Wednesday Notebook: Maine

As Maine’s top goaltender Ben Bishop sat injured during the stretch run, watching his Black Bears lose the final four games of the season, including the Hockey East quarterfinal series to Massachusetts, one thought sat in his mind.

“Once we found out we were in the tournament, I really just wanted to get back out on the ice,” said Bishop. “It was only two [wins] and we’d get to St. Louis.”

Ben Bishop will backstop Maine against Michigan State in Thursday's early semifinal (photo: Melissa Wade).

Ben Bishop will backstop Maine against Michigan State in Thursday’s early semifinal (photo: Melissa Wade).

The Gateway to the West not only serves as home to this week’s Frozen Four, it also is Bishop’s home.

The 6-foot-7 netminder grew up just 18 miles down the road in Des Peres, Mo. His father, Benjamin, is a member of the St. Louis Sports Commission, the host of this year’s Frozen Four.

Needless to say, April 5 has been circled on the younger Bishop’s calendar since the puck dropped in September.

“It’s great to be home,” quipped Bishop as he opened his team’s press conference on Wednesday.

As nice as it is to be home, it’s even nicer to be on the ice. Bishop pulled his groin muscle in a Feb. 3 game against New Hampshire. After missing two games, Bishop returned, possibly a bit too soon, only to re-injure the groin in a Feb. 24 game against Merrimack.

His absence over the next four games — four straight losses to UMass — looked like it might lead to the demise of the season for the Black Bears. But the fate of the numbers worked in Maine’s favor and Bishop’s dreams of returning home to St. Louis quickly resurfaced.

Now back in the land of his youth, Bishop recalled on Wednesday what it was like growing up as a hockey player in a not-so-traditional hockey market.

“Every year I played, [hockey] got bigger and bigger,” said Bishop. “The [St. Louis] Blues alumni did a great job of growing the sport out here.”

Now that the Black Bears are here, Bishop, who recommended heading to the Hill in South St. Louis for Italian food as the best place to eat, said it will be important to stay focused in a place so familiar.

“It’s convenient that [the Frozen Four] is here in St. Louis having grown up here,” said Bishop. “But that’s not what’s at the front of my mind. Winning the national championship is what’s at the front of the mind.”

Paying Homage to a Legend

The Maine program, through its former head coach, the late Shawn Walsh, long had ties to its semifinal opponent, Michigan State. Walsh, who was a backup goaltender for the Spartans, began his coaching career under then-Michigan State bench boss Ron Mason.

Current head coach Tim Whitehead was asked what type of personal influence Walsh had on Whitehead and the Maine program, leading the sixth-year head coach to sing Walsh’s praises.

“[Shawn Walsh] is still an inspiration to me every day,” said Whitehead. “He built a legacy in this program and the key thing from my perspective is to carry that legacy on.

“Shawn took this program in the mid-’80s and brought it to another level in terms of national prominence.”

Whitehead discussed his first major undertaking at Maine, the newly-built Shawn Walsh Hockey Center, which opened at the beginning of the 2005-06 season. The building serves as the training center and locker rooms for both the men’s and women’s hockey programs in Orono.

And Walsh’s influence can be seen as far down as the club’s undergarments — t-shirts that read “Road Warriors” and have inspirational Walsh mottos on the back.

Said Whitehead, “[Shawn] would have loved to be here in this situation today.”

Experience Counts

Though each club at this weekend’s Frozen Four has national tournament experience, and three — Maine, Boston College and North Dakota — were in the Frozen four a year ago, it’s still hard not to talk about the experience and the related “having been there” feeling that will be important come this weekend.

“Anytime you can get experiences at the Regionals and Frozen Fours, it helps you the next time you are there,” said Whitehead, who last year brought a club heavy in freshmen to the big dance, falling to eventual national champion Wisconsin in the semifinals. “Where it helps you is the preparation, the routine and dealing with the potential distractions.”

Among those distractions are dealing with the media. Maine’s press conference was crowded on Wednesday afternoon, with 25 to 30 active writers and reporters. That figure is expected to grow well past the century mark as the weekend goes on.