WASHINGTON, D.C.—Every so often, in between watching movies or talking shop on team flights, defenseman Ben Lovejoy will spy his seatmate scanning Twitter and feel the urge to chuck Beau Bennett’s cell out the emergency exit door. Lovejoy keeps an account as well but rarely posts and deleted the app from his phone, too hard on himself after games to mind the peanut gallery. Bennett? Well, six weeks ago the 25-year-old winger posted a picture of himself sitting in the penalty box against Anaheim, with a doctored TV caption that read, INJURY PRONE (PENALIZED AS SAFETY MEASURE).
“It drives me nuts when he makes light of injuries,” says Lovejoy, his smile suggesting a slight dose of tacit tolerance. “I always tell him to stop. But he loves it and he thrives off it. He’s able to poke fun of himself like few I’ve ever seen.”
It’s Thursday night at Verizon Center, and down the hall from the visiting locker room, the fathers of New Jersey’s players wait to continue their annual trip in style. Largely thanks to backup goalie Keith Kincaid’s 43 saves during regulation and overtime, plus two more against Washington’s T.J. Oshie and Evgeny Kuznetsov in the shootout, the Devils won for just the fourth time this month. Bennett, meanwhile, posted a team-high seven individual shot attempts despite finishing with the fifth-least total ice time (13:28).
As his timeline might suggest—see the reweeted picture of an ambulance after the Penguins' run to the 2016 Stanley Cup, which Bennett spent all but one game as a healthy scratch, accompanied by the caption, “Beau Bennett had his own truck for the parade”—it's kind of a big deal that Bennett's playing steadily at all. The 2–1 triumph over the Capitals was his 30th game for New Jersey, where familiar faces were willing to give him a fresh start last summer, and just his 138th overall in pro hockey over the past three-plus regular seasons.
During that span, he’s undergone wrist surgery; required knee braces to skate; hurt himself celebrating a goal; suffered chronic shoulder issues; fallen ill with the mumps; and, for the second time in his career, cut in practice. Naturally, this all begat plenty of wise-eggs on Twitter. Strangely, dark humor hatched in Bennett. Like…
“It’s all perspective, right?” he said Thursday morning. “I’m still able to play in the NHL. Honestly, the stuff other people deal with.… I went to the children’s hospital a lot in Pittsburgh, and saw little kids battling for their lives. They can’t even leave the hospital, and I’m supposed to be upset because I’m in a locker room with some of the great hockey players of our time? It’s not hard to be a good person. It’s not hard to put a smile on your face.
“I think when I was younger, I was new to social media and new to being in the forefront of media stuff, [and] when people would chirp me and stuff, I just took the high road in terms of deleting my Twitter, because you can’t go at fans. I didn't want to read it. Now, for some reason, a switch went off in my brain, and I love it. It entertains me. The meaner people are, the harder I laugh.”
Never say that Bennett fails to reciprocate the entertainment. A piano player since childhood, he’ll gladly pound out some OneRepublic or Van Halen at parties. When he brought the Stanley Cup back home to California last summer, the celebration included a 200-person party on Manhattan Beach near Los Angeles that moved into a local dockside haunt at night, where they bumped into the Cavaliers’ Richard Jefferson, fresh off an NBA title. In 2010, 45 seconds into the University of Denver’s first preseason practice, then-coach George Gwozdecky spotted Bennett, one of his prized recruits, flip the puck into the air, track it onto his stick, lift the stick into midair, angle the blade at the ground and “spin around like a whirling dervish, with the puck staying on his blade. It blew the guys’ minds.”
“In hockey we have different terms for guys,” explains Eric Tangradi, a former teammate in Pittsburgh’s organization. “We’ll say, ‘He’s such a western Canadian boy.’ Or, ‘He’s such a Quebec kid.’ Well, Beau’s such a Cali kid. He takes a lot of pride in what he does, but at the same time, the California motto is just to have fun, dress like a surfer, be real cool, calm and collected.”
Boy-band hair and beach-body abs aside, Bennett doesn't become the hockey player he is today without home. He started on the roller rinks of southern California, strapping his shoes into the four-wheel skates and puttering around parking lots and parks, where the plastic boards were only several inches tall because the kids weren’t yet strong enough to lift the puck any higher. His first tournament was held outside the old Great Western Forum; games were held from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., and afterward, each team got free tickets to watch the Kings play inside at 7. He took up ice hockey around age 8 but kept playing both until high school. The move that floored Gwozdecky and the Pioneers? Courtesy of concrete.
“It’s a lot of one-on-one, a lot of patience,” Bennett says. “No offsides, no hitting, no icing, 4-on-4. The puck’s lighter, the goalies can’t slide, so there’s really an emphasis on passing and playmaking. I wish there was a national roller hockey league, but it’s fun to keep it separate. It’s more laidback, relaxed. You literally can be with your buddies, leave your skates on for all 10 hours of the day, rolling around the rink, eating a cheeseburger, then you warm up in five minutes.”
Bennett stayed in the area until he was 17, longer than most who hope to make it and leave for more hockey-rich areas. He blitzed through one season with the Penticon Vees of the British Columbia Hockey League—120 points in 56 games—and that summer got drafted with the 20th pick by Pittsburgh, the highest anyone from California had ever been chosen.
His freshman season at Denver went well enough (25 points in 37 games) as his off-ice dedication ramped up—“I wasn’t taking it too serious as far as the training aspect, nutrition in B.C.,” he says—and Bennett kicked off his sophomore year with a big goal in a road win over eventual NCAA champion Boston College, which was led by Chris Kreider and Johnny Gaudreau.
Then fate started dealing him some fluky fortune. “There was a collision he made with one of his teammates,” Gwozdecky says, “and the teammate came down just above the cuff of his glove with his skate blade. [He] suffered a really deep gash in and around the wrist area.” Bennett needed surgery, played only 10 games in 2011–12 and turned pro shortly thereafter. “He was a phenomenal talent,” Gwozdecky says. “Had a great knack for seeing people and making plays. He could score. Very patient with the puck. But unfortunately he ran into some real bad luck.”
It would be reasonable to reflect on the roadblocks with anger or remorse, but the truth is Bennett fells quite happy in New Jersey. It was around 8 a.m. in California when the Penguins traded his RFA rights for a third-round pick; assistant general manager Bill Guerin called from the NHL draft floor in Buffalo to deliver the news. Upon hearing that the Devils were his destination, Bennett had no trouble falling back asleep. Between head coach John Hynes and assistant Alain Nasreddine (his former minor-league bosses in Scranton/Wilkes-Barre) and GM Ray Shero, who held the same job in Pittsburgh, Bennett knew he was headed somewhere comfortable.
“It didn’t make me stay awake and think about all the different possibilities, if I had gone to a place with more unknowns,” he says. “It was a pretty seamless transition.” He moved into a loft apartment in Jersey City with his girlfriend and started considering living there full-time; recently, they hosted ex-Penguins teammate Jayson Megna, now with Vancouver, for a dinner of chicken parm when the Canucks were in town. Lovejoy signed a three-year, $8 million deal on July 1, one week after his close friend and road seatmate landed there; the same day, Bennett inked a one-year contract worth $720,000.
Hynes, whom Bennett credits with helping to add physicality and pace to his once-methodical style, has deployed him steadily at 13:47 per game, around his career high; against Washington, he was on the second line alongside P.A. Parenteau and Adam Henrique, New Jersey’s two leading goal-scorers. Pittsburgh GM Jim Rutherford has said other clubs inquired about Bennett, but it’s clear that familiarity backed New Jersey’s bid.
“He’s got to make an impact in the NHL this year in order to continue to play,” Hynes said Thursday. “That’s something both [Shero] and I had talked to him about. He’s a very talented player. He’s been hurt quite a bit.… I think if you look at the upside of Beau Bennett, if he comes in here and he plays well, he can add some offense or skill to our lineup, and he turns into a good NHL player, then it’s a great thing for our organization.”
In other words, now's the time. Through 30 games Bennett’s underlying numbers are strong—the Devils attempt 7.95% more shots with him on the ice at 5-on-5, the best relative mark on the team according to Corsica.hockey—but his only goal came Nov. 23 against Toronto, and, in one more cruel twist, he missed time on injured reserve because of a right leg laceration sustained during practice. “I feel like I’ve been playing well, just the production’s been lacking,” he says. “I hope I don’t shoot 2% for the rest of my career. That would be very poor for me.”
Blunt self-awareness has always been Bennett’s hallmark, which fully explains his turn on Twitter. At one time, the jabs got to him; he’d lie awake at night, brain churning. After going down in a September 2014 practice, he felt compelled to post an apology to fans—“I haven't had the best luck and no one is more mad/sad than me. It's getting embarrassing, I'm sorry”—and soon after shuttered the account.
For some black-humored reason, three straight shoulder injuries last season—suffered “back-to-back-to-back”—helped Bennett round the corner. “It honestly turned me into a mental warrior,” he says. Once, a fan reached out claiming that Bennett had acted like an ass when they met. That bugged him. (“I responded through a DM,” he says. “A miscommunication.”) But self-deprecating tweets during the World Cup about his abilities? Counting “medical insurance” among his Thanksgiving blessings? Dismissing his lack of inclusion on the Stanley Cup? An Instagram bio that begins with “Damaged goods…”? Pretty Cali-kid of him.
“Last year, it was a tough year personally, but our team won,” he says. “I was happy to be there with my friends to cheer them on. I’m glad I didn’t get any recognition because I didn’t do anything to achieve it. But it’s like 20 of your best buddies won the lottery, you’d still be happy for them, and you get to reap a little bit of the benefits even though you were basically just a fan with the best seat in the house.”
And Bennett appreciates a good show. In fact, he remembers seeing a piano in the lobby of the team hotel in D.C. Maybe he’ll pull up the bench after lunch this afternoon, play one of the tunes he’s memorized—maybe “Right Now,” by Van Halen. The lyrics to the second verse go like this:
Miss the beat, you lose the rhythm And nothing falls into place, no Only missed by a fraction Slipped a little off your pace, oh The more things you get, the more you want Just trade in one for the other Workin' so hard, to make it easier, whoa Got to turn, c'mon turn this thing around