Today’s GameWHO: Evansville IceMen 17-27-5 (39 points) vs. South Carolina Stingrays 23-23-4 (50 points)When: 7:05 p.m.Where: North Charleston ColiseumTickets: 744-2248
It was getting late in the summer and like a lot of American Hockey League free agents, Hunter Bishop was getting a little nervous about the prospects of finding a team.
As August turned into September and with an NHL lockout almost a certainty, Bishop knew that jobs in the AHL or over in Europe were going to be scarce.
Bishop began to look at the ECHL, a league he’d played briefly in during the 2010-11 season, and reached out to an old friend — South Carolina Stingrays assistant coach J.B. Bitner. Bitner had been an assistant coach at Ohio State University during Bishop’s senior season with the Buckeyes.
Bitner and the Stingrays are certainly glad Bishop made that phone call.
The former Ohio State star leads the team with 20 goals and is second with 40 points as the Stingrays head into tonight’s game against Evansville. The game is set to start at 7:05 p.m. at the North Charleston Coliseum.
“It was a wild summer with the lockout,” Bishop said. “A lot of guys, a lot of really good players, were left out because everyone was scrambling for spots.”
Despite signing a contract with the Montreal Canadians three years ago, Bishop had dropped off of the NHL grid. He missed all of last season with a shoulder injury he suffered in a preseason game. The year before that, he’d missed a big chunk of the season with a concussion. There were questions about his durability coming into this summer, which was the main reason AHL teams were shy about signing the Anchorage, Alaska, native.
There was no doubt about Bishop’s talent. Blessed with an NHL-caliber shot and quick feet, Bishop was among the top players in the Big Ten.
“We had a lot of guys on that team that were NHL-caliber players and Hunter was certainly one of those guys,” Bitner said. “He’s a high-end skill guy that we knew could help us.”
Bishop has played in 40 games with the Stingrays, only being out of the lineup when he was called up to the AHL. Bishop hopes he has put concerns about his durability to rest.
“I hope I’ve put all that behind me,” Bishop said. “I think I’ve proven I can hold up for an entire season. The last couple of seasons have been tough for me because I really missed playing when I was out of the lineup.”
Bishop got off to a slow start this season, but he never doubted that he would regain his scoring touch.
“You can practice all you want, but you can’t simulate game situations in the summer,” Bishop said. “That’s a different animal. I anticipated a little bit of a rocky start because I hadn’t played very much in the last year and a half. Give the coaching staff here credit, they were patient with me and showed a lot of confidence in sticking with me.”
Everything clicked into place when Stingrays head coach Spencer Carbery decided to put Bishop and Tyler McNeely on the same line. The two had played against each other at the junior hockey level, but didn’t know each other personally. From the beginning of November to Christmas, Bishop recorded 28 points (14 goals, 14 assists) in 26 games.
“You might find a handful of guys during your lifetime that from day one everything just seems to fit,” Bishop said. “We hit it off right away. Every time he’s here and we get to play together we just seem to click. We’re such great friends off the ice too. He’s made this a fun year for me.”
McNeely, who leads the team with 44 points, is playing with the AHL’s Lake Erie Monsters.
“For his sake I hope he stays up there for the rest of the season,” Bishop said. “Selfishly, I hope he comes back.”
With two months left in the regular season, the Stingrays are fighting for their playoff lives. Bishop knows there’s almost no margin for error for the Stingrays as they head into the final stretch of their schedule. South Carolina is currently in 10th place in the ECHL’s Eastern Conference. The top eight teams advance to the Kelly Cup playoffs. The Stingrays have made the postseason an ECHL record 18 times in their previous 19 seasons.
“We’re focused on getting that spot in the playoffs,” Bishop said. “We’re approaching every game like it’s our last. For us, the playoffs have already started.”