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Bishop born to shine on hockey's biggest stage

by Rob Brodie / Ottawa Senators
Senators goaltender Ben Bishop salutes the fans at Scotiabank Place after being named the game's first star following Ottawa's victory over the New York Rangers (Photo by Jana Chytilova/Freestyle Photography/OSHC).

His height and his hometown suggest a young man built for the hardwood game.

But big Ben Bishop III, a product of St. Louis, Missouri — a state situated in the middle of America's heartland, between basketball-mad Kansas and Kentucky — never really gave the sport much of a thought. The great Canadian game, you see, had won his heart long before he grew to his current 6-7 stature.

"(Hockey) was the same season as basketball," the 25-year-old Bishop said in answering a question he no doubt heard plenty of times while growing up on the ice, far away from the court. "I always preferred playing hockey instead."

Funny thing is, there is no real history of hockey in the Bishop family. His grandfather — the original Ben Bishop — is a former tennis pro "who played in a couple of U.S. Opens." And his father, Ben Jr., and mother, Cindy, have no real connection with the game in their past. Neither can take credit for his size, either: mom is 5-3, dad is 6-1, though Cindy has brothers in the 6-5 range.

Blame the St. Louis Blues for steering the youngest Bishop down the path he eventually wound up taking — one which has led him to tonight, when he'll make his first home start with the Ottawa Senators against the Eastern Conference-leading New York Rangers at Scotiabank Place (7:30 p.m., Sportsnet East, Team 1200).

"I remember I went to a Blues game when I was young and I told my dad I wanted to do that," said Bishop. "So he signed me up for skating lessons ... I started playing when I was four and I just kind of stuck with it, so here I am now."

Bishop, who played minor hockey for both the Kirkwood Stars and St. Louis Jr. Blues, started out as a forward — ironically, the position he'd be best suited for had he chosen hoops over hockey. But at eight years old, he got thrown between the pipes and he's been a goaltender ever since. Now Bishop is the tallest one in National Hockey League history.

Naturally, playing for his hometown team was a lifelong dream — one the Blues made come true when they selected Bishop in the third round (85th overall) of the 2005 NHL Entry Draft. It truly became reality on Oct. 24, 2008, when he made his NHL debut in St. Louis colours against the Los Angeles Kings ("probably the most nervous I've ever been," said Bishop).

But after spending the bulk of the last four seasons with the Peoria Riverman, the Blues' American Hockey League affiliate, Bishop knew it was time for a bigger opportunity. And when Senators starter Craig Anderson went down with a right hand injury suffered in a kitchen accident two weeks ago, a door opened for him — one that he's happily stepped through — when Senators general manager Bryan Murray sent a 2013 second-round draft pick to St. Louis to shore up the organization's goaltending depth.

"I'm over it," Bishop said of turning the page on his biggest hockey dream. "I had my chance and (the Blues) had a chance to sign me this year if they wanted to, but we kind of went our separate ways. There's no hard feelings at all. There's an opportunity for me here, so it was kind of easy to leave."

Bishop was a winner in his Senators debut, stopping 25-of-28 shots he faced Tuesday night as Ottawa dumped the Tampa Bay Lightning 7-3. Tonight, however, will be his first chance to impress the home folks in Ottawa, and the thought of doing so in the middle of a playoff chase in a Canadian market brings a wide grin to Bishop's face.

"It'll be fun to play here in Ottawa," he said following the Senators' pre-game skate earlier today. "I've never been to a game here or played a game here, so it'll be fun."

For the entire team, tonight represents a chance to measure themselves against a Rangers outfit that might well turn out to be a first-round playoff opponent. The Senators (35-25-8) would have to drop a spot from their current seventh-place standing in the East to line up against the Blueshirts (42-16-7) in the post-season for the first time ever.

"It's a good challenge for us," said Senators forward Colin Greening. "We want to be able to compare ourselves to the top teams, especially (heading toward) the playoffs now. We've got 14 games left and this could be a potential playoff matchup for us, so it's important to take advantage of these opportunities."

Added centre Jason Spezza: "We feel like they're one of the top two teams in the East and they can be a good example (for us) of how to play the game ... We look at Boston and we look at New York and the way they play 60 minutes every night. They don't win every night, but they give a pretty consistent effort."

Around the boards

It's never easy to keep a good man down. With that thought in mind, veteran Senators defenceman Chris Phillips — who suffered a broken nose in Tuesday's win over the Bolts — will hit the ice with his teammates tonight. He'll wear an extended face shield to protect the injury, with Phillips saying he has no concerns about possibly re-injuring his nose ... Centre Jim O'Brien (lower body) is back in the lineup tonight, head coach Paul MacLean confirmed, meaning Zenon Konopka joins Bobby Butler and Matt Carkner as healthy scratches ... The Senators lead the season series 2-1, with both of their wins coming in New York. The Rangers took the last meeting between the teams in Ottawa (3-2 on Nov. 9) and have won five straight at Scotiabank Place ... For the first time in 20 matchups with the Blueshirts, the Senators won't face New York goaltender Henrik Lundqvist. It'll be Martin Biron in net for the visitors tonight ... The Senators are at home again Saturday, when the surging Buffalo Sabres make their final visit of the season to Scotiabank Place (7 p.m., CBC, Team 1200).

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