OMAHA, Neb. — Carter Savoie and Mike Benning grew up in St. Albert, Alberta, a suburb of Edmonton, and have known each other since the age of 5. Not only have they known each other, the pair has been friends since that time. Not only that, but they've only had two seasons in that time when they have not been on the same hockey team.
They played youth hockey together, went on to two successful seasons playing for the Sherwood Park Crusaders of the Alberta Junior Hockey League and are now freshmen playing for the University of Denver. Playing is a bit of an understatement about the 18-year-old duo.
Going into Saturday's 12:05 p.m. game against Minnesota Duluth, Savoie is tied for the NCAA Division I lead in goals with six (in five games) and Benning leads the nation in points by a defenseman with seven. Of the two numbers, Benning seems the most surprised by Savoie's goal total.
"When he went to juniors, he just started scoring and scoring," Benning said of Savoie, who had 53 goals and 99 points in 54 games last season for Sherwood Park Crusaders "In midgets, he'd get some goals, but he was more of a playmaker.
"When he got to juniors, he just kept putting the puck in the net and last year in juniors, the stats say it all. And here, he's putting the puck in the back of the net and that's good to see."
His first year with Sherwood Park, Savoie had 31 goals and 73 points in 58 games. Savoie, who is listed at 5-foot-9 and 190 pounds, said that a few things came together to increase is goal scoring.
"I got a lot stronger going into my first year of juniors so, obviously, my shot get a lot better," he said. "Then I started utilizing my shot a lot more. I started shooting the puck a lot more than I did in midgets or bantams. I'd score a couple goals in bantams and midgets, but not nearly as much as I have been now.
"I used to pass the puck a lot more and pass up shooting options sometimes. Now I just shoot a lot more and making the most out of it."
While Savoie's game is changing a bit, Benning has been an offensive-minded defenseman for the majority of his career. He had 51 assists and 61 points in 60 games for Sherwood Park in 2018-19 and then 63 assists and 75 points in 54 games for the Crusaders last season.
"He's always been an offensive defenseman. He does not like to play in his own zone," Savoie said with a smile in a Zoom interview. "I wouldn't want to play in my own zone either with the way he shoots the puck or the way he sees the ice."
Wisely, Denver coach David Carle has both players on a power-play unit and Carle said that Benning is starting to play better defensively.
"Mike, I think his strengths right now are his ability to break the puck out and play in transition and his play on the power play," Carle said after Benning scored his first goal in a 5-1 win over Miami on Thursday. "I think you're seeing other parts of his game start to develop on the defensive side. His rush 'D' is getting better and he's doing a better job of taking away time and space in his own end, which is going to feed his offensive transition game even more."
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Growing up, the pair became friends early in school and their families have become close over the years. Savoie and Benning said that their mothers are in the same book club with one another and their families have taken trips together in the summer and gone boating and golfing together for a number of years.
"It's a five-minute drive or bike ride (away)," Savoie said of the distance between his parents' house and Benning's. "My parents just moved, so maybe it's seven minutes (away). When we were younger, we'd always bike over to each other's houses. Now it's just a five-minute drive over for a hot tub at Mike's or basketball."'
Benning's family, however, is known quite well in hockey circles. His grandfather, Elmer Benning, was a scout for the Montreal Canadiens for almost five decades before he died in 2018. His father, Brian Benning, played defense in the NHL from 1984-95 for the St. Louis Blues, Los Angeles Kings, Philadelphia Flyers, Edmonton Oilers and Florida Panthers. Mike's brother, Matt, is a 26-year-old defenseman for Edmonton.
Brian's brother, Jim Benning, played defense in the NHL from 1981-90 and is the general manager of the Vancouver Canucks. Brian Benning and Scott Savoie were youth hockey coaches when Carter and Mike were younger.
"They coached us through minor hockey, so they've been tight," Mike Benning said of their fathers. "So we've been together on vacations, hockey tournaments and through us, they got close."
Youth hockey memories
A few of those hockey memories out as a favorites from childhood for Mike and Carter.
"When we were really little, we would play against each other," Savoie said. "Then our first year of novice (hockey), I think we were 6, we were actually 'D' partners on the same team. Just one year ... it was a tough year."
"He was good on the offense, I don't know about the defense part," Benning said with a smile.
"A lot of guys skating right around me," Savoie said.
Another memory that comes to mind for the pair happened when their peewee team (12-and-under) was playing a tournament in Quebec.
"We lost our first game and then made our way to the consolation finals," Benning said. "It went to overtime and then a shootout. Savy scored and I remember our bench running out on him. I think I was the first guy to get to him and I tackled him."
"At the Quebec tournament, we went to the carnival together and then all the family vacations that our families do," Savoie said.
Their first year of bantams (14-and-under), the duo was on different teams. But then they ended up playing together the next season and then for Sherwood Park. The Crusaders, who also had Denver freshman Reid Irwin on defense, went 49-9 last season before the season ended because of the coronavirus pandemic.
The duo ended up at Denver together and found out that they were drafted five picks apart in the NHL Draft in October. Benning was taken in the fourth round by the Florida Panthers (95th overall) and Savoie was taken by the Oilers in the fourth round (100th). But they were not together when the draft was taking place.
"We weren't together because only a few skaters could be on the ice at the same time," Benning said of pandemic restrictions on practices. "It was my day off and I was sitting in the dorm by myself and Facetiming some of my buddies. Carter was getting better on the ice. When I got picked, it was awesome. Not as much excitement as being back at home or at the draft itself. But it was for sure an exciting moment for me, my friends and my family."
Benning said that Savoie called him as soon as he got off the ice.
"I think Mike got picked as I was walking off the ice," Savoie said. "I called him and, pretty much instantly after that, the Oilers called me and I got picked. It was super exciting.
"I think we made the most out of the situation and it was a really good day for both of us."