DULUTH - The Gwinnett Gladiators increased their toughness by a factor of two with the signing of Blue Bennefield and Joel Stepp on Tuesday.
Both are familiar - and popular - names to hockey fans in Gwinnett.
Bennefield was a crowd favorite in the Gladiators inaugural season, especially as he racked up 38 points and 222 penalty minutes in 72 games. The 27-year-old is back in black and maroon after bouncing around a bit for the last two seasons.
Bennefield, a lively addition to the locker room to be sure, spent 2004-05 with Victoria of the ECHL and split last year between the Adirondack Frostbite of the United Hockey League and the American Hockey League Lowell Lock Monsters. He appeared in 12 games with Lowell and had two goals, two assists and 35 penalty minutes, and also had a team-high 273 penalty minutes in 53 games with Adirondack.
Gladiators head coach Jeff Pyle has a longstanding relationship with Bennefield. It's the third time Pyle has signed Bennefield, who played for him in Mobile during the 2001-02 season. Since he left Gwinnett, Bennefield has gotten married and had a child. Those things, as well as his stint in the AHL last year, have helped him mature and develop, Pyle said.
"We talk all the time," Pyle said. "I was interested in getting him back. I think he's gotten smarter. And he's such a good guy. He's tough. He's always been the best scoring tough guy we've ever had - him and (Cam Brown).
"That callup he got last year to Lowell made him understand a little more how the game is supposed to be played. he knows his role and he'll be happy being back here."
Fans may be surprised to see Bennefield back, but it's Stepp that Pyle never expected to get back. Stepp was assigned to Gwinnett at the end of last season by NHL Atlanta after the Thrashers traded with Anaheim for the 23-year-old centerman. Stepp played a big role in helping the Gladiators secure the conference's top playoff seed, but ruptured his spleen in Game 2 of the conference finals against Toledo and had to sit out as Gwinnett fell to Alaska in the Kelly Cup finals.
Pyle figured Stepp would be scooped up by an AHL team in the offseason following the expiration of his NHL deal. But he opted to sign with the Gladiators knowing how successful the organization has been in moving players to the next level.
"I was surprised to get Stepp," Pyle said. "He probably could have had a two-way (contract with an AHL team), but turned it down."
Much to Pyle's delight. Pyle said on several occasions that the loss of Stepp at center had an enormous impact on how the Gladiators fared in the championship series.
"He's real smart and he's a good kid," Pyle said.
Stepp had 15 points in 16 regular-season games with Gwinnett last year. He had nine points in nine playoff games before the emergency spleenectomy ended his third professional season early.
The Saskatchewan native played the majority of his first two seasons as a pro with Cincinnati of the AHL. Stepp played 17 games for AHL Portland and 38 games for ECHL Augusta before coming to Gwinnett last spring. He was a third-round pick, No. 69 overall, in 2001 by the Anaheim Mighty Ducks, who sent him to the Thrashers last season.
Two tough, skilled forwards have increased Pyle's excitement about the coming campaign.
"The one thing we didn't have was a ton of toughness," he said. "I can't wait to get started."