The first thing you notice about Ben Danford is that he’s always on the ice.
The Canisius College defenseman plays in all situations. His game is solid – getting shots through from the point and moving his feet. Which is why his name always creeps onto the stat sheet. An assist here. An assist there. And suddenly by the end of his junior season, Danford had captured the school record for assists by a defenseman.
He’s already added to that record, kicking off his senior season with seven points through the first five games, giving him 58 assists and 64 points heading into the Griffs’ weekend series at Ohio State. His 1.00 point-per-game average ranks fourth nationally among defenders.
Danford’s offensive skills from the blue line were honed in his home state of Minnesota and further developed when he started working with one of the best scoring defensemen in NHL history, Phil Housley.
“It was a pretty unbelievable experience. He came in my sophomore year of high school and I couldn’t ask for a better situation because he was a guy who liked to get up in the play and play offensively,” Danford said of working with Housley, who coached at Stillwater High School for eight seasons before taking an assistant coaching job with the Nashville Predators this season.
“Just learning from him in high school helped me understand the game and I thought the way he taught the game and the systems that he placed in practice just helped me advance to the next level and made it easier to pick up things. And then just the little things, even just watching him, he’d always hop in the drills. He’s a competitive guy and just try to mimic what he does as a skater, as a shooter, as a passer. It was a pretty good experience.”
Housley began his 21-year NHL career in Buffalo, playing eight seasons with the Sabres. At the time of his retirement in 2004, he was the NHL’s all-time leader in points (1,232) and games played (1,495) by an American-born player. (Mike Modano and Chris Chelios later broke those records.)
There’s a meshing of art and science, instinct and knowledge, to be an effective offensive defenseman. It’s a process that Housley perfected during his playing days and has been able to pass along as a coach.
“Young kids don’t really understand how to play the game the right way,” Housley said. “You don’t want to be a reckless defender and give up ground to the other team. Ben is a terrific skater and a great competitor. He could cover up jumping into the play with his great skating ability.
“You have to know when to go jump into the play and when to stay back and not be a liability. There’s a great importance in timing. You have a sense of when to go. Don’t force it. Let the game come to you.”
Learning to relax on the ice has been part of the learning process for Danford because while he has a solid hockey sense he can, at times, get carried away.
“Sometimes I get out of control, taking risks and stuff, but I try to remain calm in the game so I can recognize the right opportunities to go and the right opportunities to stay back,” Danford said.
“I’ve definitely gotten better. I think that’s something the coaches and I have talked about ever since my freshman year. I think sometimes you get into a game and you’re so hyped up that you want to go everywhere and you have so much energy but it’s recognizing and being calm within yourself helps you realize that sometimes it’s not a good idea to jump up and leave your other defenseman taking on a two-on-one.”
Danford has put in the work to be successful and durable. He has played in every single game in his Canisius career. That’s 124 straight games, tying him for fifth on the longest active consecutive games played list.
“He came in physically ready and earned the opportunity to contribute right away,” Canisius coach Dave Smith said. “As he has grown into his game and we’ve grown into each other, his responsibilities have gone up. Ultimately, he has rounded out into a very complete player.”
And the ability to round out into a complete player is in part an outcome of the Golden Griffins’ system that values all players contributing to creating offense.
“It starts with hockey sense but you also need the green light from your coaches,” Smith said. “We tell them that we’re committed to having five players involved with the offense. Not four. Not three. You’ve got to have that confidence and when it’s go-time, Ben gets excited about that. … We have confidence in Ben to help our guys create offense.”