He's known as Benny to hockey fans across generations in Hastings, but his name is Steve Benson and after almost two decades with the Hastings girls' hockey program-with a few small breaks-he has decided to step back from the program.
Benson's daughter Sam was a senior on the team this past winter and he coached that senior group their whole careers. With Sam graduating, Benson said his plan is to sit back and enjoy his time with family and some neglected hobbies, though he did not rule out the possibility of a return.
How it all started
Benson has been a part of the Raiders girls' hockey program from the beginning, and helped all three of its head coaches. Born in St. Paul, he moved to Hastings in fourth grade and graduated from Hastings High School before going on to play college hockey at Miami of Ohio. When he moved back, Benson said he wanted to get involved and into coaching, though he did not expect it to be girls' hockey.
He was asked by Hastings first girls' hockey coach Jeff Shelstad to help out in the 1996-1997 season until Shelstad's assistant-Terry Hartman-finished with the football season. Benson's first experience with the Raider girls was an eye-opener.
"I went up the night before practice was going to start and they had a captain's practice going on, they had girls with figure skates on, girls with no sticks, girls with sticks that should be shooting the other way, the wrong hand, and I thought to myself 'what am I getting myself into?'," Benson said. "I went out there and I loved it. The kids were like sponges, they wanted to learn, it was new for everybody, parents were excited, I think they were excited to get a little younger blood involved in myself. It was a lot of young girls with a lot of talent and I just thought 'you know what, I'm gonna stick around' and am I glad I did. And I learned a lot, both from Terry and Jeff. And that was kind of the start of it."
Benson said he received some advice from Shelstad that he never forgot.
"I remember two things from coach Shelstad, he told me, 'Benny, if you truly want to get into this, two things, you better have thick skin and it doesn't matter what you do, you're not going to make everybody happy'," Benson said. "Those are things I stuck by over the years, if you do this long enough, even though I wasn't a head coach of the program, you do this long enough and you just have to let things bounce off of you, do the best job you can and you're not going to make everybody happy. That's just part of the job.
"Those first years with Shelstad, I just remember how receptive all the girls were, how much they wanted to be there, it was a new sport for them and a new sport for a lot of people. Just how much fun they had and in turn I had. I learned a ton from Jeff and Terry."
A lifelong friendship
Benson coached under Shelstad for three years until the 1999-2000 season. He said that he was offered the head coaching position by Don Miller, but since he was not a teacher and not in the high school, he would only do it as a last resort. That was when Jeff Corkish was hired as head coach and went on to lead Hastings girls' hockey for 17 years, 14 of which Benson stood by his side.
"In all fairness, I did 'retire' when I stepped aside a few times," Benson said. "So I coached the first three years with Shelstad and the last three with Colvin. I had 17 years with Cork, I think I coached 14 of those 17 years. Now I didn't totally get away from hockey-I was coaching my daughter and her group and I was coaching my son."
Benson and Corkish first started to bond in a famous meeting where the two soon found out that they were very much on the same page when it came to how to develop and coach hockey players.
"I still remember the first time we met, we went down to the Bierstube and we kind of went over our philosophies and how well we hit it off from the get-go, and I had 17 just fantastic years with Cork," Benson said. "We not only coached together but we were really good friends, we just had a ball, we had so much fun. That's what I look back on, how much fun we had."
He went on to say that one of his favorite memories of coaching with Corkish was near the end that first season. It had been Raider standout Ericka McKenzie's first season as well and at that point teams had to win four games to make it to state in sections. Hastings beat Park in the first round and upset South St. Paul in the second, leading to a showdown with Eagan and the famous Natalie Darwitz.
"Our plan going into that game was we had to shut down Darwitz, easier said than done right, but we had this little girl, 'Short Dog', Andrea Kemp, and we worked all week preparing for that game and she was going to shadow Darwitz," Benson said.
He and Corkish played Darwitz in practice and Benson said that Kemp was one of the toughest and most competitive players he has ever coached.
"She did an unbelievable job on Natalie. I'll never forget the opening draw, Natalie took the faceoff, put it between her legs and was around her (Kemp) like that and I think that just kind of woke her up like 'I guess I've got my work cut out for me'," he said. "It's 2-2 with two minutes left in the game, Darwitz gets so frustrated she hacks Shorty, so Darwitz is in the box and we're on the power play. It's 2-2, one of our stud defenseman gets the puck behind the net, tries to make an outlet pass and their second best player steps up, our goalie was back in the net a little bit, they score and we lose."
More about memories than games
Benson mentioned several times while reminiscing about how much the relationships he made over the past two decades meant to him, echoing now former head coach Josh Colvin who just stepped down as head coach after this past winter.
"For me it's not necessarily about the wins and losses and the big games, for me it's about the relationships you made, the friendships, and not only with the kids," he said. "Obviously the coaches I've coached with, I've mentioned Shelstad, obviously Cork, Josh Colvin-not only a good friend but also one of the hardest working guys I've had a chance to work with-so those relationships."
Naturally, one of the things that sticks out most to Benson is coaching his own children and their friends.
"I was fortunate enough to play hockey at a high level, but one of my favorite things in the sport that I've ever had is the ability to coach my kids, to see the love that they have for the game," he said. "A lot of these kids Sam's age, Libby Judge, Maddie Junker, I had all the way up, basically their whole hockey careers. To have special group like that, not only the players but the parents that we've gotten to be awfully close with, it was special. It's bittersweet."
New beginnings for Raider girls' hockey
The Raider girls' hockey program experienced tremendous upheaval after this last season. Colvin resigned to spend more time with his family and they are graduating one of the largest senior classes in program history with seven seniors: Sam Benson, Hannah Hubbart, Syd Radke, Maddie Junker, Addie Buck, Libby Judge and MacKenzie Putnam.
Athletic director Trent Hanson recently announced the hiring of a new head coach in Tim Duggan, who has over 45 years of experience playing, coaching and officiating hockey and was most recently with the Lakeville South girls' hockey program. Benson had some simple but profound advice for whoever ended up taking over the Raider girls.
"The biggest thing I've found in coaching, the girls have to know that you care about them. If they don't think you care, you've got nothing. If they know you care about them, you can almost say or do anything within reason because they know that you have their best interests in heart," Benson said. "I know Trent Hanson will do a great job with whoever comes in here, there's a proud tradition. We've had a lot of really good teams, we've had a lot of really good players, but I think the biggest thing is the new coach comes in and they know that they're hard working and they care, they're going to be fine. That's the biggest thing, care about the kids and work hard and everything else will turn out."
What's next for Benny
Benson was honored in the first intermission of Hastings' last home game against the Simley Spartans. He was completely oblivious as his wife Cindy and Colvin arranged to have as many former players be there for a ceremony celebrating him on the ice.
"I have no idea how my wife pulled that off. When I say I had no idea, I was absolutely clueless. I looked over in the stands briefly and I saw Laynee Connell (a 2018 graduate) walk up and I thought 'that's nice' and I didn't even think twice," Benson said. "I didn't even notice, between the first and second periods I just went down and started tapping the girls on the head 'let's go, let's go' and I looked across and saw a bunch of people over there. 'This ain't parents night is it?' Next thing I know I see my wife walk out (and others) and I knew something was up and it kind of hit me. It was totally unexpected, a special night for me. I guess I look at it if you do something long enough, I was always in this for the kids, I didn't expect that, I didn't want that, that's not me, but it certainly was a fun night and I really appreciated it."
Benson said Cindy-who teaches at the high school-has always been supportive and encouraged his coaching, even when it was more difficult when their kids were younger. Looking ahead, he said his plan is now to spend some more time with her and watching Joey and his remaining family play. He also plans on doing some more deer hunting, ice fishing and just sitting back and watching from the stands.