Most days pass so unremarkably that one blends into the next in the compost of memory until they’re just gone. But very occasionally comes a day you never forget. Because it’s a day you’ve been dreaming of since you were a little kid.
Around 6pm on October 15, Alex Bishop — a 24-year-old U of T commerce student and starting goalie for the Varsity Blues hockey team — had his dinner prep interrupted by the buzz of his phone. Caller ID: Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment.
The Toronto Maple Leafs were in a jam. Petr Mrazek, their number 2 goaltender, had tweaked his groin last night against the Senators — which left the team without a backup to their star starter Jack Campbell. The Leafs were tight against the salary cap. Which meant they couldn’t afford to call up a veteran goalie from the AHL-affiliate Marlies — at least until Monday (when they could officially claim emergency short-handed status, or put Mrazek on Long Term Injury Reserve or … well, the maneuvering becomes so complicated only a fourth-year RSM student could understand it). The best solution, the team decided, was to roll the dice on the young man on the phone. For one night only, Bishop would be inserted into the lineup as an EBUG – Emergency Back Up Goaltender. It wasn’t for-sure that he’d play, he was told, but please show up tomorrow at the crack of 8 for the morning skate.
Bishop had always known this was a possibility. Typically, in the NHL, if the big club suddenly runs out of goalies in its system, the top university netminder gets the nod (before they call the zamboni driver). But it’s such a long shot that the idea was buried deep in Bishop’s brain, somewhere between private-equity financing, put options, and where to take his girlfriend for a celebratory dinner in April when his commerce degree (Finance and Economics) is in the can.
Bishop checked in with his nervous system. Scared? Excited? “Most of all I felt lucky,” he says. It was the goldilocks state of Mrazek’s health – not great, but not too bad — that opened this window. “If he was more hurt than he was, he’d have been put on LTIR and I wouldn’t have been able to play,” Bishop says. “You never want to wish for someone to be injured to get your opportunity. I was actually able to hope that he wasn’t too badly hurt, which was nice.”
Good Canadian kid.
Bishop promptly got a Covid test to make sure he was negative, and then tried to get some sleep.
Though it was not a condition of the call-up, Bishop is, fittingly, a die-hard Leafs fan. “My Dad came to Toronto from England when he was two, and he kind of adopted hockey as his favorite sport,” he says. “We’ve been Leaf fans our whole lives.” As a five-year-old in his first organized league, Alex tried the netminding position because, frankly, no other kid wanted the job. And found he was just the right mix of brave/cerebral/crazy to enjoy it. And so he just … never left the crease. As he watched the acrobatic stylings of Curtis Joseph on TV, his own game matured until, at age 17 he was playing for the St. John Sea Dogs of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, with visions of one day, just maybe, stepping onto the ice of a big-league arena preparing to do this as his day job.
Bishop steps onto the ice of Scotiabank Arena early the next morning. He’s not alone. Auston Matthews, rehabbing from off-season wrist surgery, is working out with a player-development coach. For forty minutes it’s just the two of them, Bishop and Matthews, Matthews and Bishop (cue the old-timey dream reverie, Bob Cole with the call: “Matthews in alone on Bishop … Stopped by Bishop!”) and then the rest of the team joins them. Bishop squares up to the shooters at his end, trying to be big in the net, which is not so hard since he stands 6’4” in carpet slippers. (Bishop stops all of Alexander Kerfoot’s shots, and Kerfoot and others will remark later that Bishop does not look out of place in there at all.) At one point Campbell skates over to shoot the breeze, asking Bishop about his studies, his life. Coach Sheldon Keefe whistles the practice done, and some players head to the Platinum Club for the pregame meal (Bishop goes for the penne with chicken: “keepin’ it simple.”). Leafs brass are watching Mrazek closely. The call of who’ll be backing up Campbell tonight will be made shortly. But Bishop can’t hang around for the news – he has mid-terms to study for.
As he’s packing up to leave, Bishop is handed something to sign by Leafs assistant-GM Brandon Pridham. It’s a one-day contract called an Amateur Tryout Agreement. If you prorated the minimum NHL salary for one day’s work, it’d come to over $2,000, but EBUGs receive no payment at all. If he accepted even a dime to suit up for the Leafs he’d lose his amateur status, “and then I wouldn’t have been able to continue to play at U of T, which is a priority for me.”
Really good Canadian kid.
By the time he arrives back at his apartment, even before he can crack open Options, Futures, and Other Derivatives, by John C. Hull, (and honestly, it never occurred to him to try to get the exam deferred – cuz how many times can you pull the old “I’m suiting up for the Leafs tomorrow” excuse?), his phone is blowing up. Texts and Facebook messages pouring in, old friends coming out of the woodwork with their break-a-legs and you-deserve-it-mans, and Bishop finally has to put the thing on mute. It becomes clear he’s not going to get in his customary pre-game nap. He finally just showers and heads back to the rink.
In the Leafs dressing room there’s a sign on the wall that reads, “It’s a privilege, not a right.” Next to Mrazek’s spot, an empty stall has been kitted out for him. A little blue nametag: “Bishop.” There’s a Leafs jersey hanging there. He turns it over. “Bishop.” They’ve given him number 70. He couldn’t wear his Number 1 from the Varsity Blues because that number’s hanging in the rafters – under Turk Broda and Johnny Bower’s names. (Bishop will later learn that he is the first player ever to wear Leafs’ Number 70 in a regular-season game.)
From his vantage point, there in the back, he watches the ritualistic ballet of the game prep. Guys taping their sticks, making sure their equipment is in order. The coaches have a confab right in front of him. Campbell comes over and together they do a bit of a pre-scout, going over the preferences of the Sens’ forwards: where they like to post up, what’s their go-to shootout move. A couple of the veteran guys, including Jason Spezza and Jake Muzzin, ascertaining that Bishop is probably battling nerves, crack some jokes, remind him to just enjoy the moment. “They really tried to make me feel part of the team,” Bishop says, “even if just for one day.”
Bishop joins the players sharking around in the warmup, getting loose, and then he takes his place at the end of the bench. Half his varsity team, plus his coach, plus his parents and one of his sisters are in the stands. Not to mention the two-and-a-half million strangers who’ve tuned in on Hockey Night in Canada. The visiting Sens are in their away white with black and red trim. They have a guy with a 105-mph slap shot. Bishop wonders what that would feel like hitting his catching glove. Or missing his catching glove.
The Leafs jump out to a 2-0 lead and the mood in the building is festive and the tension eases a bit. But in the second period Campbell gets run into, goes and hard and is slow to get up. Bishop, as he will later put it, “felt my heart drop.”
The Leafs win3-1. One of the players hands Bishop the game puck.
In the end he never got the opportunity to go full David Ayers and come off the bench to seal the victory, but he’s ok with his more modest role in history. In the postgame media shootaround, a reporter asks: “Alex, what will you remember most about today?” He thinks about it for a few seconds. Realistically, at 24, with a promising career in business or management setting up in front of him, his dreams of life in the NHL very likely begin and end with this moment. But everything that hockey has given him — the discipline and persistence, the equipoise of leadership and teammanship, the time-management and the people skills — have come together to create a tailwind pushing him into a future beyond this night. In hockey the goaltender is the last line of defense; there’s nobody behind you. But for Bishop, the great revelation of this experience is how many folks actually are.
“I’m still kind of soaking it in, but I think what I’ll remember is the reaction from my family and friends and people who I probably haven’t spoken to in five years – just the support that I have.”
“One day I’ll be able to tell my kids that I was on the roster for an NHL game,” he adds later.
In this country, that is a definition of success that’s hard to beat — no matter what econometrics you use to measure it.