Making the jump from Pee Wee to high school varsity hockey is like, using board games as an analogy, asking a grade-schooler adept at Candy Land to instantly master chess.
Alex Benson was an undersized but fearless eighth-grade goalie up for anything back in November of 2016. Varsity hockey? Sure, he was willing to give it a try. Benson remembers not only his first game but the first shot he faced.
“The guy came down the wall right here,” Benson said, pointing toward the boards just inside one of the blue lines at Winona’s Bud King Ice Arena. “He took a slapshot. I went down, and it went straight over my head and over the net. I was like, ‘Wow. That’s crazy.’ ”
“You’re not in Pee Wees anymore,” Winona coach Fran McDevitt said with a laugh about Benson’s memory of his introduction to big-boy hockey.
And so began Benson’s five-year career as Winona’s varsity goaltender, an 84-game journey that has taken him to dozens of rinks throughout southern Minnesota and southwestern Wisconsin, seen him face more than 3,000 shots and allowed him to build countless friendships.
Benson played his final home game Friday night against La Crescent, and after the 8-1 victory he and fellow senior Matt Thesing lingered on the snow-covered ice long after their teammates had departed for the locker room. Benson and Thesing exchanged a few words, shared some laughs and shed a few tears as they knelt on the ice and soaked in the atmosphere, reluctant to leave knowing they’d never play another varsity game in the rink that spawned so many of their greatest memories.
“We didn’t say a lot,” said Thesing, a four-year varsity player who scored four goals in the victory over the Lancers. “He’s been here five years and I’ve been here four. Just a bunch of emotions kick in.
He’s an amazing kid on and off the ice. I love him to death. He’s like a brother to me.”
Benson’s 84 games played, 3,098 shots faced and 2,684 saves are Winona records, blowing away the totals set by Garrett Welle, who faced 1,785 shots and made 1,574 saves from 2007-10. The Minnesota High School League website lists some boys’ hockey records, and there’s a Most Career Stops category. But there are no entries under the heading. It’s likely that the highest totals have come in the modern era because of its longer games (51 minutes compared to decades of 45 or less) and longer seasons (25 games compared to decades of 20 or less).
Benson’s games played, shots faced and saves totals likely place him near the top of the all-time lists in all three categories. In recent history, Tony Bruns of Morris/Benson faced 4,135 shots and made 3,616 saves in 2013-17. Jack Branby of St. Paul Highland Park made 3,408 saves on 3,775 shots in 2014-2018 while playing an astounding 103 games.
“He’s worked his (butt) off for five years,” Thesing said about Benson. “He lives in this rink. He deserves every game he’s played and every save he’s made.”
|Jack Branby||St. Paul Highland Park||2014-18||103||3,775||3,408|
|Gage Mohelsky||Moose Lake||2009-14||82||3,311||2,818|
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McDevitt, in his 20th year leading the Winhawks, had never previously started an eighth-grader as a goalie. Never even entertained the thought of it. But the departure of seniors Matt Schoh and Cassidy Cyert after the 2015-16 season left a void, and Benson was deemed as one of the best options to help fill it. McDevitt’s decision to insert an eighth-grader into the hockey team’s most important role came with some consternation from outsiders. At the time, Benson couldn’t be described as model student.
A middle school health and physical education teacher, McDevitt saw what he described as a “little bit rebellious” Benson every day in school. He wouldn’t go so far as to say Benson was the class clown, but. …
“I think he liked to have fun,” McDevitt said. “I think he liked to have fun in the classroom. You know, he was a typical middle school kid. Probably talked back a little too much to the teachers.
“So, actually, some teachers were questioning why we were doing that, putting Alex on the varsity, and we just told them hockey is going to be good for him.”
Benson thrived under the structure that comes with regularly scheduled daily practices. Requirements to achieve minimum grade levels to play varsity sports forced him to buckle down in class. McDevitt gave Benson four Winona Winhawks stickers, and told him to put them on each of his folders.
“And I told, him, ‘When you sit in classroom, you look at that decal to decide what's more important, ‘ “ McDevitt said, “being on the high school team or, you know, being the class clown.”
When talking about his career highlights, Benson doesn’t mention a particular save, victory or season. Instead, he talks about the camaraderie he’s shared, the friendships he’s made and the life lessons he’s learned. He talks about how those 2016-17 seniors were such a great group and how accepting they were of their little eighth-grade 'tender.
“Yeah, hockey shaped me to who I am,” Benson said. “I mean, I played it for 13 years, so that's a good majority of my life. You make friends, you learn how to interact with all sorts of different people.”
Winona coach Fran McDevitt gives goaltender Alex Benson a hug after Friday's game against La Crescent.
Friday’s game was dominated by Benson’s “interactions” with La Crescent’s Wyatt Farrell. A speedy forward who scored 21 goals last season as an eighth-grader, Farrell had a breakaway and several other prime scoring chances in the first period, all of them denied by a razor-sharp Benson. Farrell finally broke through for a second-period goal, his 17th of the season, much to the dismay of Benson the perfectionist.
“He's so competitive within himself, I mean, he tries to have shutouts in practice,” McDevitt said. “And he knows how many goals he gave up in practice yesterday, or the day before.”
Thesing said he and Benson engaged in a series of best-of-seven shootout competitions during the Winhawks’ pregame skate on Friday.
“He beat me 0-4, 0-4 and 1-4,” said Thesing, Winona's top goal scorer with 18 in 17 games. “Not fun. In practice, even before practice, he goes so hard. It’s amazing.”
Of course they are biased, but McDevitt and Thesing believe Benson is the top goaltender in both the Big 9 Conference and Section 1 (both Class 1A and 2A).
“He never stops competing,” Thesing said. “For example, against Century a couple years ago we were losing, it was like 14-1, and he was still making unreal saves. A goalie could just let up there, but he wouldn’t.”
Added McDevitt: “You know, he made a save last Saturday at Mankato West, where he literally dove across the crease and took one off the chest like you would see in the movies. It was like, ‘Where the hell did he come from?’ ”
The Winhawks (6-11-1) were seeded No. 9 in the 11-team Section 1A playoffs on Sunday. They open play today in Waseca against the No. 8 Blue Jays (10-8-0) and Kyle Ahlschlager, a sophomore who is tied for second in the state with 29 goals. Benson, having perhaps the best season of his career, has a 5-11-1 record with a .904 save percentage and 3.44 goals against average.
“He’s definitely one of the better goalies we've seen,” La Crescent coach Eriah Hayes said. “A good goalie like that, you just you never know. A team can beat anybody with a guy like that back there.”
No matter the outcome, McDevitt knows exactly what type of effort he’ll get from Benson. And what he’ll be left without when the Winhawks hit the ice next season.
“There’s the old cliche, ‘We don't rebuild, we reload,’ ” McDevitt said. “Well, it would be nice just to reload that guy. We’ve got some goaltenders in the system, but it's gonna be tough to follow those footsteps.”