Leading the Way: An Interview With Michigan Captain Mac Bennett
Bennett handles the puck in the second period against UMass-Lowell on October 26, 2013. The Wolverines lost 2-1. Photo by Andrew Knapik, andrewknapikphotography.com
By David Malinowski (@dmmm14)
In front of the Michigan bench at Yost Ice Arena is a block M surrounded by the following statistics: “Nine National Championships, 87 all-Americans, 28 conference championships, 92 years of hockey.” Each and every game, a squad of twenty five dresses to play a game that has history on its shoulders.
The University of Michigan has a top ten program in virtually every academic area that it has on campus. Engineering, Liberal Arts, the Ross School of Business, the Economics program, the medical school, and a multitude of other categories fulfill Michigan’s true purpose of higher level academia. Academia takes place to the north of Hill Street, where classrooms span across two campuses that stretch for miles.
Walk south of Hill Street on the eastern most thoroughfare of State Street, and you’ll walk upon the Athletic Campus, which is one of the crown jewels of the University of Michigan, and fulfills the physical need of what completes the maize and blue identity.
Next to the gleaming Crisler Center and Michigan Stadium comes a set of railroad tracks. Cross those, and you’ll find one of the oldest field houses in North America, Yost Ice Arena. From Monday to Thursday, the Michigan Men’s ice hockey team practices as the coaches skate the players into the ice, through fatigue and obstacles thick and thin. However, there’s one guy that stands out, and he is none other than captain and number one defenseman.
Sit in the stands for a practice session and you’ll notice a defenseman with his helmet off, proudly sporting a thick beard and messy curly hair while taking shots from the blue line.
Meet Mac Bennett, a native of Narragansett, Rhode Island. Standing at an even six feet and weighing in at 189 pounds, Bennett was drafted 79th overall by the Montréal Canadiens in the 2009 NHL Entry Draft. As a senior at the University of Michigan, Bennett majors in Musicology at the College of Literature, Sciences, and the Arts. “Not a lot of people have heard of it,” Bennett said with a smile to a media scrum at a Canadiens development camp this past summer.
Mac considers himself a man of diverse interests, and jokingly talks about his lack of social skills or creative Halloween costume ideas. He is not the prototypical college athlete, and he takes care of himself both out on the ice and inside the classroom. There’s a lot more to that him than meets the eye.
“It’s special. It’s a cool feeling [wearing the C]. There’s so many people that have worn the C before me that are off doing unbelievable things both in hockey and outside of hockey. To have my name thrown into the mix with them is humbling.” For one of the more eloquent personalities that often meet the eye, Mac knows what his job is and what he has to take care of on and off the ice. “I want to move everyone in the right direction,” Bennett said. “After last season, we struggled. It sucks. It sucks to be a part of the team that broke the [22 year NCAA tournament] streak, and we want to make sure that this is the team that starts a new one.”
As a native of New England, Mac was no stranger growing up around a hockey crazed family and atmosphere. Many accomplished hockey players often talk about memories of playing on ponds in northern Canada or waking up early every morning to go to the rink with a parent, one of whom was an NHL prospect himself.
Not Mac Bennett.
Mac grew up in a community right on the edge of the Long Island Sound, a town with a humbling population of just under 16,000. More known as a summer spot in the shadows of Cape Cod, the population doubles to over 34,000 during the warmer months. Putting two and two together means a closer and much smaller community to grow with during the year, one that Mac shared with fellow native and Michigan teammate, Derek DeBlois.
“Every winter we’d freeze ‘something’ so we’d have ice,” Bennett said with a smile. “One year, we froze our deck, and it was small, probably the size of this whole [12×6] platform right here, and my little sister, who’s two years younger than me, we put her on skates and she was on double runners.”
There was more to the story; he continued, “I mean, we were four years old at the time,” Bennett paused to laugh, “and me and Derek were just firing pucks at her. My dad was livid and my mom would come out screaming ‘what are you doing?!’ It’s kind of wild that I’m here [at Michigan] now.”
As a stay at home defenseman with flashes of two way instinct, Mac’s path to Michigan was a unique one, at least for a CCHA/Big 10 school. Mac spent his high school years at the Hotchkiss School in Lakeville, Connecticut, then electing to join the USHL with the Cedar Rapids RoughRiders, where he recorded 23 points in 53 games, finishing as a +17.
However, when asked about his development history, Mac chooses to refer to much humbler roots back in Rhode Island. “I had a coach growing up named Dennis Vaske who played with the New York Islanders,” he said. “He was a great coach just because he was a little kid trapped in a big guy’s body.”
Interestingly enough, Vaske is roughly the same stature as Bennett, reaching roughly the same height and about 40 pounds more. “He made coming to the rink so much fun, and he was so easy to be around, and he taught me so much about the game. He was a defenseman as well so I got to pick his brain on everything.”
Whereas most players like to mention a favorite player or family member as a first instinct, Mac chose Vaske. Mac knew so much about Dennis both on and off of the ice. Bennett, sparing his dad, called Vaske, “probably the most influential hockey person in my life.” Perhaps it might have been the similarity in playing style or physical characteristics, but Vaske was never known for being overly offensive, rather a guy who played defense by keeping the puck out of the net. “For me I’m a defenseman, so I have to play defense first, then everything else is kind of a bonus.”
Mac Bennett on draft day in 2009. Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images North America
Watching a game, it is not hard to see how Mac plays. If his team is down and in need of goals, he will be seen carrying the puck down towards the red line or driving to the net. He has fantastic hands and is usually the team’s go to crunch time defenseman. Mac does not talk too much about joining the rush, stating “Defensemen play defense.” However, that’s his style. Mac’s personality is the team.
Red Berenson, the head coach of Michigan hockey since the mid 1980s, knows this about Mac. “If you’re a good team person, you like to do what you can to make it better, and that’s what Mac Bennett is doing.” If that means keeping the locker room loose or trying for a desperation goal late in a game against a big name HockeyEast team, Mac will translate his style into the right situation.
With the loss of two big name defensemen to the pros, Jacob Trouba (Winnipeg) and Jon Merrill (New Jersey), most teams consider the Wolverines full of holes on defense, and the loss of several other players to graduation means that the Wolverines had to dip deep into their recruiting pool and pull out a lot of young players. In fact, behind Boston College, the Wolverines are the second youngest NCAA hockey team in the nation. However, Mac is undoubtedly the anchor of the blue line.
The Wolverines, therefore, do not have much room to give into a seniority leadership style. “One thing we’re really trying to stress in that locker room is that everyone’s equal,” Mac spoke of the team’s youth. “It doesn’t matter if you’re a senior or a freshman. I think if you have something that needs to be said, speak up.”
Red Berenson spoke highly of his leadership group, and had special words for his top leader. “He’s a captain. He’s here for the right reasons. He’s a captain for the right reasons, and he’s embraced this; he’s all in,” Berenson said.
“He’s a Michigan kid,” Berenson continued, “He’s a good role model.”
Michigan is one of the founding members of the Big Ten Conference, and with the dissolution of the CCHA, it has a chance to bring its prestigious hockey program into a bigger and better stage. “There’s a lot more out of conference games, and we’ve experienced that already.”
Bennett put himself into the shoes of a younger, aspiring hockey player, regressing into his younger self, if only for a minute; “It’s going to be good for Michigan, it’s going to be good for college hockey just because there’s so many games that are televised. There’s going to be kids who are playing junior, or playing midget, or whatever who are watching these games and they’re going to say ‘I want to go to Michigan’ or ‘I want to go to Minnesota’ solely because they’re going to play on TV.”
Bennett spoke about waiting outside of the rink, watching older players practicing and scrimmaging, calling them “walking gods.” Bennett finds it funny how he has come to be on the other side of that, but deep down he has the opportunity to make a childhood dream of playing professional hockey come true. “That’s something I’ve really never thought about, but yeah I guess it’s kind of strange [to mull over].”
“I’m not really looking too far forward,” said Bennett about possibly joining the Hamilton Bulldogs at the end of this season. “It is cliche to say I’m taking it one game at a time, but it is true. I figure if I can do everything right at this level, everything will work itself out when I make the jump.”
As for any unfinished business at the University of Michigan, “I want win a national championship. I want to get a ring; I want to put a banner up in the stands. My freshman year we got to go to the frozen four. That was the standard for our class,” said Bennett. “We start there and we end there as a class.”
It’s very interesting how Bennett talks a lot about coming full circle, and his actions reflect upon it. He is a walking example of taking every positive experience from his life and translating it into tangible knowledge and action.
Bennett knows he’s in for a wild ride when he graduates in the spring. He’s loaded up with credits and has acknowledged that he is stuck in the Michigan hockey bubble, not tuning in to see how his future club is doing. “I’m trying to graduate on time, I haven’t watched much hockey.”
Whatever happens, Bennett is focused on the team. “We have a lot of fun in that locker room. I think probably more so this year than any other year, this is a really close team, and that’s by design.” Like the kid learning from Dennis Vaske back in Rhode Island, Bennett loves coming to the rink every day, he loves interacting with his team, and he leads by example. However, in order to truly come full circle, Bennett has one thing left on his list: to learn French before heading north of the border full time.
“I don’t know any French,” Bennett said with a big grin. “I wish I did because the women up there are absolutely beautiful.”