29-year-old rookie is all heart, hard work for Senators | Hockey | CBC Sports

Hockey Night in Canada29-year-old rookie is all heart, hard work for Senators

Posted: Tuesday, May 21, 2013 | 09:49 AM

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Andre Benoit of the Ottawa Senators is a rarity in the NHL, a rookie defenceman who is 29 years old. (Blair Gable/Reuters) Andre Benoit of the Ottawa Senators is a rarity in the NHL, a rookie defenceman who is 29 years old. (Blair Gable/Reuters)

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Ottawa Senators rookie defenceman Andre Benoit could have kept earning a good living with Spartak Moscow, but couldn't pass up a chance to break into the NHL, even as a 29-year-old.

To become a full-fledged NHLer has always been a powerful elixir for Andre Benoit.

He could have stayed overseas and continued to earn a good living on the Spartak Moscow blue-line. But the Ottawa Senators called last summer with a two-way contract offer: $650,000 to play in the NHL; $300,000 in AHL.

There were no promises of a spot on the NHL club's roster. But they needed a captain for their AHL affiliate, the Binghamton Senators.

Benoit would turn 29 during the 2012-13 season. He already had proven himself at the AHL level. He followed up a 2002-03 Memorial Cup championship with the Kitchener Rangers in junior with two AHL Calder Cup titles in 2006-07 with the Hamilton Bulldogs and 2010-11 with Binghamton.

But Benoit went to work. The veteran defenceman put together such an impressive first-half in Binghamton with nine goals and 25 points in 34 games that Ottawa had no choice but to invite him to training camp when the four-month NHL lockout finally ended.

He earned a spot on the Senators opening-day roster and played 33 NHL games. He scored his first NHL goal, then another (a game winner) and another. But with the emergence of fellow rookie Eric Gryba and the late-season returns of Jared Cowen from hip surgery and Erik Karlsson from a lacerated Achilles tendon, it appeared the dependable Benoit would be nothing more than an extra come playoff time.

However, Gryba got hurt in the opener of their Eastern Conference semifinal against the Pittsburgh Penguins. All of a sudden, Benoit was needed again. He hasn't disappointed and even enjoyed a hero moment in Game 3 as it was the rebound from his shot that Colin Greening swept in for the double-overtime, game-winning goal.

"You can never give up," Benoit said. "You can never predict when an opportunity will be there.

"You have to prepare for it. That was my job, to put in the work and make sure I was ready if there was a chance to play.

"Getting a chance to be in the playoffs has been unbelievable. I'm used to watching it on television.

"To be a part of that win was a great feeling."

How did Benoit celebrate the big victory? He spent time with his four-year-old daughter, Emma, answering questions from fans online on the Senators website.

"It was cool," Benoit said. "She's at that age in which she's starting to understand what this is all about."

'A great honour'

Benoit hails from nearby St-Albert, a village of 650 people situated 40 kilometres to the East of Ottawa. When he was a teenager, he worked a summer at the local St-Albert Cheese Co-operative. They were so proud of him there that his Senators sweater with No. 61 on the back hung in tribute this year.

But tragedy struck his hometown in early February, when the 119-year-old cheese factory building, where 125 locals worked, burnt to the ground.

Benoit did his part to help the village cope. He and the Senators provided each St-Albert Cheese Co-operative employee with a pair of tickets to Ottawa's game against the Winnipeg Jets during Hockey Day in Canada on Feb. 9.

This gesture, along with his story of perseverance, didn't go unnoticed. The local chapter of the Professional Hockey Writers' Association voted Benoit as the Senators nominee for the Masterton Trophy, awarded to the player who best exemplifies the qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship and dedication to the game.

He didn't make it to the final three. Sidney Crosby, Adam McQuaid and Josh Harding were announced as the finalists last week. Still, Benoit was grateful.

"It was a great honour and I appreciated it," Benoit said. "My route to get here was a little longer than others and I guess it was recognition for that.

"My family going overseas, my wife [Kelly] putting up with all that, it has been worth it coming back here."

Follow Tim Wharnsby on Twitter @WharnsbyCBC

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