Draft prospect Sam Bennett keeps his chin up over chin-up flap

Ken Campbell
Bennett

NEW YORK – When Gary Roberts showed up for his first training camp in Calgary, he was able to do two chin-ups. These days, in case you haven’t noticed, he’s a fitness freak. Brett Hull’s teammates in Jr. A hockey nicknamed him ‘Pickle’ in deference to his endomorphic body type. And Drew Doughty, who is currently dominating the Stanley Cup final, had body fat in excess of 20 percent in his draft year. Mario Lemieux used to finish near the bottom of the Pittsburgh Penguins roster when it came to bench press in pre-season testing.

So the fact that Sam Bennett of the Kingston Frontenacs could not complete one chin-up at the NHL scouting combine recently is an interesting, and amusing, story, but all it means is that he’s clueless. Like a lot of the kids in the draft, Bennett probably believed until now that he was working really, really hard off the ice. And while it might create a red flag for some teams, anyone passing on him because he can’t do a chin-up – actually he reported on Monday that he can now do two – risks ignoring the player who might turn out to be the best of the 2014 draft.

If it’s bothering Bennett leading into the draft, he’s not showing it at the moment. He projected as a confident, polished young man during media interviews during the Stanley Cup final. “I think at the end of the day it doesn’t really matter about pull-ups,” Bennett said. “It’s about your performance on the ice and when I get the chance to play again, that’s how people are going to start labeling me.”

Bennett became something of a sensation when, during the Central Scouting Bureau’s annual combine, he failed to complete a single pull-up. Even he was surprised at how the story blew up, but in a sport where players are working with personal trainers in their early teens and are often chiseled men by the time they start playing junior hockey, it did represent something of an anomaly. Bennett took solace in the fact that Ottawa Senators captain Jason Spezza, who was described by former Senators coach Jacques Martin as a boy in a man’s league in his first year in Ottawa, called to offer his support.

“I don’t even really know him,” Bennett said of Spezza. “He trains at my gym, but I don’t know him. He was like, ‘I’ve just got to call this kid because I feel so badly for him.’ He just talked about how he went through a lot of criticism and how he found a way to deal with it.”

Ask any scout about a draft-eligible player and one of the first things he’ll say in assessing a player is that the young man must get stronger. It’s a common lament in scouting so don’t expect those who have watched Bennett play all year start shying away from him just because of one bad strength test. In fact, if the pre-scout chatter is any indication, there are teams that are jockeying to move up to have a chance to take him in the top three.

In fact, one scout told thn.com that the player Bennett most compares favorably to is his GM in Kingston, Hall of Famer Doug Gilmour. The scout said when he told Gilmour that, Gilmour scoffed at the suggestion, saying Bennett is a far better skater than he ever was.

“If my team had the No. 1 pick, I’d want to have another talk with him,” said a scout whose team is drafting in the second half of the first round. “It’s got to be an embarrassment to him, so you might be able to use it as a positive. The kid thinks he’s working hard and now he realizes he isn’t. And the thing you have to remember is that he’s this weak now and he’s still one of the best players in the draft. What’s he going to be like when he gets stronger?”

And the most important thing to remember about Bennett? Do not interpret Bennett’s lack of upper-body strength with him being a shrinking violet. Along with his 36 goals and 91 points, he had 118 penalty minutes.

“It’s not really a big deal,” Bennett said. “It was just the wrong time to get zero in front of everyone. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger in the end.”

And what’s our advice to Bennett? Chin up, kid. Sorry, couldn’t help it.