Innisfail’s Ray Bennett still hasn’t processed the reality of becoming a Stanley Cup champion.
But who can blame the Colorado Avalanche assistant coach? For nearly 130 years the NHL’s best team has lifted Lord Stanley’s mug and earned the right to call themselves world champions.
There’s a lot of history there and Bennett is taking it all in while he can.
“It’s pretty awesome, it’s pretty incredible, and it’s a little surreal,” Bennett told the Advocate.
On June 26, the Avalanche beat the Tampa Bay Lightning 2-1 to win the Stanley Cup Final in six games.
Colorado was one of the league’s best all season long with the talent any NHL general manager would love to have. Gabriel Landeskog, Nathan MacKinnon, Conn Smythe Trophy winner Cale Makar, as well as former Red Deer Rebels goaltender Darcy Kuemper were just the tip of the iceberg of the roster Colorado put together for a championship run this season.
“We went three consecutive years losing in the second round and we had a 2-0 lead against Vegas the year prior and lost in six and that really stung,” Bennett said.
“I think our group, their resolve to do everything they could understanding that even sometimes when you do everything you could you know your training is proper and your attitude is perfect it doesn’t necessarily guarantee anything. Right from the get-go our guys had a resolve that they were going to do everything in their power to try and push this thing as far as we could possibly go knowing then it might not be enough… and it showed up all through the year for us.”
With the resiliency to overcome adversity, he said the players deserve all the credit for an incredible season.
Colorado had a chance to close out the two-time defending Stanley Cup champs on home ice in Game 5 but lost 3-2. Bennett said that was a disappointing moment for the team and staff, but he said hoisting the cup, no matter where you do it is special.
“It’s pretty spectacular and then kind of the whole day after of celebrating with the guys and for the most part as a coaching staff after the night we won it was a conscious effort on our part to leave (the players) be and let them do their thing. Not have coaches watching over their shoulder but that parade day was really special,” added Bennett, who said having his family on hand and the parade in Denver were unforgettable moments.
Bennett’s coaching career began at 17. When he was playing midget hockey in Innisfail his coach Larry Reid asked him to coach a peewee team in town and Bennett was reluctant. After that, he had a series of coaching opportunities including at Red Deer College and the University of Alberta.
He eventually began working full-time with Hockey Alberta while coaching some minor hockey programs in the Red Deer area, which led him to make it on the coaching staff for the 1991 Canada Winter Games men’s hockey team.
Bennett was an assistant under Mike Babcock at Red Deer College and followed him to the WHL with the Moose Jaw Warriors.
He also spent time as the general manager at the IIHF World Junior Hockey Championship when it was in Red Deer and also worked with the Canadian National Team around the same time. He coached the 1998 Canadian Women’s Olympic squad, which he looks back at fondly.
While working with the Canadian Men’s National Team, a member of the coaching staff, Andy Murray got the head coach position for the Los Angeles Kings and asked Bennett if he would join him, which was his introduction to the NHL.
He coached the Kings for six seasons before taking an assistant coaching job with the St. Louis Blues in 2007 and would be there for 11 seasons. Afterward, he took a job in the 2017-18 season with the Colorado Avalanche and has been there ever since.
In those early days, it never crossed his mind that one day he could coach in the NHL until he got the job offer from the Kings.
“I don’t know if people believe me when I say that. I honestly was never looking for a job when I got my next job until I got to the NHL,” he said.
”You know you get fired and then you do have to look but there was never I time where I was thinking I got to hurry up and take the next step here. I was always just trying to stay in the moment and do a good job wherever I was at.”
When he got offered the job in Los Angeles, he and his wife pondered how would they fit in in Los Angeles. They were prairie people who grew up in central Alberta but it turned out to be an awesome experience.
“As a non-ex NHL player, young coaches ask ‘how do you do it?’ and they just always seem to be in such a hurry to go up the ladder and sometimes it happens,” he said.
“But inevitably I feel there’s an awful lot of really good young coaches that climb really fast but fall even faster then their dreams might be shattered. To me, patience is a virtue there.”
He credits a lot of what he learned as a coach to the smaller opportunities in places like Red Deer and Innisfail. A big part of that were the relationships formed with people who took the time to help out a young coach.
“Each of the experiences I had coaching whether it was the bantam AA team in Red Deer or a AAA bantam team. They’re all valuable experiences,” he said.
“If you treat them as such and continue to learn yourself and you know again I think it’s really important to be present in the moment just like our players were all this year.”