California dreamin’

by Mike O’Brien ||
AHL On The Beat Archive

About six miles away from Gardena, California are some of the most famous beaches on the West Coast: Redando, Manhattan and Hermosa to name a few. Venice Beach is just a short jaunt away as well.  It is easy to think of the places and feel the sand under your feet and see the sun kissing the waves cresting on the horizon. What may be more difficult to picture in the mind’s eye is such a setting being the training ground for one of the top scorers on the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins. 

No one hears about where Beau Bennett grew up and immediately thinks hockey hotbed, but it was in the suburbs of Los Angeles where he developed the skills that made him a first round selection (20th overall) of the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2010. His story though is just as common as any other hockey player from Minnesota, Massachusetts or any Canadian province. Instead of ice, Bennett’s beginnings were on asphalt.

“It started with my older brother and me just going to the local park,” Bennett remembered.  “When he played games, I’d get the roller skates on and just putt around the park.” 

Bennett went from slipping his three-year-old feet into strap-on roller stakes to joining an instructional league to learn the basics: how to skate, how to stop and so on. The love of the game was implanted and while many other kids his age were perhaps at the beach, surfing or participating in any other number of activities more suited to the climate of Southern California, Bennett skated on whatever kind of pond he could find.

Sometimes that was indeed a sheet of ice like when he skated for the El Segundo Regents and other times it was concrete for a game of roller hockey. Bennett did not make the full-time switch to ice hockey until his junior year of high school, but he credits his time with the El Segundo Regents youth hockey teams for helping him become the player he is today. One of the Regents’ coaches was a former defenseman, Sandy Gasseau, who played at St. Cloud State and the San Diego Gulls of the former West Coast Hockey League. 

“Sandy was my first-ever coach in Mites and then I had him again [at the] PeeWee [level]. He was a great fundamentals coach. He showed me the ropes and has really helped me out a lot along the way.”

With his talents perhaps outgrowing the Los Angeles youth hockey scene, Bennett headed north of the border to play with the Penticton Vees of the British Columbia Hockey League for the 2009-10 season.  Skating on a line with current Wheeling Nailers forward Denver Manderson, Bennett tied for the league scoring title with 120 points (41g-79a) and was named BCHL Rookie of the Year. 

Though technically the BCHL is considered a step below the big three of Canadian junior hockey leagues (OHL, QMJHL and WHL), it did not deter the Penguins from drafting Bennett with the 20th overall pick in the 2010 NHL Entry Draft.

It was the highest a California native had ever been drafted.

Bennett’s offensive production this year has made Pittsburgh’s investment seem more than worthwhile, but the young Californian had to battle through some adversity during his collegiate years before enjoying success at the pro level.

After a solid freshman year with the University of Denver saw him register nine goals and 16 assists in 37 games, the following season was largely a lost one for Bennett.  He opened up 2011-12 with 13 points (4g-9a) in 10 games, but a wrist injury and ensuing surgery cost him the rest of his sophomore campaign. 

Fully healed by the end of season, Bennett chose to forego his final two years with the Pioneers and signed with the Penguins on April 13.

Until recently, Bennett’s output has somewhat flown under the radar.  He quietly posted six points (1g-6a) in his first seven games, but his coming out party officially occurred on Nov. 14 against the Springfield Falcons.

During a scoreless game in the second period, Bennett twice combined with linemate Riley Holzapfel for the first multi-goal game of a pro career still in its infant stage. Both goals were scored about a foot from each other in the Falcons zone. 

“It’s kind of the area I found in junior hockey that works [for scoring goals],” said Bennett. “I’ve been trying to evolve my game and make it more complete, but that left side right off the net is where I like to hang out.”

It is not surprising to hear Bennett end his sentence with that phrase. It is indicative of the laid-back demeanor of the SoCal native who just celebrated his 21st birthday. His play, while smooth as silk at times, is anything but relaxed. He now leads the Penguins with 13 points (4g-9a), seven of them coming on the power play. 

If he continues to “hang out” in tough areas to find the back of the net and dish out assists on the man-advantage, Bennett will have many more sunny days ahead as a Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguin.