With NCHC postgrad scholarship in hand, Western Michigan’s Bennett finding life after hockey means surgeon dreams, off-ice impact

Kale Bennett served as an alternate captain in 2020-21 for Western Michigan (photo: Western Michigan Athletics).

By Al Daniel/Special to USCHO

Kale Bennett tends to send his regrets when people want him anywhere outside a rink, fitness center, lecture hall, library, or lab.

But to his credit, he tends to ensure that everyone’s patience pays off.

That was the pattern when he figuratively penned his story as a student-athlete at Western Michigan. Why shouldn’t it have been the same when that chapter started literally being written on amidst a rare intermission?

A medical school candidate and aspiring orthopedic surgeon, Bennett reprised his calculated disappearing act by taking off on a mid-May vacation the day after turning in his MCAT. It was the culmination of, by his estimate, “studying for three months, five or six hours a day.”

That said, two days after returning home, he was ready to reflect publicly on his title of NCHC postgraduate scholar and what went into it. The conference bestowed its annual $7,500 assist for a senior’s continuing education March 30, just 17 days after Bennett’s final game.

Those door-shutting and –opening milestones overlapped with his MCAT cramming sessions. But with the latter, residual ice chips are sure to resonate, especially with the NCHC’s fingerprint on the financial cushion.

“Nice recognition,” Bennett said of the scholarship. “But also a push to keep going.”

At least there is some measure of continuity in there. In between his 113 career games of stay-at-home defense for the Broncos, Bennett kept going for rigid objectives by not going along when the other Kalamazoo campus pucksters went on the downtime kill.

“The course load that I had was definitely a little more advanced than some other guys,” he said. A troika of minors in chemistry, psychology, and sociology joined his concentration in biomedical science, which he settled on after swiveling his head between that or engineering during his first month at WMU.

As certain as we was about his post-playing goals by the time he first wore Bronco game garb, Bennett was not always immune to hesitation. The son of an NHL assistant coach father and a nurse mother, he initially looked at hockey and medicine alike through the typical children’s all-glory lenses. But it did not take long for the grunt side of the two fields to come into view.

At least hockey was still a fun pastime he could continue through college, and maybe beyond. Medicine meant, well, more school on top of the standard student’s storybook, which Bennett admits “didn’t seem that appealing to me.” So he “would kind of brush it off” when his mother plugged the profession and cited what she saw as his compatibility with it.

Little did he know where and how he was logging the requisite intangibles to transfer from dad’s domain to mom’s. He was a frequent guest at his father Ray Bennett and future WMU bench boss Andy Murray’s Los Angeles Kings and St. Louis Blues practices. That is, he clarified, “when I didn’t have school” and before he entered competitive age groups that took his own ice itineraries on weekend road trips.

Bennett remembers feeling mesmerized as he watched his idols feed their own insatiable craving for perfection. To try to tally a given player’s self-assigned overtime and total reps on a given drill was to induce a headache and miss out on a life lesson.

Spoiler alert: The moral did not elude Bennett.

“Most people don’t realize how serious it is,” he said. “Nothing is too small to worry about.”

With that, his pond of dreams functioned as an early lecture hall. It yielded an appropriate, relatable introduction to the importance of mastering the minutest details.

That principle only gets more urgent as Bennett turns to face and embrace his transformation from Moonlight to Doc Graham.

“Going forward, I hope to be a surgeon someday,” he said. “Obviously in that profession, it can be a difference between life and death sometimes, or possibly a patient being able to walk or not.”

Even in less dire scenarios, it has been Bennett’s nature to demand seamless outcomes. After he conceded that Mother knew best and mapped his preferred path, he duplicated his career-long all-in-or-out spirit for his studies at WMU.

“Growing up I’ve always been competitive,” he said. “Sometimes people might argue a little too competitive.”

He added that even his parents suggested he tone down a tad now and then. Easy for them to say, as they were not the ones who had to bounce back from getting cut their first year in junior to score a Division I slot.

In four seasons with the Broncos, Bennett collected 17 points in 113 games (photo: Western Michigan Athletics).

Later Bennett’s teammates missed his physical presence for portions of every road trip when he made a carrel out of bus seats, airplane seats, and hotel room desks. Filling every non-practice, -meeting, -game, -grooming, -eating, or –sleeping minute with his schoolwork was so routine he could not recount a particular moment. The sum of the parts, the whole hodgepodge of every last detail, was what mattered.

“Anything less than an ‘A’ wasn’t acceptable,” he said.

Was a college career GPA of 3.99 good enough? It’s a start, as is the resultant NCHC accolade, although that was barely on Bennett’s radar throughout his immersive quest.

“I kind of heard about it my freshman year,” he said.

Only when the time came to pen an essay was he expressly bent on the conference’s ultimate academic prize.

“Not my goal the whole way through, but it’s huge coming from them,” Bennett said. “Going beyond hockey, I have their support.”

Granted, the scholarship will not cover the full package, and where those bucks go is still to be determined. As he winds up to one-time his MCAT results to prospective schools, Bennett will pursue real-world experience and additional money by shadowing veterans in the field for at least the next year.

If he has it all his way, he will max out the paradoxical adage on things shifting while keeping their old form. Consumed by contact sports as a kid, Bennett understood physicians to be “the guy that fixes the bones, fixes knees, and stuff like that.”

He can still become that innocent, inspiring childhood impression, and he could work with another. One more A-or-bust grind could circle him back to a literal arena as a sports medicine specialist — another unsung, unseen, and unquantified but indispensable role on the team.

“I understand those kind of jobs are highly sought after, but that would be for sure a dream job,” he said. “Having an impact that way is exactly where I would want to be.”