There are not many parents in the York area that would try to get their children skating on ice as young as two years old.
There are probably fewer that would actually take the time and effort needed to turn their backyard into a small ice rink for kids and adults to play on.
So maybe it shouldn’t be much of a surprise that Darion Benchich has always had a love for the sport of ice hockey. He can recall the days when he was a toddler — barely old enough to walk — yet found himself skating on the ice that his father built in the yard.
Those days have long passed Benchich, now 15, but the love for the sport hasn't waned. A small, but speedy and skilled forward at 5-foot-8, 155 pounds, his dedication and commitment to improving is the fuel that drives his desire to one day become a professional player.
And that hard work definitely has started to pay off for the Dover native. Of the more than 4,000 young athletes who tried out for the USA Hockey National Talent Development Program from the Atlantic District, Benchich was one of 12 players picked to play for the team in Kent State this August. He was also selected as an alternate to the development team in Buffalo, which is consider one of the most elite of all age groups across the nation.
“This is a really nice opportunity,” said Benchich, who scored 25 goals to go with 26 assists while playing 52 games for the Valley Forge Minutemen this past season. “They only take the top nine (forwards) from the Atlantic District to Buffalo. And, from the others, they take 12 for Kent State. There were about 100 left in total (when the final cuts started), but now it’s down to the final 21.”
Getting noticed: The attention from college coaches and pro scouts while playing with the team in Kent State is undoubtedly one of the best opportunities for Benchich to get noticed. Many players that have come through the program have found their way to the professional ranks, including a good portion that have actually made it to the NHL.
“It’s a three-day camp and I’ll get to play against kids from Michigan, the southeast and certainly the mid-west,” he said of the Kent State team.
While Benchich is no doubt excited for his accomplishment, that excitement and sense of pride extends to his parents, Jon and Michelle. It's no big secret that playing youth hockey can be a pretty expensive endeavor for parents. The hockey gear and travel costs alone can often exceed thousands of dollars a year.
The costs, however, are secondary to Darion’s success. Both Jon and Michelle are primarily concerned with putting Darion in a position to make his dreams come true.
“We were so happy,” said Jon Benchich. “By making these teams he’s being looked at by so many scouts and teams as an elite hockey player for his birth year (2001). He’s on the scouting watch list that will only help him in the long term. I know a lot of kids would give anything to be on one of these teams.”
Taking advantage of opportunities: Perhaps one of the more disappointing aspects of youth ice hockey is that the central Pennsylvania area is not exactly a hot bed for the game or talent. While Benchich got his start playing for the York Devils travel program that plays out of the York Ice Arena, the chances for big-time success are limited locally. To increase those chances it was necessary to look for opportunities farther away from home.
One of those opportunities was to play for the Hershey Junior Bears team. He played two seasons with that squad, tallying an amazing 173 points (87 goals, 86 assists) over 98 games. His success there allowed him to play for the Hershey team that played in the 2014 Pee Wee Quebec Tournament, which is considered the sport’s equivalent of the “Little League World Series”.
New challenge: Now Benchich is preparing to take another step that is again farther away from home. He was recently accepted into the Westminster School in Simsbury, Connecticut this fall.
Westminster, a nearly a five-hour drive from York, is a prep school that features a very successful hockey program. Westminster also means that he will live on campus away from his family for much of the year.
“I’m kind of nervous but I’m also really excited,” he said. “I’m nervous to be away from home because I’ve never really done that before, but I’m also very, very excited to get this opportunity for a better education. And, to play college hockey, it’s also a better move.”
He’s hoping that playing at Westminster will help him start to fill out his frame while providing him a chance to play against some of the nation’s top prep players. At least three of them are descendants of NHL all-stars in Cal LeClair, (son of John), Brett Roenick (son of Jeremy) and Taggart Corriveau (son of Yvon). But that is just scratching the surface.
“There’s one guy on the team (Ryan Doolin) that is already committed to Harvard,” Darion said. “I’m looking forward to being able to play with him and see what kind of speed and skills he has and to see how much more work I have to do to be able to get to a D-I (college) level.”
— Reach Ryan Vandersloot at firstname.lastname@example.org