Edward Little’s Josh Benson, left, and Nathan Douglass work the puck up the ice during a 2002 game against Lewiston High School. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal

Josh Benson’s memories of his Travis Roy Award-winning season 20 years are more about the friendships and the life lessons he gained than what he accomplished on the ice in 2002.

“The things that stick out to me is not necessarily the day, the award, the trophy or the accolades,” Benson said. “Ultimately, the things I remember are good relationships I developed with my teammates over those (high school) years more than anything. I still see Kyle (Smith) on a regular basis. The fond memories I have, are with my teammates, not necessarily of me winning the award.”

Smith, a sophomore in 2001-02 who won the Travis Roy Award two years later in 2004, said their friendship began before the two even got to the high school level.

“My memories of Josh go way back, well beyond that; he has been a close friend of mine growing up,” Smith said. “He’s someone I looked up to on the ice, in particular, and off the ice. He was someone always who had his head on his shoulders. Obviously, a Hamilton (College) graduate, he did well with school, but … in the youth hockey days and all the way up to high school, he was always a leader, someone the team can rally around. His mood would always set the tone for the team, the game or the practice.”

Benson was the first Edward Little player to win the Travis Roy Award. Smith was the second. No Red Eddies have won it since. Jack Keefe is a finalist for this year’s award — the fourth time an Edward Little player has been a finalists since Smith’s win in 2004 — which will be presented Saturday at a banquet that starts at 3 p.m. at the Hilton Garden Inn in Auburn.

Benson now lives outside of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and is the director of operations at Trace Environmental System, which provides air emissions monitoring equipment.

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He said that the lessons he learned from Edward Little coach Dave Boucher still benefit him today.

“He was really instrumental in my development — in terms of developing leadership skills and how I took that to college and now as an adult,” Benson said. “When I look back, award or no award, he’s an extremely important part of my development as a young man.”

ALL-AROUND DEFENSEMAN

Benson was a two-way defenseman who made a significant impact in both the defensive and offensive zones.

“He was extremely coachable, competitive, an exceptional skater, a playmaker, and he had the great sense of the game in playing defense and offense,” Boucher said. “He wasn’t the biggest guy out there, but he didn’t shy away from anybody.”

Benson stood 5 feet, 10 inches tall and weighed about 155 pounds during his high school career.

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“I was never the biggest (defenseman). I was the one of the fastest,” Benson said. “… As a defenseman, you have to be physical, regardless — whether or not you are an offensive-minded defenseman, you have to take care of your own (zone).”

Opposing forwards had to be aware of Benson when they entered the offensive zone because of his oppressive hip check.

“One thing I particularly remember: He was a very good skater and he could put the best hip check on anybody out there,” Smith said. “He packed a big punch with his hip checks. That’s one thing that sticks out to me, he could put a good hit on anybody.”

Colby Gilbert, another sophomore on the 2001-02 Edward Little squad, recalls one hip check Benson had that season during a game at the Red Eddies’ home rink, Ingersoll Arena.

“He had a deadly one,” Gilbert said. “I remembered one game he laid a hip check, and he broke the kid’s stick in two different places, so it ended up in three pieces on the ice. It was a legal hit and a part of the game. I think that changed the game, too — we ended up winning that game.”

Benson won the Travis Roy Award in its seventh year of existence, and was only the second defenseman, after Waterville’s Chad Hart of Waterville in 1999 to win the award.

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“You never know (who) coaches are going to vote for,” Boucher said. “Many times, they would go for the high-scorer or the best goalie. Defensemen don’t get the publicity as much. The things the coaches noticed about Josh is not only his defensive ability but his offensive play.”

Boucher said Benson could direct his shot top corner or keep it low so one of the Red Eddies’ forwards could redirect the puck, or he could look off the opposition and make a pass.

Benson said his objective was to get the puck to the high-skilled forwards.

“Your offense starts from your own zone, right?” Benson said. “It was more about feeding the elite forwards that we had on our team. We had Jay Verrill, Kyle Smith, Colby (Gilbert), (who) are some very talented players. … It was, more or less, get the pucks to those guys to create situations to do what they do best, and that’s score goals.”

The 27th Travis Award winner will be named Saturday, and in the 20 years since Benson won it, only one other defenseman has received Maine high school hockey’s most prestigious award: Richard Paradis of St. Dominic Academy in 2009.

HELPING BUILD A CHAMPION

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Smith was the team captain of the 2001-02 Red Eddies team that went 14-8. The season came to an end in the Class A East semifinal with a 6-3 loss to Waterville.

In 2000-2001, Benson’s junior season, the Red Eddies lost to the Purple Panthers 4-2 in the Class A East regional final. Benson had both goals in that game.

“The year prior, we made a pretty good run, and there wasn’t any reason why we couldn’t compete for a championship,” Benson said. “We returned quite a few guys. We were pretty bullish that we had a good chance, and there was a lot of good talent that just came in. Case in point, they won the championship the next (two years). It’s great for them. The (Travis Roy) award was great and all, but I think team championships are a bigger deal than an individual award.”

Smith said that Benson, even though he graduated, was one of the most important players to Edward Little’s 2003 and 2004 state championship teams because of the role he played in building the program.

“We had a nucleus of guys, with Josh in the lead of that group, we developed a good team,” Smith said. “We were competitive, we were in it, and we had a shot two years in a row that we had, (and) that was disappointing not having made it (to the state championship). He really shaped (the team), and he was a big part, even though he wasn’t there anymore, my junior and senior year, 2003 and 2004, (and the state) championships that we won. I think it was in part due to his efforts.”

Benson also made it attractive for Auburn kids to play for Edward Little.

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“At the time, we had never won the state championship, and, again, at the time, a lot of (Auburn kids) were going to St. Dom’s,” Smith said. “There were several Auburn guys that were at St. Dom’s or moved around (to prep school hockey) and didn’t stick to the EL program. From my perspective, as an underclassman, he put a lot of effort into the program.”

Benson said he didn’t really think about playing high school hockey anywhere but Edward Little because players before him, such as Matt Closson, stayed and played for the Red Eddies.

Benson, Gilbert and Smith said Boucher also helped turn around the program. Boucher, meanwhile, credits the youth hockey system in Auburn.

“What helped the (Edward Little) program is Ingersoll Ice Arena, and the Auburn youth hockey developed,” Boucher said. “They had the youth playing (more) hockey than they did in the past.”

JUMPING TO HAMILTON

After completing his four years at Edward Little, Benson played NCAA Division III hockey for Hamilton College.

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He was on the Continentals’ junior varsity team his freshman year and played the following three years on the varsity team.

Players often played prep or junior hockey after graduating high school during that time, but Benson said he was ready for the challenges in the classroom and on the ice in the NESCAC.

“It was good. It was a tough adjustment, guys were faster, and everyone was the best player on their (previous) team,” Benson said. “It was a whole different ball game. It was eye-opening at first, but nothing you can’t adjust to.”

Benson had two goals and 14 assists in 59 games for Hamilton’s varsity team from 2003-06. He graduated with a degree in economics.

Boucher said that if Benson was at least 3 inches taller, he was good enough to have been recruited by Division I teams.

Gilbert, who played for the Lewiston Maineiacs in 2004-05 after completing his four years at Edward Little, said Benson is one of the best players he ever played with, and that Benson’s style of play was 15-20 years ahead of its time.

“Nowadays at the higher levels, these defensemen that are Josh’s size, like (Matt Grzelcyk) of the (Boston) Bruins, there’s smaller defenseman now because the game has changed,” Gilbert said. “It’s a faster game, it’s a less physical game, there’s more skill involved.”

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