TAMPA -- Ben Bishop was a junior goaltender at the University of Maine, the starter for a highly-ranked team with national championship aspirations, when he spent a weekend as the host for a potential recruit, a tall kid like himself who also hailed from a non-traditional source of amateur talent.
Bishop, a 6-foot-7 goaltender from just outside St. Louis, connected pretty quickly with Scott Darling, a 6-foot-6 goalie from just outside Chicago. Darling enjoyed the recruiting trip and eventually committed.
Seven years later, they are on opposite sides of the 2015 Stanley Cup Final between the Tampa Bay Lightning and Chicago Blackhawks, which is tied at two games apiece heading into Game 5 on Saturday at Amalie Arena (8 p.m.; NBC, CBC, TVA Sports). Bishop started the first three games for Tampa Bay before missing Game 4 with an unspecified injury; Darling has not seen action in the series for Chicago.
"[Bishop] really took care of me," Darling said. "I was really nervous. He took me out for some food, showed me kind of the ins and outs of campus. [The hockey players] were the big guys on campus, so it was fun to hang out with them. I watched them play that weekend and he had two great games. I experienced the college life a little and it made me excited to go there."
When Maine coach Tim Whitehead first saw Bishop with the Texas Tornado of the North American Hockey League, he was looking for a successor to his current goalie, future Detroit Red Wings starter Jimmy Howard. Bishop was going to spend a year as Howard's apprentice, but Howard signed a contract with the Red Wings after that season.
Whitehead first saw Darling playing for the Capital District Selects in the Eastern Hockey League, and the same succession plan was eventually put in place after he committed the following year. Bishop also left school a year early, signing with the St. Louis Blues.
Darling spent two years at Maine before his career took several winding roads. He battled alcohol and anxiety problems that nearly ended his career. Reaching this point with the Blackhawks in his rookie NHL season, even helping them defeat the Nashville Predators in the opening round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs in relief of Corey Crawford, was one of the great stories of this postseason.
"We've obviously been on very different routes," Darling said. "He went right to success and I took the scenic path. When I played down here against Tampa earlier in the year, I saw him after the pregame skate and we sort of got caught up. He's a really nice guy, like super easy to talk to."
Darling had another member of the Lightning organization to catch up with during the Cup Final. When Darling was planning to go to Maine, the assistant coach in charge of the goaltenders was Grant Standbrook, who had also recruited and coached Howard, Mike Dunham and Garth Snow at the school.
He retired as a full-time coach before Darling's freshman season, and Whitehead ended up hiring David Alexander. Five years later, the Lightning hired Alexander as their assistant goaltending coach.
"Scott was actually a little bit instrumental in me getting [to Maine]," Alexander said. "In the summer, I was going down to a goalie camp, Brian Daccord's camp in Boston. Scott was going there and we met there. Scotty mentioned just off the cuff that he didn't think he was going to have a goalie guy the next year. I made contact at the University of Maine with coach Whitehead and the rest was history.
"It's really neat. Both of these guys have had different routes here. Both have had ups and downs in different ways. To see both of them get here is unbelievable. It speaks volumes for what Maine did for a numbers of years with goaltending. For me, it's been fun to see it all unfold. The biggest thing in all of this is both Scott and Ben are unbelievable people."
Bishop is the tallest goaltender in NHL history, and Darling isn't far behind. Howard played at the United States National Team Development Program and was a major recruit. Bishop and Darling were lesser known, and more of a project.
"When Ben first got to us at Maine, there was times when he looked like a baby giraffe," Whitehead said.
Bishop developed into an elite NCAA goalie, something that was not lost on Darling. He did not receive a lot of attention from Division I schools until late in the recruiting process, and was planning to attend Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute until Maine was involved.
"I'm sure [the similarities] probably had something to do with it," Bishop said. "He stayed with me and we had a good time. I guess I did a good job, right? He came to the school. I was 1-for-1."
Darling said he and Bishop still keep in touch with Standbrook on nearly a daily basis. Alexander coached Darling for two years, and spent time mentoring Andrei Vasilevskiy and Kristers Gudlevskis, two guys who are also tall goaltenders, this season with the Syracuse Crunch.
When Bishop was a freshman at Maine, his roommate was defenseman Simon Danis-Pepin, who stands 6-foot-7. Whitehead said they were given the nickname "The Twin Towers" and others on campus asked them if they played on the basketball team.
"That's the trend, is trying to find taller guys," Alexander said. "I think the taller kids are gravitating to the position at a younger age, and they're getting better coaching, etc., as they grow. We're getting these bigger guys who are really well trained. The thing with Ben and Scott though is they are very athletic people. They can just pick up other sports with no problem. You see the saves Scott made in that Nashville series and some of the ones Ben has made for us. I mean, there is the goalie technical stuff, but those are just pure athleticism and that's a similarity they both have."