Photo: Amanda Hertel Forward Aaron Bendickson played 30 games for the Gwinnett Gladiators last season before having to leave to finish his college degree at Wisconsin. He took a job in the private sector in Atlanta after gradution and has been phenomenal in a weekend role for the Gladiators this year.
Weekend warrior isn't generally a complimentary term.
But most weekend warriors can't come in, play a regular shift at the pro hockey level and look just as good as everyone else.
Aaron Bendickson is the Gwinnett Gladiators' weekend warrior and he's been phenomenal in six games this season.
"It's extremely unusual," head coach John Wroblewski said. "We have an extreme luxury being able to inject Bendy into the lineup. The kid fits right in with our mentality. He's got nice skill, he's got a really good mind for the game and he works hard, too.
"He is out there and he's doing the things we ask of guys who are trying to get called up to the American League. Getting pucks out of the zone and being in shot lanes. He's cut up. He's bruised. I love having the kid around."
Bendickson played for the Gladiators last season as a rookie and was off to a fantastic start in the pro ranks. He was the league's rookie of the month in October and played just four games here before getting called up to the AHL. Bendickson was rolling along with 26 points in 30 games for Gwinnett and was named to the ECHL all-star game at the end of December.
Two weeks later, he had to leave the team.
The University of Wisconsin, where Bendickson played four seasons, required him to return in order to finish his degree within the time frame of his athletic scholarship. He was two courses short of being done. Those classes were originally going to be offered the coming summer. But that changed and Bendickson was on his way to Madison, Wis.
"I definitely wanted to finish up while I was still young because I feel like the longer you leave it there, the harder it is to go back," he said.
At the time, the native of Thief River Falls, Minn., had every intention of returning to the pro ranks this season.
Once more, his real-life career beckoned.
"I made the choice and I wasn't going to look back," he said.
Two weeks after getting his degree, Bendickson was offered a job. In Atlanta of all places.
Bendickson manages a real estate portfolio for MedAssets and was well ensconced in his job when the Gladiators came calling in December.
"It's pretty cool that I got an opportunity here to play and help out when I can," the 25-year-old said.
They flew him down to Florida to play a pair of games Dec. 2-3. They added him again earlier this month and Bendickson has played the last four home games. He has a goal and three assists so far. He's been extremely effective in a multitude of situations that aren't reflected in the scoresheet.
"That's the thing, as a 10th forward, I'm not out there every shift," Bendickson said. "I get put in and then get to take a shift off. I go in whenever I can help out. Because, let's be honest, it's a fast game, it's a high-intensity game. You have to keep your body in top condition. I'm not going to kid anybody out here -- I'm not at that level like I was. But you can come and get that adrenaline going. It gets you through."
Bendickson downplays his role, but watching him, you'd never know he was working in an office Monday through Friday and working out at night when time permits.
But his efforts don't go unnoticed by the team.
Mention Bendickson to Andy Brandt and a wide grin spreads immediately across his face.
"Bendy is a talent," said Brandt, who was a senior at Wisconsin when Bendickson joined the program. "He's skilled in all aspects of the game and he really likes hockey. It was a tough decision for him to step away from it. But the timing was right in his life to move forward.
"For him to be able to come back and step in, it really is amazing."
Brandt dismisses the idea that Bendickson, who also helps coach a squirt major team at the Cooler in Alpharetta, isn't in game shape.
"He's a guy that comes out and works hard," Brandt said. "He loves hockey and let's not kid ourselves, Bendy is a pretty energetic little guy. So he's always got the energy.
"I think the guys like it. He brings a positive attitude, he brings a light attitude. He's always joking around. Any time you can have a guy with his character come in and fill in when you need help, it's a big deal."
Bendickson adds a shifty, creative element on offense. He's tenacious on the forecheck and willing to sacrifice on defense.
Even knowing he's got a job to do on Monday.
"He's got a very nice job," Wroblewski said. "He's making a nice salary and it was a wise career move. But at the same time I think he genuinely misses the game.
"You look at him, he's a hockey player. There's no doubt about that. His time to step away from the game obviously came too soon. He wants to play."
Wroblewski admires Bendickson for making a tough decision.
"It's a very difficult decision to walk away from the game you love and start your life," he said. "But to his credit, he comes in and plays it like it is his life. It's a great lesson for all our guys to see."