Quinn Benjafield was rounding the bend and the finish line was in sight.
He could see the light at the end of the tunnel.
His 300th WHL regular season game was in his cross-hairs, then everything came to a screeching halt.
The then-20-year-old native of North Vancouver, BC was dressed in his 295th career contest on December 12 as the Edmonton Oil Kings took on the Prince Albert Raiders. Near the midway point of the game he and Raiders defenceman Zack Hayes ended up toe-to-toe in what was a highly contentious battle, at the time with the Oil Kings holding a 3-2 lead.
But Benjafield wouldn’t return to the ice after the fight that day. In fact, it was weeks before he was back in game action as the veteran winger suffered a separated shoulder and was relegated to the sidelines.
Just five games from his benchmark 300th, Benjafield became a little anxious – and restless – as the days and weeks continued to pass him by.
“Separating my shoulder was pretty hard on me and how long I was out for,” Benjafield said. “I knew I was only five (games) away, and every game that I couldn’t dress – and couldn’t help the team win – was pretty brutal.”
With remaining games already at a premium in, this, his final WHL season, he was chomping at the bit with even more ferocity to once again play the game he loves. After 13 games missed accompanied by rest, rehab and determination, he was finally cleared to return to the lineup on January 25, 2019.
Fast-forward five games later to a cold, Saturday night in Saskatoon, and Benjafield finally hit the mark.
“It is definitely a huge accomplishment in my mind,” said Benjafield. “The meaning of it is pretty awesome. There are guys who would love to just make it to this League, but can’t break through. The guys who do, not many of them hit that mark because of injuries or whatnot.
“The fact that I made it (to 300 games), even with the setback with my shoulder, really does mean a lot to me.”
Ironically, the injury may have delayed the gratification of the impressive accomplishment for Benjafield, but it also allowed the memory to be that much more special.
Game number 300 took place on February 2 – which was also his 21st birthday.
“It was crazy the way it ended up working out,” he chuckled. “It was just a crazy day and so much fun. I got a lot of love from the guys, from my family and from my billet family, so it made an already awesome day even that much more special.”
To understand Benjafield’s journey to 300, we need to go back to the beginning to game number one; to Kamloops, BC.
His first regular season game took place on January 29, 2014 when the Blazers travelled to Vancouver to take on the Giants.
It was the only game during the 2013-14 season in which the 15-year-old would take part. He was a mainstay during the 2014-15 campaign, having played in 53 games during his real rookie season.
“My time in Kamloops was pretty awesome,” Benjafield recalled. “I met so many lifelong friends when I was 16, especially guys like Jake Kryski, Matt Revel and Nick Chyzowski. We became really close off the ice and we created so many memories there.”
Following that 16-year-old rookie season he more than doubled his goal output as a 17-year-old (five in 2014-15; 11 in 2015-16), and after finishing the season with a 38-25-5-4 record – good for 4th place in the Western Conference standings – Benjafield and his Blazers teammates were in for a first round match-up with the Kelowna Rockets in the 2016 WHL playoffs.
It was the first taste of major junior postseason play for Benjafield. But it also predicated what would become one of his most haunting hockey memories.
The Blazers and Rockets battled tooth-and-nail through the first three games of the series, which were all decided by one goal; the Rockets escaping with a 2-1 series lead.
In Game 4, Benjafield would notch his first career playoff goal, which doubled as the eventual game winner as the Blazers tied the series, 2-2, with a 5-1 win.
In Games 5 and 6, each side claimed a 4-0 shutout victory, so the teams would do battle in an all-deciding Game 7.
Tied 1-1 at the end of regulation, the game headed to overtime where future Oil King Tomas Soustal sent the Rockets into the second round with the game winner at 7:07.
“It was one of the toughest losses of my career,” recalls Benjafield. “But seeing how close we were only to see it slip away; it makes you want to win that much more.”
As disheartening as that loss was for him and his teammates, he had no idea it would pale in comparison to what was to come just a year later.
After finishing the 2016-17 campaign with a 42-24-2-4 record, the Blazers and Rockets were set to clash in the first round of the playoffs for the second year in a row.
After being shut out 4-0 in Game 1, the Blazers were facing a 3-0 hole in the third period of Game 2. Benjafield registered his first of the playoffs to get Kamloops on the board, but they couldn’t completely close the gap, falling by a score of 3-2.
Benjafield assisted on what proved to be the game-winning goal in Game 3, cutting Kelowna’s series lead to 2-1. The next night the Blazers were blanked 1-0, and on the verge of elimination, 3-1.
But again they fought back, and again he had a direct impact on the outcome, scoring his second goal of the series en route to a 4-1 win. It was now a 3-2 series with Benjafield having scored both game winning goals.
Game 6, with the Blazers on the brink of elimination, they found themselves down 2-0 with just over three minutes left to play in regulation.
Then they got on the board.
Down 2-1 with 3:11 remaining, the Blazers continued to press for their playoff lives. With 2:14 to go they tied the game, 2-2.
Sheer elation exuded from the Blazers. But unfortunately, it wasn’t meant to last.
Just 17 seconds later, at 18:03, the Rockets regained the lead, 3-2, then added an empty net goal with 23 seconds left. Just like that the Blazers season had come to an end with the 4-2 game – and series – final.
The following season he would set a career high in goals (19) and points (47), but with a team record of 30-37-1-4, a trip to the postseason wasn’t meant to be.
On March 17, 2018 he played his last game as a member of the Kamloops Blazers.
Rest and recuperation are an integral part of the offseason for players. It allows them to heal physically both and mentally, not to mention just spending time with friends and family and taking their mind off the pressures that can come with the game.
For the Benjafield’s, it meant a vacation. And it was then he got some news he wasn’t exactly expecting.
“When I heard about the trade I was actually in Mexico with my family,” he chuckled. “My agent called me and asked if I wanted to get traded because two teams were interested in me; one being Edmonton.
“My initial reaction was to get pretty excited. I realized it would be a great new opportunity for my final year in the WHL.”
And as the 2018-19 began, he found himself in a different role than years before. Only a 20-year-old knows the feeling of entering a season having zero uncertainty that it would be your last in major junior. If given the chance, he knew exactly what he would tell his younger self.
“Enjoy every single day,” he said. “Even when the days are tough, be happy. You’re in this league for a limited time, and even if you get to play five years like I have, it still flies by.
“Older guys sat us down when we were rookies and gave us that same speech, but it never sinks in until you’re in their shoes and staring down the end of junior. You gotta just enjoy it while you can.”
He’s been able to share the memories – the good ones, the bittersweet ones, and all of the ones in between – with friends and loved ones along the way, but maybe none more important than his parents, Clive and Cathie.
“They mean everything to me. The sacrifices they’ve made so I can live out my dream in the WHL are amazing,” he said. “They never forced me to take hockey too seriously, or pushed me too hard so I would resent it. They were always just super encouraging, positive and supporting.
“They mean everything to me and I wouldn’t be here without them.”
When Clive thinks back to Quinn as a much younger boy, he instantly pinpoints a moment that speaks to who his son has always been, and who he continues to be.
“I think my favourite story was (during a game) when he was around nine or ten (years old),” said Clive. “He scored his usual two or three goals a game, but then during his next rush into the offensive zone he just stopped.
“He hung onto the puck and waited for his teammates to catch up, then he passed them the puck so they could score instead.
“I asked him why he didn’t just score again, and not risk being checked because of slowing down. We were on the bench – since I was coaching him at the time – and he just looked up at me and said,
‘Dad, it’s good if everyone scores.’
“That said a lot to me about his character and his unselfishness even at such a young age.”
Now with well over 300 regular season and playoff games under his belt, Quinn Benjafield will no doubt cherish the many memories he earned while playing in the WHL.
The only thing that may outweigh how grateful he’s been for the experience, is the impression and impact he’s made on his teammates, coaches and children in the community with his generous personality and thoughtful nature.
(*Kamloops Blazers photos courtesy of the Kamloops Blazers Hockey Club)