington Capitals. Backstrom happened to bring a friend with him to the ballgame: the Stanley Cup. When Harper hit the homer, Backstrom celebrated:

Bryce Harper's love affair with his Vegas Golden Knights – and hockey

Bryce Harper's love affair with his Vegas Golden Knights – and hockey


SportsPulse: USA TODAY Sports’ Bob Nightengale discusses the Nationals’ hot streak, if they can compete with the Yankees, and how much trouble the Dodgers are in. USA TODAY Sports

It’s a series with significant stakes, with a buildup leaving Nationals star Bryce Harper sleepless at night, swept by an adrenaline rush that sometimes keeps him up until 3 in the morning, his body exhausted, his mind racing.

The series is determining the right to supremacy, standing last after a grueling season, and a championship parade to unite the city.

Oh, you were thinking the Nationals-New York Yankees two-game series, the one being billed as a World Series preview?

Uh, sorry.

Harper has something a little bigger on his mind.

To Harper, the biggest game of the season is 2,086 miles away from Nationals Park, starting at 9 ET Wednesday night.

It’s the one where he’ll be wearing a gold, black and steel gray uniform,  perhaps a helmet perched on his head as he settles in front of his vast TV.

This is where he’ll be watching his beloved Vegas Golden Knights hockey team play Game 3 of their Stanley Cup Western Conference finals at T-Mobile Arena against the Winnipeg Jets, the best-of-seven series tied at 1-1, with Harper wondering how much more his heart can take it.

“I get more nervous watching them than anything I’ve ever done in my life,’’ Harper tells USA TODAY Sports, “even playing ball. I don’t get nervous watching my team or when I play at all. I really don’t.

“But when I’m watching them, I get so nervous. I’ll sit on the couch with my wife, going nuts.

“It’s unreal.’’

The Golden Knights, vying to become the first expansion team in a major sport to win a championship in its inaugural season, and already the first hockey team to reach the playoffs in its first year in nearly 40 years, are just three victories shy of going where nobody in their right mind believed they would reach.

Yes, the Stanley Cup Finals.

Forget the 1980 U.S. Olympic Team; maybe the Golden Knights are the unlikeliest miracle on ice.

No one gave them a prayer this season – an NHL-worst 500-to-1 longshot to win the Stanley Cup – except for this certain 25-year-old who happens to be one of the greatest baseball players in the world, and will soon become rich enough to buy his own casino.

“I’m really not surprised,’’ Harper says. “They’re a great team. There’s a lot of guys on that team that have chips on their shoulders because they got let go on other teams they were playing on.

“Look at us. We’ve got one of the best goalies of all-time in our net in (Marc-Andre) Fleury. He was the leader of that team that won three Stanley Cups in Pittsburgh. If we didn’t have a goalie on our team like that, it would definitely be tough. (Wild Bill) Karlsson is having one of the best years of his career. He has six goals in Columbus last year and now has 43 for us.

“We get (Jonathan) Marchessault from the Panthers, and look at the way he’s been playing. Reilly Smith. That whole front line has been unbelievable. Deryk Engelland and Schmidty (Nate Schmidt) coming from the Caps. James Neal, who was with Pittsburgh and Nashville.

“They’re all just such a great group of guys. Just a bunch of really cool dudes who are fast and quick and put the puck into the net. I could go on and on.’’

The Golden Knights have taken Las Vegas by storm, and, oh, can you tell who has caught hockey fever?

Harper and his wife, Kayla, don’t even have kids yet, but Harper already has chosen the sport he wants them to play.

“I’ve fallen in love with hockey,’’ Harper says. “When we have kids, I want them to play hockey. How awesome would that be? I can’t imagine being on the ice and playing such a cool sport.’’

Harper has become Barry Melrose without the colorful high-fashion outfits, soaking up as much hockey knowledge as he can these days. Do you know any other professional athlete who attended virtually every Golden Knights home game during the winter, wearing their jerseys at every opportunity, and occasionally wearing a helmet watching them on his living room couch?

 Do you know any other ballplayer who drops in on their practices, sends dozens of autographed bats with the Golden Knights logo to their locker room, drops the puck against the Washington Caps wearing an Alex Tuch jersey, and is already tentatively planning to see them if they’re playing in the Stanley Cup Finals on a May 24 off day?

 “It’s the first team I really had a passion rooting for,’’ says Harper, born and raised in Las Vegas, and, yes, blessed with the ability to ice skate. “Growing up, I didn’t really root for many teams. I always liked the Lakers. Liked Dallas in football.

“But those are all the winning teams. Even baseball, I’d get home and watch the Braves on Turner, or the Cubs on WGN, right after “Full House’’ and “Family Matters.’’

“But now, I can’t get enough of them. I watch them religiously. I love hockey.’’

Who’d ever have imagined that Las Vegas would become a hockey town, with every game sold out? Really, it’s the gateway to the gambling capital of the USA turning into a sports mecca. 

It already hosts about four conference basketball tournaments every March and within two years will welcome the Oakland Raiders and a $2 billion, retractable-roof stadium that will surely host Super Bowls, Final Fours and college football playoffs. 

Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred has not discouraged Vegas as an expansion possibility, while NBA Commissioner Adam Silver has largely driven the bus on pro leagues heavily regulating – and ultimately profiting from – legalized sports gambling long before the Supreme Court’s monumental ruling on Monday that enabled states to go worth with sports betting.

As the nation gets ready to tackle the gambling issue, it is Harper’s hometown that may enjoy the greatest makeover. 

“I remember everybody kept saying, “Hockey in the desert, how’s that going to work?’’ Harper said. “Well, it was 95 outside, 35 inside and one of the greatest atmospheres I’ve ever been to in my life.

“Just the perfect storm of them coming in, having a great team, a great front office, and an ownership that really embraced the city of Vegas. And we really did a great job showing up and supporting our team, keeping other fans from filling our arena.’’

Is there reason to believe the Raiders won’t generate the same passion?

“I don’t know,’’ Harper said. “Will they be the fans of the sport or fans of fantasy football?

“What really made this work was that it was an expansion team. It was our team. It wasn’t like someone just bought a team, and said, ‘OK, here’s your team, go support it.’ You want something that’s Vegas-born and the locals can grow with it.’’

Who knows, perhaps one day before Harper retires, long after he becomes the first player to receive a $400 million, or even $500 million contract, he’ll be able to play for his hometown team.

Manfred is not shy about his desire to expand to 32 teams one day, and in the decade it would likely take for that to become reality, Vegas may well be a fully mature market.

“For it to work, I think it has to be an expansion team,’’ Harper said. “Still, it would be tough in Las Vegas because we have a lot of Dodgers fans. A lot of Diamondbacks fans. Yankees fans. Chicago Cubs fans.

“I think having an expansion draft, and having a team grow up in Vegas, would definitely work. We’ll see, but for now, I just want all of the spotlight on the Knights.’’

The future of baseball in Las Vegas can wait, Harper says. There’s still five more months before the start of the World Series.

But for now, he says, there’s a Stanley Cup to win.

“I can’t wait,’’ Harper says. “Let’s do it.’’

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The Caps and Nats are rolling, and Barry Trotz and Dave Martinez can't stop texting each other

The Caps and Nats are rolling, and Barry Trotz and Dave Martinez can't stop texting each other

Dave Martinez conducted his postgame news conference on Friday in a Capitals hat and jersey. (Via MASN)

Mother’s Day weekend was already a success for the Capitals and Nationals before the teams took ice and field on opposite sides of the country for simultaneous prime-time games on Sunday night. The Capitals had stolen home-ice advantage in the Eastern Conference finals against the Lightning with a dominating win in Game 1 on Friday. The Nationals had discovered the wonders of the Chase Field bullpen cart, taken the first three games against a Diamondbacks team that hadn’t lost a series all season and celebrated their win on Saturday with a late-night trip to In-N-Out.

Then, in what could be becoming the new normal for D.C. sports, things got even better.

The Capitals scored the last five goals in a 6-2 blowout win at Tampa Bay, sending Lightning fans headed for the exits at Amalie Arena midway through the period and Washington back to D.C. with a commanding two-games-to-none series lead. With a goal and two assists, Lars Eller helped everyone forget about Nicklas Backstrom, who missed his third consecutive game with a hand injury. About a half-hour later, Sean Doolittle struck out David Peralta to complete the Nationals’ four-game sweep at Arizona, moving Washington a season-high six games over .500 and within 1.5 games of the division-leading Atlanta Braves. Mark Reynolds, called up to replace fellow U-Va. product Ryan Zimmerman after the first baseman was placed on the disabled list with a strained oblique, hit a pair of home runs in his Nationals debut.

With everything coming up D.C. sports, Capitals Coach Barry Trotz and Nationals Manager Dave Martinez may have spent the rest of the night sending each other smiley face emoji, GIFs of camels and rainbows, and videos of cute dogs. Or maybe Martinez, who has donned Capitals gear while meeting with reporters before and after games for the past few weeks, simply texted something to the effect of, “Keep it up.”

“We’ve been texting with each other since the start of the playoffs, just wishing both teams luck,” Trotz said Saturday. “He’s been a great supporter, and obviously we have a big fan base and a passionate fan base. Hopefully we can take this as far as we can. As I said to our fans and everybody there, we’re going to do our absolute best and take it as far as we can.”

Since he arrived in Washington, Trotz has talked about his desire to change the tendency of the city’s sports fans to expect the worst come the postseason.

“We need to have a positive attitude; not the old stuff,” Trotz said before the 2015 playoffs. “This is a new era for basketball and hockey, and the baseball team, and we’re getting the football team straightened away. And we’ll go from there. It’s going to be contagious. I’m telling you. It’ll affect all the sports. Because we’re looking to be one of those cities where all our sports teams are competing against each other, competing for championships, and that’s what we want to do.”

A year later, Trotz said he was rooting for the Nationals in the playoffs, but also suggested that the Cubs winning the World Series for the first time since 1908 could bode well for D.C.

“A hundred years, and they might win it this year,” Trotz said. “That might be the best thing; best for everybody that’s been in our situation. Because I would say the odds of us doing it are increasing every year, they’re not diminishing.”

The Cubs did win in 2016 with Martinez as their bench coach. Now the Nationals’ manager is cheering on the Capitals, whose odds have never been better. Martinez led the “Let’s Go Caps!” chant at Capital One Arena before the start of Game 1 of Washington’s second-round series against the Penguins. While Martinez regularly texts Trotz, MASN’s Dan Kolko reports the two have yet to meet face-to-face. Martinez is superstitious, Kolko tweeted, and “wants to let Trotz take care of business in the playoffs first.”

The Nationals, who have won 13 of 15, host the Yankees at Nationals Park on Tuesday and Wednesday. They have an off day on Thursday, which happens to be the same day as Game 4 of the Capitals-Lightning series at Capital One Arena. It’ll be something of an upset if Martinez and a group of Nationals players aren’t there rocking the red.

Read more on the Capitals:

Metro will stay open later for Caps-Lightning Game 3

The Lightning anticipated a better showing in Game 2. It got one from the Capitals.

Lars Eller steps out of injured Nicklas Backstrom’s shadow and into the spotlight

Lightning defenseman who copied Alex Ovechkin’s moves is now trying to stop him

These playoffs have given Caps all they handle. And they’ve handled it just fine.

Scott Stevens is just the leader the Rangers need

Scott Stevens is just the leader the Rangers need

If the Rangers are seeking a coach who can teach while re-establishing a no-nonsense culture and hard-edged identity on Broadway, then management should simply look across the river to where Scott Stevens lives.

The Devils logo that the Greatest 100 defenseman wore on his chest while winning those three Stanley Cups from 1995-2003 should not disqualify Stevens from consideration for the job. That stuff became inconsequential once quintessential Montreal defenseman Jacques Laperriere showed up behind the bench in Boston as an assistant in the late 1990s.

Bringing it closer to home, the reason Bryan Trottier failed in his short run on Broadway had nothing to do with his Islanders heritage and everything to do with his ill fit for the job. That would have been so in Colorado, Pittsburgh or on Long Island.

The future of the Rangers rests largely on the organization’s ability to identify and develop young defensemen. General manager Jeff Gorton and his personnel department are responsible for the first part of the equation. If Libor Hajek, Ryan Lindgren, Yegor Rykov, Neal Pionk and John Gilmour are the wrong guys, then the road back to contention will be a long and winding one. And that is the road merely to playoff contention.

If management has correctly identified these defensemen as prospects, then the responsibility falls on the coaching staff to teach and develop them, individually and within a team structure designed to suppress shots and chances. That applies to Brady Skjei and Tony DeAngelo as much as the previously cited blueliners.

Stevens, with experience as an assistant with the Devils and the Wild, is the ultimate teacher. Remember, he was taught himself by the best: Larry Robinson. But Stevens is also a student of the game. He is a stickler for detail. No one understands more about the importance of preparation and of work ethic. The man is the embodiment of winning hockey culture, an individual who commands the respect of any room he walks into, from the moment he walks into it.

Scott StevensAP

There is no slam-dunk hire here for the Rangers. The absence of an obvious alternative was a primary reason management did not move out Alain Vigneault in October. It is not 1978, when Fred Shero was there to be taken (at the cost of a first-rounder, by the way) or 1993, when Mike Keenan was an automatic.

Gorton is being open-minded here, willing to consider hiring a coach out of college — Denver’s Jim Montgomery is believed the most advanced candidate out of that subsection — even if there only have been four men ever to go from the NCAA to the NHL, with the Flyers’ Dave Hakstol the first to make the jump since Badger Bob Johnson went from Wisconsin to Calgary in 1982.

Stevens, who is brilliant breaking down the game in his role on the NHL Network, left the Wild last summer after one (very successful) season on Bruce Boudreau’s staff because he missed his family, which had remained in New Jersey. Maybe Stevens isn’t up for such an all-consuming job.

But Gorton should find out. The Rangers are looking for a leader. They are looking for a teacher. If they look across the Hudson, they will find both of them in one.

A year after going low on Alex Ovechkin in round one of the playoffs, the Maple Leafs’ Nazem Kadri went low on Rick Nash, right at No. 61’s knee, and somehow escaped without a penalty for the malicious deed in Game 1 in Boston on Thursday.

The Leafs center did not escape without punishment for his reckless run at Tommy Wingels later in the match, earning every minute of the three-game suspension he received for his leaping headshot. Not a good start for Toronto or for Kadri, but a very good start for George Parros and the NHL disciplinary committee.

Ilya KovalchukGetty Images

We will stipulate that Mike Babcock knows his team a little bit better than Slap Shots does, but the Toronto coach honestly thinks he has a better chance with Tomas Plekanec as fourth-line center rather than Dominic Moore?

It’s only one game in, of course, but here is a reminder that the Capitals, in the Alex Ovechkin Era, have lost seven series while holding home-ice advantage over the past 10 years. That includes three in the first round and four in the second round.

I overlooked it because it happened toward the end of what had been a miserable and traumatic season, but the Rangers, having just 17 able-bodied players on site and ready to go in New Jersey for Game 80 following a pregame mishap, symbolized the lack of attention and slippage in detail that marked too much of the year, and that must be corrected.

At this point, the Rangers need Ilya Kovalchuk more than Kovalchuk needs the Rangers. And certainly neither side can commit to the other until the Blueshirts have a coach in place.

Not that Kovalchuk, who comes off the voluntary retired list and thus becomes an unrestricted free agent as of his 35th birthday on Sunday, can’t afford to wait.

Michael Grabner’s largely unproductive stint with the Devils — two goals on 36 shots for a 5.6 shooting percentage in 21 games following his 52 goals on 293 shots for 17.7 in 135 games as a Ranger — probably will thin the field attempting to sign the Austrian Express as a free agent and thus make a Broadway encore a more feasible proposition.

Though it is safe to figure on Grabner doubling his current $1.65 million salary, the question is whether the Blueshirts would be willing to go three of four years for the winger, who will turn 31 during training camp.