There’s No Place Like Home For Bishop, Maine Men’s Hockey

At 6-7, University of Maine sophomore netminder Ben Bishop knows he is bound to turn heads when walking to and from class. He’s used to it. For the better part of 15 years, Bishop has grown accustomed to the stares. In his own words, it “comes with the territory.”

Still, on March 1 life was different for Bishop.

On this day, he isn’t getting the standard looks for his towering height. Despite the miniscule Memorial Union workers surrounding him, the strange looks come for a different reason. As Bishop slices his way through the emptied-out Maine Marketplace, his teammates are approximately 200 miles away.

While Bishop contemplates whether or not he wants Cherry Coke or just regular, his blood brothers are cruising down Interstate 90 in Massachusetts hoping to lock up a home seed in the Hockey East tournament. Deciding on neither, Bishop shuffles his way toward the cashier. He’s not the same Ben Bishop fans have come to know and love. There is no smile. No cheery demeanor. Instead, what you see is what you get; and in this case what you get is a slightly disappointed Bishop who doesn’t know if he will touch the ice again this season.

“It was really tough, especially knowing that the Frozen Four was in St. Louis,” said Bishop about having to miss the final four games of the season, two of which came in the Hockey East quarterfinals. “Toward the end of season with every game we lost it seemed like it was slipping more and more through our hands. To not have a chance to even play for the Frozen Four was scary.”

As Black Bears fans are well aware, UMaine finished the season on a downslide, losing four in a row and six of their last eight. For the injured Bishop, who is nursing his second groin injury of the year, the situation couldn’t be any worse. With his teammates and friends over six hours away in Amherst, Mass., all he can do is listen.

“To not even be able to go on the trips and have to listen to them on the radio was real tough,” said Bishop.

According to Bishop, his experiment with the radio was a nightmare. Instead of watching the Black Bears on TV, Bishop had to listen to the dynamic duo of Dan Hannigan and Larry Mahoney on WZON.

And the news they were delivering wasn’t pleasing.

First, a Minuteman sweep in the regular season finale, then a return trip to western Massachusetts the following week for the quarterfinals. To make a long story short, they lose those games too. The outlook is not good.

UMaine must now wait and see what the hockey gods will bestow on them. Will North Dakota win out and help their tournament resume? Will underdogs make history and end the Black Bears’ historic eight-year post season streak? All Bishop and the team can do is wait.

F ast forward 21 days and it’s almost as if those two weeks never happened. In a ghostly quiet Alfond Arena, Bishop recalls those days with hardly a grimace or shrug.

“They made me stay up here and rehab but now it seems like it’s worked out,” said Bishop. “They knew what they were doing.”

The indifference with which Bishop remembers is not surprising because of how the games were, but because of what lies ahead — a trip home. More importantly, he will have a second straight starting gig in the Frozen Four. On Tuesday, Bishop and the gang will head to the program’s 11th Frozen Four, this time in St. Louis, which is no further then 15 minutes from Bishop’s childhood residence and current family stomping grounds in Des Peres, Mo.

“It’s really exciting that I get the chance to go back home and play in front of my family and friends,” said Bishop, who has already been drafted by the St. Louis Blues of the NHL. “They don’t get to see me play too much out in Maine.”

For Bishop, who made 68 out of 70 saves against St. Cloud State and UMass to help his squad get back to the college hockey’s biggest stage, the trip home is one he’s been envisioning for quite some time.

“It’s been a season-long goal for me,” said Bishop. “We sit down and write our goals with coach at the end of every year and last year that was one of the goals I wrote down. I wanted to get to Frozen Four this year in St. Louis.”

It was this desire and drive to get to St. Louis that fueled the childlike Bishop during those dismal early weeks in March.

“The last time I got to play hockey in St. Louis — in a real game — was my junior year of high school,” said Bishop. “That was three years ago, so it’s going to be fun to go back and play a game in front of St. Louis.”

Now, back at home and about to play in his first “true” home game in nearly three years, Bishop is eager to see family and friends, while tending to a little business.

“I’m extremely excited to see my mom and my dad,” said Bishop. “My dad gets to come out quite a bit and get to watch me play, but my mom is usually home with my little brother. It’s going to be fun to go home and play in front of them.”

“It’s been in the back of my head all year, so it’s nice to reach that goal of coming home. But there’s still a bigger one out there and that’s to win a National Championship.”

Standing in the way of Titanic-sized Bishop at the moment lies his exact opposite: a fiery netminder out of Michigan who comes in at 5-6. Yeah, we know. Roughly one foot shorter than Bishop.

“Everybody likes to comment on that, but I grew up playing against him, so I know him,” said Bishop of Michigan State netminder Jeff Lerg, the Black Bears’ national semifinal opponent. “He’s a great goaltender who is extremely quick. He might be small but he’s extremely good.”

The two foes met one game earlier last year, with Bishop stealing the victory.

“It will be a nice little rematch, so it should be fun,” said Bishop. “We’ve both had up-and-down seasons so it’s going to be a good match-up.”

“It’s always fun to play against the best goalies in the country,” said Bishop. “Once you get this far in the season, everyone is going to have a good goalie. Last week we got to play against a Hobey Baker finalist and Jon Quick who just signed the other day.”

If UMaine is able to tackle the upstart Spartans and move onto their third National Championship in the last six years, Bishop believes it will come down to their team defense against the Spartans’ elite forwards.

“They have that very strong top line, they call it the ’09 line. It’s kind of like St. Cloud and BC, they have that one top line and you can’t let them burn you,” said Bishop. “When the guys are playing good team defense, we are unbeatable.”

At the same time, though, if Bishop comes to play like he did in Rochester, N.Y. a week ago, there’s no denying that UMaine is an extremely dangerous team.

“I felt good out there,” said Bishop. “I felt real confident.”

In preparation for Thursday’s duel at 4 p.m. Eastern time, Bishop has already gone to the tapes in hopes of fine tuning his game.

“It’s actually kind of funny — Grant [Standbrook] and I were watching the game from last year against Michigan State and how big of a difference it is from my game now,” said Bishop. “I’m a lot more technically sound. I’m not flapping all over the place like I was last year and I have a lot less movement. I’ve tried to limit my movements as much as possible.”

This attention to detail and new found maturity is something even Bishop acknowledges as different from last year. Throughout his freshman campaign, Bishop was often plagued with a mental lapse here and there. Despite a commendable first year that put him among the top young goaltender talents in the country, the young Bishop still felt like he had work to be do. According to Bishop, the jump from freshman to sophomore was pivotal.

“I’ve matured a lot on and off the ice,” said Bishop. “Last year you get to live on your own for the first time and it’s something new. But this year, you’re used to it from last year and it’s not something you have to adapt to.”

“With the exception of getting hurt towards the end of the season, the season has been a success,” said Bishop.

Still, there was something missing from his own skill set that didn’t show up until he was forced off the ice. Although ending a 44-consecutive-game start can be viewed as a negative, Bishop believes it ultimately could be the biggest plus to his game.

“It was nice to kind of get a different perspective,” said Bishop. “Starting so many games in a row, you kind of lose that sense. When I did have to watch the games from the stands, I did gain an appreciation for what the guys do every day and how much fun we have doing it.”

With backup netminder and friend Dave Wilson between the pipes, Bishop saw his love of the game flare up anew.

“To take a second and take a step back and watch from the stands and get away from the game really gives you appreciation for the game and what you do everyday,” said Bishop. “When you get away from it, all you want to do is play.”

This newfound urgency is what Bishop hopes to bring to the Frozen Four, just like he did in his first few games for the Black Bears.

Arriving in Maine after being hotly pursued by both the University of Michigan and UMaine, Bishop was eager to prove himself.

“I was getting recruited from a couple schools,” said Bishop. “The big schools were the University of Michigan and the University of Maine. Those were the top two choices I had. Grant came down to Dallas and watched me play a couple games and came to our practice. He set up a visit and I came up in early December and it was freezing cold. I won’t forget all that.”

Another reason for Bishop choosing UMaine had to be it’s success rate with goalies, even if he doesn’t admit it outright. Already drafted by his hometown NHL team, the St. Louis Blues, Bishop is aware of his chances at the next level.

“That’s one of my goals — I want to play in the NHL and get to the next level,” said Bishop. “I keep that in the back of my head. When I’m working, or practicing I always have that there.”

In the end, Bishop is quick to note that he doesn’t want that talk or drive to overwhelm him.

“I don’t really think about if I’m going to sign at the end of the year or sign next year,” said Bishop. “During the season, I focus on the University of Maine and Maine hockey and winning a national championship. When you come to Maine, you have that opportunity every year to win a national championship and that is one of the big reasons everyone comes here.”

That is, however, for later. For now at least, Bishop has two concerns: No. 1, aiding the Black Bears in their quest for a third national championship. And No. 2?

A little Bishop family reunion, Frozen Four style.

“I talked to my dad a few days ago and the family count was 55 for the game,” Bishop said. “And that was three days ago, so it’s probably only gotten bigger.”