BRIDGEPORT, Conn. – Former North Iowa Bulls goaltender Josh Benson has been a winner everywhere he’s been. This year, he’s the number-one goalie for the Fairbanks Ice Dogs, the number-one team in the North American Hockey League. As a high school goalie, he led Stillwater to the Minnesota state tournament twice. As a North Iowa Bulls goalie, he never lost a game. Ever.
Benson is keeping his expectations high as he wraps up his junior career and gets set to depart for college hockey, making his commitment to Sacred Heart University in Connecticut official late last month.
Benson backstopped the Stillwater Ponies to appearances in the 2014 and 2016 state tournaments, the first two state tourney bids in school history, leading to his first chance with a junior team.
“In the back of my head, I knew I could play at the NAHL level,” said Benson. “The stepping stone of the NA3HL was a good stepping stone. [North Iowa] was a good organization. There were obviously challenges that I knew I could overcome. I expect to win. I don’t like losing. The team trusts me back there – they do what they have to do and don’t have to worry about the back end too much.”
After battling for playing time with the NAHL’s Brookings Blizzard, where he began the 2016-17 season, Benson found his way to Mason City and the Bulls. His seven games at North Iowa almost couldn’t have been better. His record certainly couldn’t have been – before he left town at the end of November, he’d racked up a 7-0 record, stopped more than 94 percent of the shots that came his way, and allowed barely a goal-and-a-half a game.
“Josh is a kid who does things the right way,” said North Iowa head coach Todd Sanden. “He’s a pro at and away from the rink, so we’re not surprised he’s earned this opportunity.”
That’s when Fairbanks coach Trevor Stewart came calling – after starting the season with four straight wins, the Ice Dogs were trending in the wrong direction with 11 straight losses and an 0-for-November record. That’s not exactly what the team had in mind after winning the Robertson Cup the previous season.
“They were struggling a bit there, and I knew that,” said Benson. “I just wanted to help turn the team around and give them some life, and the team started playing well about the halfway point (of the season). We want to win a championship, and this year we’re hoping to do that.”
Benson and Holy Cross commit Erik Gordon took care of their share of the defensive work, and the offense picked up significantly after Thanksgiving, helping the Ice Dogs sprint to a second-place finish in the Midwest Division standings. Fairbanks would eventually drop out of the playoffs in the division finals.
“He helped stabilize our team,” said Stewart. “We were in a bad position. I took one call from Coach Sanden, and he realized our situation and realized Josh would be a good fit.”
After a 1-3 start with two no-decisions in his first six games, Benson was able to get his legs underneath him in a strange, new environment. His new home in Fairbanks is 2,500 miles from the banks of the St. Croix River, and is a three-hour time-zone difference behind his home state. Other than visits to the Kenai River Brown Bears, there are no road trips….at least, not until after getting off an airplane in the Lower 48.
“It’s different coming up here,” said Benson. “It’s nice out earlier in the year, but we tend to go on road trips for a long period of time. Flying is fun, and we stay in hotels for two weeks at a time. We only get to bring a duffel bag, so we basically pack our team stuff and maybe a couple of extra pieces of clothing and that’s about it.”
Benson was the number-one netminder this year for the Ice Dogs, which meant some extra work heading into this year. A lot of that work came in the summer, focusing on getting into better shape and being able to endure the grind of a full season. NAHL teams play a 60-game regular season, and teams headed for a deep playoff run can easily hit the 70-game mark by the end of the year.
That extra work has paid off nicely – after battling a fellow Division I recruit for playing time last season, Benson racked up a 28-4-3-2 record this year and led Fairbanks to 45 wins and 97 points in the NAHL standings, putting away the league’s regular-season title a week early.
“He brought his game to a completely different level,” said Stewart. “He’s more fit, he’s more confident, and he obviously knows the league better. For him to come back in the shape and the mental capacity that he’s in right now has been a real blessing for us.”
The Sacred Heart Pioneers entered the picture in January, first visiting with the former Bull at a road series in Pennsylvania. He and the Pioneers’ coaching staff got an additional chance to interact at the NAHL’s Top Prospects event in Michigan in late February.
Benson’s next stop is an Atlantic Hockey school that won just 13 games this past season, but has made itself at home in the Webster Bank Arena in Bridgeport, Connecticut. The Pioneers share the arena with the AHL’s Bridgeport Sound Tigers.
“They called me again a couple of weeks [after the Pennsylvania trip], once we’d gotten back to Alaska,” said Benson. “The coaching staff studied my game film and liked me a lot. I talked with the head coach and the assistant coach, which not a lot of teams will do unless they really like a kid.”
He’ll compete for playing time next season with Brett Magnus, a senior-to-be and former Powell River King in the British Columbia Hockey League. Magnus earned all 13 wins this past season for Sacred Heart, while outgoing senior Nathan Perry also appeared in a dozen games for C.J. Marrotolo’s squad.
Benson becomes the seventh player to earn a Division I roster spot after playing for the Bulls. Three of those players – Kohei Sato (New Hampshire), Dominik Florian (American International College) and Jeff Solow (Merrimack) are currently on Division I rosters. More than 60 players in North Iowa’s seven-year history have gone on to play college hockey.
“Playing at this level is a viable level to get to where you want to go,” said Sanden. “If you come in here and you do a really good job like Josh, you’re going to have the opportunity to move up, and when you move up if you do a good job there, the sky’s the limit.”
The North Iowa Bulls are proud of all that Josh Benson has accomplished in his junior hockey career, both in North Iowa and in Fairbanks, and wish him the very best as he reaches his goal of playing NCAA Division I hockey.