Nathan Bennett leads the Manatee Admirals in points.
It did not take long for Nathan Bennett to see the difference.
He was not in Minnesota anymore.
Bennett, a senior at Lakewood Ranch High, moved to the area from Sartell, Minn., prior to his sophomore year of high school. He stepped off the plane and into a wave of humidity and heat, not ideal conditions for his sport of choice, ice hockey.
In Sartell, Bennett said, hockey is a way of life. Children pick up their sticks and skate on backyard ponds to pass the time. Yeah, it gets cold, he said — the average high temperature in January is 21 degrees, and the average low temperature is 5 degrees — but when you’re skating as fast as you can, you don’t feel it.
“It's like football in Texas,” Bennett said. “It’s just life.”
Comparatively, Bennett started in the sport later than most others, at age 7, after wanting to follow in the footsteps of his older brother, Peter Bennett. Bennett, who is now 5-foot-10, was also smaller than a lot of his opponents, making it tough to play physical hockey along the boards. He had to find success in other ways, using his “hockey I.Q.”
In Florida, the weather has not been the only difference. The hockey is different, too, Bennett said, because the players tend to be smaller here as the large, talented athletes tend to go into other sports. This year, his third in Florida, Bennett has exploded on the hockey scene, notching 21 goals and 13 assists for the Manatee Admirals, who are second in the Lightning High School Hockey League with a 15-3-3 record as of Jan. 17.
Bennett was also named an assistant captain this season, something he said carries more weight in hockey than it does in other sports. Bennett gets the ability to talk with referees about penalties and other issues, and wears a symbolic “A” on his jersey. It was a responsibility given to him by Admirals coach Eric Wessel, who thinks highly of Bennett’s overall game.
“He’s a kid who showed up from Day One and said, ‘This is my team.’” Wessel said. “That’s rare. That does not always happen with out-of-state kids. He embraced the team and his teammates embraced him. He deserved it (the assistant captaincy).
“Nathan isn’t the biggest guy, but he plays smart. He has always had that hockey I.Q. This year, he has gotten stronger and more willing to shoot, and it is paying off for him.”
As a senior, Bennett is beginning to think about his future in the sport. It can be difficult to get noticed though high school hockey in Florida, which is why Bennett has been making trips to different prospect showcases, including the North American Prospects Hockey League Showcase in Blaine, Minn., held Jan. 17-20.
If he gets noticed by a junior hockey league (an amateur league for players 16-21), he would consider playing in it, he said. Hockey players jump from junior teams to NCAA Division 1 programs with some regularity. If he doesn’t get a good offer, Bennett said he is content with going to college as a student and playing on a club team.
Wessel said he believes Bennett has the talent to reach Division 1 someday. It’s about finding the right offer and whether Bennett is ready to commit to making it a career.
Bennett said he isn't ready to give up the sport just yet.
“It has been so important to my life,” Bennett said. “That is all I have been doing, playing hockey. I feel like I’ll be always be playing somewhere, no matter what.”