By Christine Troyke
Gwinnett Daily Post
DULUTH, Ga. – Called into head coach Jeff Pyle’s office for an interview after practice, Josh Bennett sits down in full gear.
Sure, he just got off the ice, but Bennett doesn’t even ditch his helmet or gloves before coming in to talk.
It’s symbolic of his efforts with the Gwinnett Gladiators this season. Bennett has always been ready to go for the Gladiators, getting signed and waived twice before finding himself on a regular shift recently — and just in time for a playoff run.
The 25-year-old winger could certainly have found a spot elsewhere when he didn’t make Gwinnett’s roster after training camp. But his wife Maranda had taken a job here in December 2004 and Bennett wasn’t really planning on playing professional hockey this season.
After bouncing around the pro leagues for three seasons, including a 37-game stint in Augusta where he met his wife, Bennett was going to focus on working as a firefighter. He trained as a volunteer while in Augusta during the 2003-04 season and earned his certification about two years ago.
“I wasn’t going to play,” Bennett said. “Then I talked to Jeff in June. “I had calls to go to some other leagues or other teams. (But) I talked to my wife and the only way I was going to play is if it was here. She’s got a good job here and we’re not interested in doing the long distance thing anymore.”
After camp, the Gladiators ended up with several players sent down from their American Hockey League affiliate in Chicago and Bennett was odd-man out.
Pyle called again in early December when leading scorers Chris Durno and Scott Kelman went up to the AHL.
Bennett played in six games and was waived. The process was repeated again in the middle of January and Bennett dressed for four more games with Gwinnett. Seven games later, and he was signed for a third time on Feb. 7.
Since then, Bennett has been an important part of the Gladiators success. His physical style, strict adherence to the systems and willingness to play whatever role Pyle asks, has earned him an everyday spot with the No. 1 team in the conference.
“I don’t see Bennie going anywhere,” Pyle said. “I’ll probably keep him on my roster the rest of the year because I like him. He’s great, I mean great, in systems. He knows where to be. It plays to his strengths. And he’s unbelievably coachable.
“Everybody knows he’s a team guy.”
The second time Bennett rejoined the team, he was a little out of shape. Gaining a couple of pounds over the holidays wouldn’t be that detrimental for most people, but it’s a whole different deal for professional athletes.
“It was tough coming back (in January),” said Bennett, who could be found after practice riding the stationary bike in the back hallway of the locker room. “But I think I’ve worked pretty hard to get back in shape and I feel a lot better out there, a lot more confident.”
He doesn’t have a lot of points (two goals and four assists), but the Gladiators have plenty of offense and that’s not what Pyle needs from the Ottawa native. Bennett is smart and hard-nosed, which is not the easiest combination to pull off.
“I’ve never been a fancy player,” Bennett said.
“Sometimes,” he adds with a laugh, “I might be a little too repetitive, but it’s just I perfect my systems and that’s the way I’ve always played.
“Some of these guys have the skills to try things. I just try and stick to what everyone’s doing. I find it real easy. I’ve been playing mainly with (captain Cam Brown) and (Adam Smyth). We all sort of play the same game and have been doing pretty well. We’re all on the same page.”
Gwinnett, 44-12-7 this season and leading its division by 10 points, has been good all year. But the Gladiators have found room for improvement down the stretch and are poised to make a serious run at the Kelly Cup.
No fool — and no stranger to postseason success — Bennett understands he could be part of something special.
As a rookie out of the major junior Ontario Hockey League, Bennett was a member of a Mississippi team that made it to the conference finals. The following year, Bennett was traded from Augusta to Louisiana in time for the playoffs there.
“It’s nice playing on such a good team,” he said. “My first two years in this league I was on first-place teams and went to the playoffs. We went to the semifinals my first year and got beat in the second round, by the Gladiators actually, when I was in Louisiana.
“We had some good teams, but this is by far the best chemistry, the best group of guys. It’s just one of those things that’s nice to be a part of.”
Even if you have to get waived twice first.