These past two months have been sheer torture for Nick Bennett.
During this time, the senior defenseman has been a fixture at Adelard Arena, practicing with his Mount St. Charles teammates late every weekday afternoon. But once the weekend rolls around, he’s had to take off his skates, step off to the side, and be a mere spectator as the Mounties took the ice for their Division I and non-league games.
That’s because Bennett, who returned to Mount after spending his junior year at the Pomfret School, a prep school in Pomfret, Conn., had to sit out the first half of the season, as required for transfer students in the RIIL’s bylaws.
But with the Mounties’ season a game past its midway point, Bennett is cleared to play again. That means the No. 16 jerseys that have been idly hanging in his locker can be dusted off, and instead of sitting back and watching his teammates play, the Smithfield native will now have the best seat in the house -- the blue line.
“It’s great to be playing again,” Bennett said with a smile before his team’s Tuesday afternoon practice. “I’ve been practicing here every day, just itching to play, and now I’m going to be back. It really feels great and I can’t wait to get out there.”
“Nick and Ben (Handanyan) are our top two defensemen and it’s nice to have them playing together again,” added MSC coach Dave Belisle. “Nick’s the type of player that does everything for us, and now we’re able to have a full week of practice where we can incorporate him into everything -- shorthanded (situations), power plays, you name it.”
Bennett’s return comes at a perfect time for the defending champions, who are facing their toughest weekend of the regular season with a late Friday night showdown at Thayer Arena against unbeaten Bishop Hendricken and a Saturday night special back at Adelard against second-place La Salle.
The Mounties, who are 5-4 and battling Moses Brown (5-5-1) for third place in the standings, have already lost twice to the Hawks (10-0-1) and Rams (6-3-1), but Bennett hopes he can help his teammates turn the tables on their two longtime parochial rivals.
“I think there’s still plenty of time to catch them,” he noted. “I know I missed four games against them, but we still have to play each team twice and we’re playing them both this weekend. We’ll see what happens.”
And while Bennett brings back to the Mounties an established defensive player and a physical presence, he also adds something that the team needs -- a bit of offensive punch.
“He’s going to help us there,” Belisle said of Bennett, who contributed four goals and 13 assists as a sophomore. “He can shoot the puck, carry the puck, and move the puck, and we need that on the back line.”
Bennett’s game on Friday against Hendricken ironically won’t be his first of the season with the Mounties. He was allowed to play in Mount’s non-league game at Fenway Park against Cathedral High of Springfield, Mass.
“The (RIIL) let him do it because of the fact that’s it a one-time opportunity,” said Belisle, “and because he was allowed to play in that game, they pushed (his return) back a game, so he sat out Monday against Barrington. So we gave up Barrington for Fenway and it was a good deal for him.”
Bennett thought he was getting a good deal after his sophomore year when he decided to accept a scholarship to play at Pomfret, join two of his ex-Mount teammates, Evan Hoffman and Shane Dunphy, and test his skills on the prep hockey level.
And despite missing some time with injuries, Bennett saw plenty of action with the Bobcats, who went 13-11-2 and suffered a quarterfinal-round exit in the New England prep school playoffs. But he eventually realized that the prep school scene wasn’t for him.
“It was a good experience and I learned a lot from it, but it wasn’t for me,” said Bennett. “I didn‘t really like living away from home, and I don’t think I was mature enough yet to be away from my friends. I just wasn’t ready for it.
“But it was good hockey over there. I played a lot, and my reason for leaving had nothing to do with hockey. I just wanted to be back home.”
Of course, Bennett isn’t the first player to leave Mount for a prep school, and if history is any indication, he certainly won’t be the last.
For the past several seasons, the Mounties have found themselves losing two or three of their top underclassmen to prep schools. After last year, when they won their fourth straight Division I state crown, two of their best defensemen jumped ship to take the prep route.
During the state finals at Providence College’s Schneider Arena, coaches from a handful of New England’s prep schools are usually out in full force, scattered through the rink and watching the action on the ice like vultures waiting to scoop down and snatch their prey.
Belisle is well aware of those coaches and their matter of business, and he also knows that his program isn’t the only one that loses players annually. La Salle and Hendricken have also experienced their share of untimely departures.
“Basically, all you can do is just coach your players and hope that they do stay,” admitted Belisle. “You offer them the best opportunity possible. The way we coach our team, we’re not threatened by anybody leaving, and we’re certainly not going to do anything special for a kid just to keep him here.
“There could be kids right now who are considering leaving and I don’t know anything about it. I have to deal with this team, and at the end of the year, you ask (those who want to leave), ‘Was this situation good enough for you? Was the practice time there? Did the school offer you more than just hockey?’ ”
Obviously, the dollar bill is king, and Belisle knows that the bright lure of a five-figure scholarship to attend a prestigious school is usually too attractive for a young standout player to brush away.
“When you have people waving dollars at you and stuff, it’s really difficult to pass that up,” he said. “What are you going to do? We hope that our situation is better than that. We can offer someone good coaching, plenty of ice time, and an excellent community school that we feel is second to none.
“It’s a pretty easy job to sit there, pick the guys that you want, and offer them scholarship money that we cant obviously offer,” Belisle continued. “To me, that’s easy coaching. We have the more difficult task where we don’t recruit kids; they just come here, and we play fair and don’t make any promises. And I think it’s much more rewarding as a player to earn what you’re getting rather to be given it on a silver platter. When a kid comes here, tries out, and earns a spot, I think it’s much more satisfying to him.”
While Bennett is one of a number of players to leave Mount, he is also one of the very rare exceptions to come back to the school and conclude their high school career.
“He’s one of the first to have done that,” said Belisle. “I know we’ve had a lot of kids who left and never gone any farther than if they would have stayed. And that’s factual. My brother, Peter, came up with a list of names that have left and gone on, and if they would have stayed here, they would have enjoyed their whole high school career and still been where they ended up.
“We’ve had one or two players that went Division I (in college), and that’s after playing four years of high school, then prep school, then two or three years of junior hockey, and then they’re 24-year-old freshmen. If you’re patient enough to wait for that, then God bless you.”
There are several pros and cons between playing at the high school and prep levels. The obvious pro concerning the prep level is the very high level of action players face night after night. As for the high school ranks?
“In high school hockey, your student body’s there and you have a lot of fanfare and support from your school,” said Belisle. “In prep school hockey, you’re basically playing for your scholarship and to impress scouts. In high school, there’s less pressure. You enjoy the moment more. Why pass up something that could be one of the best times of your life? And why miss out on a big opportunity to possibly do something great and have some fun? That’s something you might have to ask yourself.”