When the Black Hawks took the ice for the final time this spring on March 11th against the Dubuque Fighting Saints, 6-foot-2-inch Patrick Guzzo lined up for the opening faceoff. Xander Lamppa – just an inch shorter – was at his left. The starting lineup also included 6’ 1” defenseman Mason Reiners and 6’ 2” goalie Gabriel Carriere. On the Waterloo bench, Joe Cassetti, Ondrej Psenicka, Brehdan Engum, and Jacob Bengtsson all stood 6’ 3” or taller.
The landscape was far different in the fall of 1974 when 6’ 6,” 21-year-old Bill Bennett joined the Hawks. At that time, he was the biggest player in the United States Hockey League, and there weren’t many others who were close.
“Now I would be normal-sized, but back then, I used to get all those comments, like ‘Why aren’t you playing basketball,’” Bennett remembers. “I didn’t know I was going to be 6-6 when I was a kid.”
Bennett did know that he was growing up in a hockey family. His father – Harvey – had a long career as a goalie in the 1940s and 50s, including a brief stint in the NHL with the Boston Bruins. His older brothers took to the game and went on to success in college, then later made their way into the pros. By 1974, Curt Bennett was becoming one of the top forwards for the Atlanta (today Calgary) Flames.
With the 1974/75 hockey season approaching, Bill Bennett was invited to Atlanta’s camp with his brother. The Flames directed Bill to the Des Moines Capitols of the International Hockey League. After just a few IHL appearances, the big forward was relocated to Waterloo, joining the Black Hawks for games at McElroy Auditorium by early November.
Bennett says his opportunity in the old senior-level USHL helped him gain confidence. The physicality of the league played to his strengths.
“My dad basically said, ‘You’re 6-6, you better act it.”
Beyond helping him on the ice, his size was also an asset at a time when Black Hawks players were employed at regular jobs during the day.
“I worked at a place called Peterson Seed. I’ll never forget I used to have to be at work at 7 o’clock in the morning, and I’d work until 4, and we had practice at 5 every day. It was heavy work lifting seed bags from 50 to 150 pounds, which I sort of liked at that young age…it was very physical, then you’d have to practice, and I think it was good for me.”
Bennett appeared in 34 games for Waterloo, scoring a couple of goals shortly after joining the team and finishing the season with four, plus seven assists. The Black Hawks were the USHL’s South Division winners and went on the league championship series, falling to the Thunder Bay Twins for the second consecutive year. However, by the end of the schedule, Bennett was hurting. He would have several offseason hernia surgeries, which kept him off the ice as teams regrouped for the start of the 1975/76 season. When Bennett was ready to go, he found a place with another USHL club – the Central Wisconsin Flyers – and played a limited number of games that winter.
Nonetheless, for 1976/77, Bennett earned a home with the IHL’s Columbus Owls and had a breakout season, opening up doors for future years in the American Hockey League.
“It usually took me two years to adjust to a league,” Bennett recalls. “Things were starting to come together when I played in Columbus. I had a pretty good season there, and I ended up in Rochester in the American League at the end of the season, and then Boston signed me from that.”
As a Rhode Island native, the Bruins had been the team Bennett cheered for during his childhood. It was also the organization where his father had been a netminder more than 20 years earlier. On December 12, 1978, Bennett had the chance to put on the gold and black “B” logo for the first time in an official game, with his first moments on the ice resulting in the situation that every player dreams of.
“It was three to five seconds into my first shift. I jumped the boards and skated to the net and scored. My dad was at the game, so that was great. I wish I had the film.”
Not quite halfway through the first period, his goal was the first during a 7-3 Boston win against the Vancouver Canucks. During six additional games with the Bruins, Bennett notched another four assists. Although he spent much of that year in Rochester, Bennett had become the first former Black Hawk to make it from Waterloo to the pinnacle of professional hockey.
The next season, he joined New England’s new NHL club, the Hartford Whalers. Although optimistic that the situation in Hartford might be a big opportunity, Bennett played in just 24 NHL games for the Whalers in 1979/80. They were his final appearances at hockey’s highest level, and Bennett retired in 1982 after two more minor league campaigns.
Since completing his playing career, Bennett has operated Bennett Sports - a hockey pro shop in Rhode Island – while also working as a commercial fisherman. Additionally, he still skates with the Boston Bruins Alumni Association, playing charity games throughout the northeast.
Bennett became reacquainted with the USHL a decade ago. In 2009, his nephew Mac joined the Cedar Rapids RoughRiders for a season, later attending Michigan and eventually retracing his uncle’s footsteps to the AHL’s Rochester Americans.
Speaking recently with waves in the background while harvesting clams, Bill Bennett reflected on his own climb in the sport.
“As you go up, the guys…I don’t think they’re as close. When I was in Waterloo, I’d say there were about ten of us, every day, we were always together doing something, but as you go up the ladder, there’s less and less, guys go on their own. But back then, everybody was in basically the same boat.”
The camaraderie of Black Hawks players hasn’t changed much in the 45 years since Bennett came to Waterloo. Today’s players are just a little younger…and on average, a little taller than most of Bennett’s teammates.
Where Are They Now features are presented by Karen’s Print Rite.
Special thanks to Brandon McNelis and Heidi Holland of the Boston Bruins for providing this story’s photo of Bill Bennett.