Ben Street has faced his share of potholes during his hockey career.
Story and photo by Mark Newman
Battle scars. Most hockey players have them. Some are more prominent than others – whether the result of an errant stick, a deflected puck, a check into the boards or the remnants of stitches from a surgeon’s scalpel.
Griffins center Ben Street is no stranger to danger. He has sustained a tear of the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) in his right knee, a break of one hand and a torn ligament in the other, a torn pectoral muscle in his chest, and more bumps and bruises than he cares to count.
Perhaps the scariest moment in his seven years as a pro occurred this past October, when the skate of Toronto Maple Leafs defenseman Justin Holl cut his neck during a collision along the boards in a preseason game in Hamilton, Ontario.
“His skate came up and thumped me in the neck,” Street recalled. “I knew something had hit me, but I didn’t know what. I was hoping it was the heel of the boot and not the blade. I had no idea how bad it was.”
Street immediately grabbed his neck with his gloved hand and headed straight to the bench before being taken to a local hospital. Doctors there explored the wound and determined that the skate had not severed any major arteries or veins.
Sidelined for a couple of weeks to give the injury time to heal, Street was anxious to get back into action. He appeared in his first game in Grand Rapids on Oct. 21, then scored his first goal in a Griffins jersey the next night. “I felt OK physically, but there was definitely some tentativeness about getting into a game and getting into battles,” he said.
The freak accident was not exactly the start of the season he had envisioned this summer when he signed a one-year contract with the Detroit Red Wings, his fourth organization in the past seven years. Especially considering that an injury had forced him to miss most of last season.
But, as the saying suggests, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.
Of course, Street learned early on not to buckle to weakness. His father was an emergency room physician. “Growing up, my sister and I used to joke that nothing was serious – everything was bruised,” he said. “You could take care of everything with ice.”
His mom was a nurse, so it’s no surprise that he developed a strong work ethic.
“When you take shift work, you work nights and brutal hours,” Street said. “My dad never complained and he still made it to games. The other thing was, as an emergency room physician, he must have had some pretty bad days at work, but when he came home, we could never really tell.”
Street played hockey and lacrosse while growing up in British Columbia just east of the Vancouver metropolitan area. He played bantam hockey in nearby Burnaby then played two years of junior hockey in Salmon Arm, a tourist enclave that is 4-1/2 hours northeast.
A decent student away from the rink, Street decided to further his hockey career at the University of Wisconsin.
“When I researched things a bit more, college seemed like a good route for me,” he said. “I went out east and looked at a few Ivy League schools. I visited Notre Dame. When I went to Madison, it seemed like a good fit for me as a hockey player and as a person.”
His freshman season, 2005-06, affirmed that he had made the right decision when the Badgers won the NCAA title.
“Jack Skille and I were the only freshmen who played regularly and we did our best to fit in,” he recalled. “There was a serious culture among the upperclassmen that we were there to win, so winning the title was pretty special. It really solidified our team in school history.”
Highly ranked during the season, Wisconsin had the advantage – and faced the added pressure – of competing in the NCAA regional in Green Bay and the Frozen Four in Milwaukee. “It takes a lot of luck to get through a one-game elimination tournament, but all the way through we had this mentality that it was ours to win,” Street said.
The journey included a 1-0 triple-overtime victory over Cornell in the regional final. Skille’s goal in the middle of the third extra stanza ended the longest scoreless game in NCAA tournament history. “It was the most intense game I’ve ever been a part of,” Street said. “When you’re in situations like that as a young player, you grow so much.”
It was at Wisconsin that Street solidified his reputation as a strong two-way player, thanks to the guidance of head coach Mike Eaves. “He was a demanding coach who really paid attention to details,” he said. “His video sessions were like nothing I had experienced. He knew how to win, and I came to realize how every player has to be accountable to succeed.”
After two more solid seasons in Madison, Street was looking forward to making the most of his final year with the Badgers when he sustained a knee injury that required major surgery. Flying back from Denver to Madison, he pondered the thought that his senior year had ended just three games and one period into the season.
When the school petitioned for a redshirt season, Street felt relieved to be granted a fifth year. And although his college career didn’t end as well as it started – the Badgers lost 5-0 to Boston College in the 2010 national championship game at Ford Field in Detroit – he felt fortunate to reach the Frozen Four twice.
Once he had played out his collegiate eligibility, Street signed with the Pittsburgh Penguins organization as an undrafted free agent. He started his pro career with the ECHL’s Wheeling Nailers.
“I was really disheartened when I didn’t get an NHL deal coming out of school,” he said. “Then getting assigned to the ECHL seemed like I was falling into a black pit. Fortunately, Stan Drulia, who was my coach in Wheeling, was instrumental in getting me back on track.”
Although Street had not been a big point producer in college, Drulia convinced him that he was capable of scoring and winning games with his offensive ability. “I realized that if I was going to get out of that league, I had to have incredible numbers. After a slow start, things started to take off.”
In just 38 games, Street tallied 24 goals and 27 assists – numbers that not only garnered him a promotion to the AHL’s Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins but also earned him Rookie of the Year honors in the ECHL, even though he had played only half the season there.
Street continued to produce in the AHL for the rest of the 2010-11 season as well as the next, but his progress in the Penguins organization was blocked by the fact that the club’s top three centers were none other than Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal. “I looked at that logjam and figured there wasn’t much opportunity for me,” he said.
He spent the next two seasons (2012-13 and 2013-14) in the Calgary Flames organization, playing mostly in Abbotsford, which meant that he was close to home.
“From exit to exit, it was 35 minutes from home, so Sunday nights after games, I could go home and mom would cook,” he said. “But playing in Abbotsford was difficult because we weren’t close to anything. You could look at the AHL map and see that the team shouldn’t be there. Travel was a huge challenge. It felt like being on the road the whole season.”
Street made his NHL debut during the 2012-13 season. Fittingly, his first game was in Vancouver. He sprung for 10 tickets for family and friends. “When you’re on the road, you have to buy the tickets and Vancouver isn’t a cheap ticket,” he said. “Being that it was my first NHL game, I had to get them good seats, so that meant $250 per ticket. I was definitely playing for free that night.”
Memories of the Feb. 9, 2013 contest are ingrained in his mind. “I remember the team made me go out first for warmups and I did two laps on my own before anyone else came out. I did everything I could not to fall,” he recalled.
“Everything seemed surreal. There were guys on the other team that I had grown up watching and there were guys on my own team that I had idolized, so it was hard to believe that I was actually part of it. You feel a little like you’re in a video game, but it was really fun and the fact that it was in Vancouver made it special.”
Feeling he had reached a point in his career when he could compete for a full-time NHL job, Street signed a two-year deal with the Colorado Avalanche in 2014. “With Joe Sakic as the general manager and Patrick Roy as head coach, it was a star-studded organization, and going to play for guys like that was obviously an attraction. Plus, they didn’t have a lot of depth at the center position.”
But injuries derailed his hopes both seasons. “I tore my pectoral muscle last year and it pretty much killed my season,” he said. “The year before, I had a ligament tear in my hand – it just popped in a face-off – which was after I had broken my other hand while blocking a shot in a camp.”
Street is sanguine about his fortunes. “Overcoming adversity can build character,” he said. “I truly believe there’s a reason for everything…I’m not sure what it is yet.”
When last year’s pectoral injury threatened to completely curtail his season, Street became bound and determined to return to the lineup before the end of the regular season.
“I really wanted to get back and play,” he said. “Right after surgery, the date was circled on the calendar. It gave me something to work toward. You have to look at the positives. In a long recovery, there are some days when you feel down, but for the most part, you just work toward getting better.”
Street looked at the opportunity as a chance to showcase his talents for prospective teams. Although he had serious interest from several teams, he signed with the Red Wings in hopes of someday wearing the winged wheel. “It’s an honor to pull on that iconic jersey and I hope I get the opportunity to do it,” he said.
He also liked the idea of playing in Grand Rapids. “If I’m going to be in the AHL, I wanted to be in a good city,” he said, noting that his wife Jessica is due with their first child at the end of November. “One of the attractions was that this is an AHL program that wants to win just like the NHL team that makes the playoffs every year.”
At age 29, Street is now a veteran. “My leadership style is by example,” he said. “I’m not a big rah-rah guy. I’m not going to stand up and give a 15-minute speech. A lot of times, your actions speak louder than your words. I try to be the hardest working guy on the ice.”
He thinks back to his first NHL camp. “I remember seeing Crosby on the ice early. Here was literally the best player in the league and he was out there working on stuff. There were things that he felt weren’t perfect, but he kept working – repetition, repetition – until it became part of his game,” Street said.
“Everyone can develop new skills. There’s always someone who can teach you things and help make you better. I may be an older guy now, but there are still skills that I can learn to make my game better.”
A career overachiever, Street is not content to rest on his laurels. He would love to get another taste of the NHL.
“Having played in the NHL is a cool achievement when you look at it from 10,000 feet, but in no way do I feel the job is done,” Street said. “From where I am standing right now, I want more.”