By Anna Fogel | AHL On The Beat Archive
Andre Benoit plays more than the game of hockey with a smile on his face.
It’s become customary to spot the Chicago Wolves defenseman with an engaging grin when he’s running sprints in the tunnel before a game, when he’s walking onto the ice before practice, or when he’s kicking back and cracking jokes with his teammates. Benoit has exuded almost nothing but positive vibes in his first season with the team. But when it comes to his smiley ways, it’s just business as usual for the 32-year-old.
“I’ve heard a lot of that lately, I don’t know, I guess everyone else is grumpy,” Benoit said with a laugh. “I think I’m a happy guy and I think the more positive you can be, the more positive things happen.”
Benoit’s cheery disposition extends even further off the ice, though, at home with his wife, Kelly, and their daughters Emma, 7, and Hailey, 4. The hockey journeyman has played in five countries and suited up for nine pro teams over his career, seemingly moving around after every season, but the one consistency in his life remains his three girls at home, who have been along for almost the entirety of the ride and who are the reason for that grin that’s consistently plastered on his face.
“I think it’s getting to that point where it’s a little bit tougher on the family to move around every year,” Benoit said. “I think I’ve changed cities every year for the last eight or nine years, but I have a very understanding wife. She understands the game and how it is and how we have to work with wherever you are.
“She does a great job of making a home in whatever city we end up in and the girls, my two daughters, are really understanding too. They’re still at that age where as long as we’re a family and we’re together, they’re good. I don’t know how many years that’ll be the case, but it’s been good so far.”
To say there were a few pit stops the Benoits had to make before landing in Chicago would be an understatement to the highest degree. After logging five years of juniors with the Kitchener Rangers of the Ontario Hockey League, where he set the franchise record for most points by a defenseman with 299 in 324 regular-season games, Benoit went undrafted.
From there, Benoit began his pro career in the 2005-06 season with the Hamilton Bulldogs of the American Hockey League and helped them capture the Calder Cup during his second season with the team. Benoit then took his talents overseas, playing in Finland for a season before packing his bags to Sweden and eventually to Russia for a year in the Kontinental Hockey League.
Benoit returned to Hamilton for the 2009-10 season before making his long-awaited NHL debut with the Ottawa Senators in 2011. Benoit has bounced between the AHL and the top level since, appearing in 181 games between the Senators, Colorado Avalanche, Buffalo Sabres and St. Louis Blues.
But Benoit was never alone throughout his zigzagging journey. He met his wife through a mutual friend while he was playing juniors and taking classes in Kitchener. Kelly, who was also going to school at the time, had a childhood that prepared her for a life of constantly moving around, as her father is former NHL netminder Rick Wamsley.
“She went to Finland, Sweden, and Russia with me and has been very supportive,” Benoit said. “From what I hear she yells at me when I’m on the ice, but she doesn’t yell at me when I get home, so it’s nice that way.”
Two became three while Benoit was playing in his fourth-year pro in Sweden when Kelly had their first daughter, Emma.
“It was a tough year hockey-wise,” Benoit said. “We had a pretty bad team, so that kind of made everything happy and good, having our first child.”
Their second daughter was born three years later in Canada. While all of the flights, hotels, apartments, teams, and countries can be grueling for a family to endure—not to mention confusing, as Benoit recalls Hailey briefly believed their hotel in Russia was their home—the ever-optimistic Benoit remains grateful and realistic about his career, making the best out of each stop along the way.
“I mean, there’s a finite amount of time to play, but at some point it’s going to become a family decision. It is a family decision, but we realize there’s only a certain amount of years left and we’ve got to make the most of it.”
Benoit has certainly made the most out of his time with the Wolves in the first four months of the season, quickly falling into a leadership role while serving as an excellent example to the younger guys on the team, not to mention clicking instantly and becoming fast friends with fellow veteran and defensive partner Peter Harrold as well as captain Pat Cannone, who both live a mile down the road from Benoit in Arlington Heights—a suburb of Chicago.
“He’s really good with the younger guys,” said Cannone, who played with Benoit for a season in Binghamton. “Even though he’s older, he’s easy to approach, he gives you the time of day. He’s great like that, he leads by example, and I think he’s been great for the younger guys, showing them what it takes and how to be a good teammate.”
Benoit’s contributions on the ice have been hard to ignore, as well, as he ranks among the top AHL defensemen in scoring, pacing Chicago with 27 points in 50 games, while also contributing 1 goal and 2 assists to help the Central Division capture the 2016 AHL All-Star Challenge title.
“It’s a great locker room to be a part of and it’s been a lot of fun,” Benoit said. “Winning makes everything more fun. You know, even if I smile all of the time, it’s easier when we’re winning.”
But that’s all secondary for the blue-liner, who is a dad first and hockey player second.
“Well, family is No. 1 for sure. And then hockey is what I do and it’s important, but you know family life is for sure what’s No. 1 and it’s just a matter of playing hard when I’m at the rink and then when I leave I have to leave everything here—good or bad—and go home and be a dad.”
For Benoit, being a dad entails having as much fun as he has on the ice—if not more so—at home with his daughters. Between dance parties, watching skits his kids perform, arranging play dates with Harrold’s kids and Cody Beach’s family and, of course, visiting Dave & Buster’s frequently, Benoit takes full advantage of any and all free time he gets away from the rink.
Of course, now some of his free time is actually spent at a rink, albeit a different one. Benoit’s older daughter decided this year she wanted to follow in dad’s footsteps and to start playing hockey, so attending practice with Emma has been added to the list.
“I got to go on the ice with her, which was awesome. You know, she showed interest and it’s her first year playing this year and she’s having a lot of fun.”
Something she clearly learned from dad.