North Xtra: NAHL team drafts Mars grad Bender
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Joe Bender sat down with his computer the afternoon of May 31 to watch the North American Hockey League draft.
"I wanted to see if any of my friends got drafted," said Bender, who graduated from Mars Area High School a week later.
Bender saw a familiar name drafted, all right.
"I saw my name pop up," Bender said, "It was one of the best feelings of my life."
Bender, a 5-foot-11, 165-pound forward, was selected in the sixth round of the NAHL Entry Draft by the Johnstown Tomahawks.
"This is what I worked for my whole life, to try to make it somewhere with my hockey," Bender said. "When it happened, it was an overwhelming feeling. What I worked for finally came through."
The NAHL is a 28-team league classified as Junior A Tier II league by USA Hockey.
Bender spent the past two seasons playing in the North American Prospects Hockey League -- an affiliated developmental league -- for the Pittsburgh Viper Stars AAA 18U team.
Bender had 43 points (18 goals, 25 assists) in 69 games for the Viper Stars, including 14 points in 23 league games.
"Joe flew underneath the radar this season a little bit," Viper Stars coach Dave Kosick said. "He brings a lot of talent and a multitude of tools. He has phenomenal speed, a great step-over that allows him to accelerate from what you think is his top speed to another level.
"He's a hair underneath 6 feet tall, and he plays a pretty solid physical game. He brings a blue-collar work ethic with a lot of speed to the game."
Bender also was captain of the Mars high school team that went 19-3 and played in the PIHL Class A Penguins Cup championship game for the fifth consecutive season. Bender had 35 points (13 goals, 22 assists) in 17 regular-season games for the Planets.
"I try to be a gritty player, an energy player," Bender said. "I like to think I have good speed and a good shot, I have decent vision and pretty good passing. I try to lift the team up. Even if everything is down, I try to pick them up."
Bender will attend an open camp the Tomahawks are conducting this weekend at the Ice Castle in Castle Shannon. The main tryout camp is in August.
He doesn't have to travel far at all for either. Certainly, the commute is much, much shorter than it could have been.
The Tomahawks relocated this offseason from Alaska, bringing Junior A hockey back to Western Pennsylvania and a high level of the sport back to Johnstown following the move of the professional American Hockey League Chiefs. The team will play its home games at the Cambria County War Memorial arena, famously known as the setting for the iconic hockey movie "Slapshot."
"I only have to go [less than two hours to the arena], and I've played in the War Memorial my whole life, so it's really cool to go down there and get to play in front of 2,000 fans in a packed arena," Bender said. "I think it could be amazing, be really cool.
"Their minor league team went out three years ago. In towns like that, the Junior team can pack the house."
Should Bender not make the team, his backup plan is to stay home and play for the Viper Stars again. His overall goal is to play in college. Typically, NCAA teams fill their rosters off junior league teams.
"My long-term goal is to try to get a scholarship for either D-II or D-I through the NAHL so I can move on and help pay for a college education," Bender said.
"I feel like playing college hockey would help validate all the time and energy put into hockey so far.
"And plus my parents, they've been dedicated to me since Day 1 of hockey. They devoted so much time and money, I feel like if I don't pursue a hockey career as far as I can, I wasted time and money."
First Published June 14, 2012 12:00 am