W hen he was young, Olympian Mark Arcobello, who’s taking to the ice with the US men’s hockey team in Pyeongchang, got his hockey gear from the same place as thousands of other New Haven-area kids: the legendary Whitie Bensen’s. “He used to come in the store all the time when he was a kid, so I saw him grow up. It’s pretty cool,” says Kyle Bensen (pictured above), the second-generation owner of the store officially known as Whitie Bensen Athletic Equipment.

“Connecticut’s oldest hockey and lacrosse store,” as its tag line says, Whitie Bensen’s has been around since 1965, when Hamden native Frank “Whitie” Bensen decided his job in the business office at Knudsen Dairy didn’t feel like a win. His passion was hockey, and to satisfy it, he began selling skates and gear out of the trunk of his car—a business plan his wife “wasn’t too keen on,” Kyle says. From the trunk of the car, the business moved to the family basement and then to a string of storefronts in West Haven, where it remains today.

“One of his novel ideas that he ran with was [selling] new and used,” Kyle says. Hockey equipment was expensive, even in 1965, so parents were eager to buy used equipment when they could. Then Whitie tapped into the prep school market. He’d get up before his dairy job at “4 or 5 in the morning. Then he’d drive a circuit of five or six prep schools,” his son says. The hockey season ends in March, so eventually, following the prep schools’ lead, Whitie expanded into lacrosse to extend the store’s season.

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Whitie was raised on a farm located on the site of the Hamden Plaza and grew up playing hockey. His parents were from Denmark, hardworking farmers who wanted him to carry on the family tradition. Whitie had other ideas; he earned a business degree from Clarkson University on a hockey scholarship. But the farm’s influence stuck. “His work ethic from the farm, I think, really drove him in the business,” Kyle says. “You get up early, you go to work, you work hard, and that’s what you do.”

Like his dad, Kyle grew up playing hockey. “I loved it from the get-go,” he says. He started skating at the age of two or three on a pond at the base of their West Haven street. “I’d get up with my dad at 4 or 4:30 in the morning… I’d go with him to the rink, but I wasn’t allowed to play on a team,” he recalls. “While the teams were warming up, I’d just get out in the middle… so I’d get maybe 45 minutes of ice time in the morning.”

At that time, the only local rink was at the New Haven Arena, located on Grove Street at Orange (now the site of the FBI’s New Haven Field Office). Kyle says three Yale teams as well as the high school teams from Hamden, West Haven and New Haven all played there. “Every afternoon from, like, two in the afternoon ’til 11 o’clock at night, it was back to back to back to back [hockey],” he recalls. “Twice a week they’d have triple-headers.”

The sport has changed since then. Kids now start playing as young as age 3. Gear is high-tech and more expensive. Tryouts happen in the spring, not the fall.

Kyle’s biggest advice for new, young players and their parents? “Keep it fun… If you’re dragging them to the rink, it’s not fun for you, it’s not fun for the kids, it’s not fun for the coach.” Also, “Let the coaches coach.” As for what to buy, the most important thing, he says, isn’t having expensive skates. It’s getting skates that fit. The right fit—not just in skates, but in overall gear—is Whitie Bensen’s specialty. “Bring the body to us… and we’ll get you suited up,” he says.

On a tour of the shop, Kyle notes his dad’s old high school and college letter jackets hanging above one doorway and a stairway wall displaying old photos. Upstairs there’s new gear and used: skates, sticks, helmets, gloves and all the necessary padding, plus everyday athletic clothing, as well as lacrosse sticks, protective eyewear and more—the “hard goods” and the “soft goods.” Downstairs a whole section is devoted to goalies. Because of all the extra protective equipment, this is the most expensive position to gear up for. And it’s tough on parents, “watching your kid get scored on time and time and time again,” Kyle says. “For a parent it’s a good way to get gray hair.”

In addition to selling new and used gear, Whitie Bensen’s runs a “pre-season tuneup” camp at the end of the summer that’s meant to just be fun. In memory of Whitie, who died in 2013, the shop also sponsors athletic scholarships for local high school players, both boys and girls, in hockey and lacrosse.

Kyle himself still plays recreational hockey. He’s also coached all ages, but his favorite coaching assignment is three- and four-year-olds. “The learning curve is very steep,” he says. “You can see the progression right in front of your eyes… It’s a lot of fun to see the smile on their faces when they first skate on their own.”

Of course, most hockey players never make it as far as Olympian Arcobello of Milford, a 2010 graduate of Yale who played most recently for Schlittschuh Club Bern in Bern, Switzerland. A TV above the shop’s front counter is showing the first day of Olympic coverage, and you can bet Kyle and his staff will be watching for Arcobello. But they’ll also be watching for that kid coming through the door who’s looking for their first hockey stick.

Whitie Bensen Athletic Equipment
38 Saw Mill Rd, West Haven (map)
(203) 932-0035 | [email protected]

Written and photographed by Kathy Leonard Czepiel.

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About Kathy Leonard Czepiel

View all posts by Kathy Leonard Czepiel
Kathy Leonard Czepiel is a writer and communications pro whose perfect New Haven day would involve lots of sunshine, a West Rock hike, a concert on the Green and a coffee milkshake. She posts twice-weekly content for book clubs in her Substack newsletter, Better Book Clubs.

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