Anchorage — Post-practice one morning this week, Spencer Bennett leaned against a table in the ice-level hallway at Sullivan Arena, within a stick length of two dressing rooms. One room was once supposed to become his hockey home. The other room has recently become just that.
Bennett, who four years ago committed to join UAA in 2010, eventually went the major-junior route in the Western Hockey League, which was followed by an injury-plagued, NHL lockout-hampered first season and a half as a pro.
The 22-year-old winger came to Anchorage in 2009 on a recruiting visit with UAA, toured Sullivan Arena, stayed at the Hotel Captain Cook and dined at Moose's Tooth. But when the Calgary Flames drafted him in the fifth round that summer, they steered him away from UAA and to the WHL, where he delivered 37-33--70 totals in 72 games his final junior season of 2010-11. Then, a month ago, the ECHL-leading Aces acquired Bennett, technically still a rookie because he has played so few pro games, in a trade with Orlando.
"It's kind of ironic, after all that, I'm here,'' Bennett said. "It was a little deja vu walking down this hallway.''
But he could hardly be happier to be in Anchorage. In nearly two seasons of pro hockey, Bennett has played all of 28 games. The 6-foot-4, 200-pounder is trending well, though -- he has played 12 straight games for the Aces and helped boost their attack with 6-4--10 totals.
A broken wrist suffered in practice limited Bennett to nine games with the American Hockey League's Portland Pirates and four games with the ECHL's Gwinnett Gladiators as a rookie last season. Once his wrist healed, he hadn't played enough ECHL games to qualify to play with Gwinnett in the playoffs. This season, with jobs scarce because of the lockout, he didn't land a gig until after Christmas, and even then he couldn't regularly crack Orlando's lineup and played just three games for the Solar Bears.
"I was very excited when I found out I was coming here,'' said Bennett, who the Aces acquired for goaltender James Reid. "I had no idea what my role would be, trying to grind it out, or what it is, getting some points.''
Bennett said three of his Orlando teammates, former Aces Derick Martin, Ryan Cruthers and Alain Goulet, all spoke highly of the organization, which got him even more excited. Bennett joined the Aces in Las Vegas earlier this month and almost immediately started getting top-line and power-play minutes.
"I think he's got a lot of upside,'' said Aces coach Rob Murray. "He skates well for his size. He's brought the offensive skill we hoped he would. He goes to the net, he finds the rebounds, he finishes his checks. That's what I was looking for.''
Murray knew of Bennett because Bennett's agent had been active earlier this season in trying to find his client a job. But the Aces had more than a full roster, even with multiple injuries.
"One day I thought, 'Wonder where that Bennett ended up?' '' Murray said. "I checked and I saw he was in Orlando.''
The Solar Bears sought a goaltender. The Aces had three of those, with Reid ready to come back from a length ankle injury. A deal was done.
And the Aces got an infusion of offense they coveted.
"He's got a touch about him,'' said Alaska's leading scorer Nick Mazzolini, who has centered Bennett. "He's tall, big and throws his body around. He's got tools.''
Bennett also has his health and a regular spot in the lineup, neither of which he is taking for granted after nearly two seasons of intermittent hockey in which he went through the "Why me?'' stage and read motivational books to stay positive.
"I'm just trying to work every day to keep it going because I've seen what happens when things don't go well,'' Bennett said.
Shuffling the deck
Winger Alexandre Imbeault, who missed the last four games with a bum back, was back at practice Wednesday and will likely be in the lineup Thursday.
Winger Garry Nunn, who missed the last game with a lower-body injury, was also back practicing Wednesday but his status for the series opener with Bakersfield is unclear. Defenseman Mike Baran, who missed the last game with an upper-body injury, remains out.
Winger Tim Hall, who has been out since the first week of the season with an upper-body injury, is back practicing and cleared for contact.
The Trupp family of Anchorage will be well represented on the Sullivan ice this week. Evan Trupp, 25, is a forward for the Condors and owns 5-22--27 totals in 57 games. Hayden Trupp, 20, is a freshman winger for UAA, which plays UAF on Saturday night at Sullivan.
Find Doyle Woody's blog at adn.com/hockeyblog or call him at 257-4335.