Jumping into hockey with both boots

Ever wonder what ever happened to that guy who lived next door to you during your freshman year in college?

For country music star Dierks Bentley, he can watch his former neighbor from the University of Vermont leading the Boston Bruins within one victory of the Stanley Cup Finals. Bentley's only year at Vermont was 1993-94, when the Catamounts had a freshman goaltender by the name of Tim Thomas.

Though he hasn't kept in touch with Thomas, Bentley said last week in a phone interview that he's leaning toward the Bruins' star goaltender and Vezina Trophy finalist in the Eastern Conference finals against the Tampa Bay Lightning and Hart Trophy finalist Martin St. Louis, who was also a freshman on the '93-94 Catamounts team.

"Yeah, it's great to see [Thomas] in there, and the connection is pretty funny," said Bentley, who never met St. Louis at Vermont. "We were both living next door to each other at Vermont. I remember him being a great guy, the nicest guy in the world. And seeing him doing so well, I'm definitely pulling for him to keep doing well. So I guess I am pulling for Boston in that regard."

While Bentley transferred to Vanderbilt so he could be in Nashville to pursue his country music dreams, St. Louis and Thomas went on to lead the Catamounts to the 1996 NCAA Frozen Four before both players reached the NHL via circuitous routes.

Bentley, who was born and raised in Arizona, said he became a big fan of the Predators soon after the expansion team arrived in Nashville in 1998-99. He plays in an adult hockey league in Nashville and takes his hockey gear with him on the road so he can hit the ice when the time permits. Bentley has had the opportunity to skate with college and junior hockey teams around North America.

The NHL picked up on his love of hockey and is featuring his new single, "Am I The Only One" (iTunes | Amazon), in television commercials for the Stanley Cup playoffs. "Am I The Only One" has climbed to No. 16 on Billboard's country singles charts after eight weeks.

Bentley is finishing up work on his next album, which is due out in October, and will be busy touring through the summer. The Life caught up with Bentley by phone between stage times and ice times last week in Nashville to talk about hockey and music.

The Life: I thought it was a cool enough connection for you, Tim Thomas and Martin St. Louis to be freshmen at Vermont together, but what a small world for you to be right next door to Thomas.

Bentley: Yeah, he was right there. I'd see him now and then coming back from some hazing stuff that was going on. He was a freshman, obviously a rookie on the team, some funny stuff that he was talking about. I just knew he was a hockey player. And at the time, I just loved going to those games. I guess that's what kinda got me turned on to hockey was going to watch the Catamounts, and then I moved to Nashville when I was 19, the next year.

As soon as I got to Vermont I knew I needed to be in Nashville. I just was crazy about country music and the second I got there, I was like, "Man, I gotta find a way to get to Nashville."

And as soon as I got down here I didn't think much of hockey until the Predators came. … And I went to my first game and was totally hooked. The next week I was playing in a men's league, and I've been playing for [more than] 10 years now in that league. So, yeah, it really took the team coming to Nashville for me to get totally into it.

The Life: Both the backgrounds of Thomas and St. Louis are similar; besides going to Vermont they were both overlooked, discarded and counted out and had to work hard to become top players in the league.

Bentley: Oh, man. It's crazy. Any of those guys, man, how hard it is to get to that spot? It's crazy [what it takes] to become an NHL player. … The amount of trades, playing overseas and being dropped back down and being spread so far around. And so many guys, there's some great players and it's amazing how hard these guys have to work to finally get [there], just like Tim, you know. He's been thrown into a backup role and somebody gets injured and he gets a chance to start again. He's worked really hard to get where he is.

The same thing with country music. For me, I came here when I was 19; it took almost 10 years of playing bars for tips and free beer and backyard barbecues and crawfish boils, weddings and all sorts of random crap to finally get things moving. And once you do get things moving to one level you've got to start all over again and start paying your dues again. So I can relate to that on some level and really respect him for that, and really all the players.

The Life: It was sort of coincidental while I was lining up this interview that your website had that DBTV clip of you and your bandmate The Hawk [Dan Hochhalter] in your men's league.

Bentley: (Laughs) Actually, I always keep a hockey bag on the bus, because you never know when you get your chance to play a game. We were playing up in Bloomington, Ill., the arena we were playing in there's two arenas next door to each other, both rinks. So we were playing one place at one arena, next door's the … literally, I could walk out of my dressing room and go right into the other rink, the radio station had set up a pickup game.

Our fiddle player [Hochhalter] plays as well. He's great, he's from Minnesota. That footage is actually taped from just a random pickup game on the road. My team in Nashville is called the Iceholes, Nashville Iceholes, that's my men's league team here.

But yeah, it's just fun to get a chance to play on the road, because we're on the road so much. …

There's a game tonight, our first game of the season is tonight. But I'm a member of the Grand Ole Opry and I've got a gig tonight at the Opry at 8:30 and the two are unfortunately overlapping. And I've got to choose the one that actually is going to help me pay the bills. Not unfortunately, I love playing the Opry, but it is like, "Oh, man, it's a tough one." But that's the way it is.

The Life: And you've got to support your hockey habit. It's an expensive sport.

Bentley: Yeah, I know; exactly, exactly. The men's league is about $500 a round. I know. Luckily, I've met enough friends in the sport. Everything I own -- my guitar, my truck, my tour bus -- everything is old, I just have old things. I don't really care for the new stuff. I just love the character that comes with an old guitar and stuff like that.

But all my gear was super old. I mean, I had a pair of gloves that I got from a friend used back in '89 when we were playing street hockey. I mean, my s--- was old, but then I got to know some guys like [former NHL defenseman] Sheldon Souray and some different coaches on some different teams and players, and I started getting stuff. … I had some stuff that was so new I had to downgrade some stuff. I had a mask, a full face shield, clear mask and I was like, "This is not cool." I had to wear a cage; I can't do the mask, it's a little too much. I was lucky to get plenty of free stuff over the last couple of years.

The Life: That's great you've jumped right in to a rec league and gained more appreciation for the game.

Bentley: It's a total lifetime sport, man, it's great. There's guys on my team, there's girls on my team, there's guys that are 50, 60 years old. I just live for those games, man, because the hockey guys … not to name-drop or anything, but we were playing up in Chicago the other night, we were playing and a couple of guys from the Blackhawks came out. And those guys, they are the same guys that are on my hockey team in my men's league back here, just down to earth, all hockey guys are kinda the same. If I meet somebody who plays hockey, I can 99 percent know right away we'll be friends, they're just low-key and just great guys and all they care about is playing hockey and [we'll go out and] drink beer … it's just living the dream. It doesn't matter whether it's professional or pickup; it's all kind of the same breed.

The Life: I know what you mean; it helps your psyche or mindset for the rest of the week if you can get out on the ice and get at least one game in.

Bentley: Oh, man. For me, and the music, I love playing hockey, and some of the guys can give a crap about music or country music or what I do … we're all in the same boat, we love playing hockey and we go out there and rock it out and go hit a pub for the fourth period and just have a great night and it just kinda sets, you're so great for the rest of the week.

The Life: So how do you describe your style and what position do you play?

Bentley: I'm a grinder, I'm a forward. I like playing center or left wing. I try to outhustle or outwork those around me and now and then get lucky with getting in front of the goal and making something happen. But I definitely describe my style as 90 percent persistence and determination to be in the right place at the right time.

The Life: Well, that's the Predators' style right there.

Bentley: That's right, man. Jordin Tootoo is my favorite player, and it wasn't just because he's physical; it's because every time you watch the game, he literally jumps onto the ice, he's two feet in the air. … He goes and he works hard the whole time, he'll slam his stick against the wall … he wants to be part of something happening every time he's out there.

I come off the ice heaving back and forth like a heroin addict and people are always like, "Did you get hurt? Are you all right?" I'm like, "Dude, I'm just trying to get some air in my lungs."

And the next day my ribcage hurts from my lungs overexpanding my bones, you know. You don't realize how hard you're skating because you're having so much fun. I've taken a heart monitor out there to see what my heartbeat gets up to. I've hit like 180, 182, I've been on the verge of a blackout but I didn't even know because I'm having so much fun.

The Life: You kinda mention in your clip with The Hawk about how you get competitive on stage, can you explain that some more?

Bentley: It sounds ridiculous, but six guys on a team and there's six guys on my stage. And I kind of approach the stage a lot like a game. We're not going out there like your dad's country music where you go out there and stand still and just sing a song. I'm running around, my boots are taped up … I might twist an ankle because I'm running all over the stage and tripping on monitors and cables, sometimes jump off the stage … dragging some fan up on stage to sing with us. I walk off the deck almost as sweaty as I do after the third period.

I mean, I'm out there for an hour and a half running around like a madman having a blast. And so I kind of approach it, it's not as if you're trying to get a win, but in some regards it is. It's like you want to walk off the stage feeling that same sense of "OK, we went out there and we got it." I'm not sure exactly who we were trying to beat but … I reached that feeling inside me it's like, OK, the wall between us and the crowd has been totally broken down and we're all … we've hit that spot where we're feeling it.

It's the same thing in hockey, where you're so focused on the game you don't even realize how hard you're working.

The Life: Are the Predators your team, then?

Bentley: I like the Preds. I mean, I like the Coyotes because they're from Arizona where I'm originally from. The Predators were what got me turned onto professional hockey.

In a way it's like NASCAR where you start off with one driver you like. You kinda follow that driver and then you get to know the sport well enough and you get to like a lot of different drivers, and you kind of just like watching the race. It's the same way with hockey for me now. I've got a lot of friends who play for different teams and I just love the sport in general.

And I do love the Preds, and when they lost I kind of took a little hiatus from the playoffs for a little bit. I was so bummed. I got to the final game where they lost [in six games to the Vancouver Canucks in the Western Conference semifinals] and they did so great but it was just … ugh, they were close.

But now, getting back and I like all the teams for different reasons, really. I'll be curious to see how it works out. Four totally different teams out there.

The Life: So who's your pick for the Stanley Cup final?

Bentley: I don't know, man. Vancouver's strong. Kesler, he just totally … I watched him dismantle [the Predators], he was so good against our team. He's a good player, man, he's great. I think it's gonna be Vancouver-Bruins.

The Life: And the NHL network and league broadcasters are playing that video with your single quite a lot (see video above).

Bentley: Yeah, I didn't even ask for someone to do that. I didn't even go after them. I was sitting at home and a friend texted me, my phone started blowing up with texts from friends. … I still need to go investigate exactly how that happened.

But it's the coolest thing ever. I've watched the clip online like 20 times. And I contacted my friend Nirva [Milord], who works at the NHL, I was like, "You gotta tell me who edited this because they did a great job." She gave me the girl's name that did the editing -- it is killer. It's one of the coolest things I've ever seen. I'd just as soon use that video on Country Music Television, it would have been perfect.

The Life: It works great with the clips, but obviously the lyrics aren't hockey-related.

Bentley: No, I didn't write it about hockey. I wrote about me being, you know, you come off the road and you've got one night you can actually [go out], a night off from the road. I always play music on Friday nights, but I had a Friday night off, which is just rare, so I called some friends up to see if we could go out and do something. I was ready to go out and have fun, and they all had pretty lame excuses. So that was pretty much the foundation for the song.

The Life: But it fits really well with the playoff celebrations and overtime goals.

Bentley: Yeah, man. And the fans are going crazy. I'm not the only one, apparently there are 15,000 other people who want to have fun, too.

The Life: Sometimes that can be how hockey fans feel, depending where you are.

Bentley: Exactly, [they understand] in some parts of the country and other parts it's just like, you're a country singer who likes …. hockey? What?

But there's lots of country fans who love hockey. It just depends on where you are. And certainly in Canada, where it's a no-brainer. And I was telling someone that it's sort of like bluegrass music: You've got to watch it to understand what it's all about, and it's the same as hockey. You have to go to a game and see it to get it, you know. The guys are the toughest athletes out there, along with bull riders, I guess. They should be wearing helmets as big as the guys in the NHL, but they don't. They're just the toughest dudes. I just think you need to watch a game [in person] to see what a great sport it is.

The Life: And many Canadian kids coming out of junior hockey come from farming families, so a lot of hockey players are big country music fans.

Bentley: Yeah, I got a chance to skate with the [Western Hockey League's] Saskatoon Blades two years ago and they were all huge country fans. So I go into the locker room afterwards and they were jamming to Taylor Swift. (Laughs) And I was like, really? All right.

I love Taylor Swift, everything about Taylor is awesome. But I guess, you think about it these kids are 15, 16, 17 years old, 18, they love Taylor Swift. One of them was trying to get her number from me, so I thought that was pretty funny.

Jim Wilkie is the editor of The Life and can be reached at espnpucks@comcast.net.