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In return to 'second home' Tampa, Bishop feels the emotions

The Stars netminder reflects on his time with the Lightning, a franchise that became elite during his tenure

by Scott Burnside @OvertimeScottB / DallasStars.com

TAMPA, Fla. -- So, is this like the return of the prodigal son? Maybe a bit. Perhaps more like running into a first true love at a high school reunion. 

Awkward? Maybe a little. 

Heartfelt? Without a doubt.

And so it is that Ben Bishop will return to AMALIE Arena in Tampa for the first time since the netminder was traded by the franchise to Los Angeles at last season's trade deadline.

 

[LISTEN: Scott Burnside sits down with Stars goaltending coach Jeff Reese and head coach Ken Hitchcock on the latest Burnside Chats podcast]

 

On Thursday night, Bishop will return in a hitherto unknown role as the starting netminder for the Dallas Stars, skating to the opposite end of the ice from where he made so many memorable starts for the Lightning -- guiding the team to a Stanley Cup final berth in 2015 and a run to the Eastern Conference final the following year, while earning a Vezina Trophy nomination twice along the way.

We, in the media, love the "going home" story. It's an easy hook, even if the relationships between player and former franchise is tenuous or frayed.

That's not the case here.

In fact, it's hard to understate the importance Bishop's time in Tampa had on him as a person and as a goaltender. And likewise, it's hard to understate the importance of Bishop to a franchise that, during his tenure, became an elite organization.

"It's where I got my start," Bishop said. "It's where I met my wife. It's where I met so many great people away from the rink."

"I'm excited," he said. "It's kind of like a second home. It has a special place in your heart. It wasn't just a place where I went and played hockey and left. You set some roots there and still have them."

Bishop came to Tampa via a trade-deadline trade with Ottawa in 2013. The Senators were in Boston and he met the Bolts in Carolina after the trade. Head coach Jon Cooper had just been hired to help redirect a franchise that had gone adrift after a trip to the conference final under Guy Boucher in 2011.

"I met with Coop outside the hotel and he said I was going to play the next day and ended up having like a 45-shot shutout in Carolina. It was a really great debut," Bishop recalled.

The feeling was similar to what Bishop sees in Dallas, with whom he signed a six-year deal in the offseason.

"The team didn't have a very good year that year, but you could see the potential with all the firepower they had," Bishop said, rhyming off the names of Steven Stamkos, Martin St. Louis, and the kids, Ondrej Palat, Nikita Kucherov, Tyler Johnson.

"You could see the future, and even though they hadn't come off the best year, we were excited for the next year and then obviously had a great year the next three years," he said.

Video: Stars ready for big matchup in Tampa

Here's the thing.

At the start of that next season, 2013-14, Bishop was still vying for the full-time starter's role with Anders Lindback, and while Bishop had installed himself as the nominal starter through training camp, in fact, the coaching staff opted to give Lindback the start in the season-opener against Boston, which the Lightning lost with Bishop tabbed to start the next night in Chicago. 

He stood on his head in earning a shootout victory.

"As an organization, we were giving him a little bit of a test," Cooper said. "The irony of the whole thing is the game he didn't play, we lost, and the next game -- a game we shouldn't have, we won because of one guy, and that was Ben Bishop. And the rest is history, because we took off, and Ben was unreal."

By the time he was traded to Los Angeles at the trade deadline last season, a departure that had been months in the coming, given Bishop's impending free agency and the emergence of Andrei Vasilevskiy as an elite goaltending prospect, Bishop had established franchise records for wins, goals against average, save percentage, shutouts and saves.

In Cooper's office is a giant blowup of a photograph taken at the end of the Eastern Conference final in 2015. You can see Bishop's back as he's embraced by his teammates. Above him, the scoreboard at Madison Square Garden and the score: 2-0.

That was Game 7 of the conference final. Two games earlier, he'd shut out the Rangers at the Garden to help propel the Lightning to their first final appearance since their seminal Cup win in 2004.

Those are the moments for Cooper that speak to Bishop's importance to the franchise, and to him on a personal level.

"We rose to the top with him being the anchor back there," Cooper said. "And now, to see him come in and be in a different uniform is definitely going to be weird, because I still look at him as a teammate."

And while he hopes the Lightning continue their strong play -- they enter the game as the NHL's top team at 14-2-2 -- Cooper admits there will likely be a moment of disappointment when a puck crosses the line behind Bishop, a kind of muscle memory from their shared time in Tampa.

"If I look at my time in the NHL, everything sort of turned when we got Ben Bishop," Cooper said. "If there was one single person that has had the major impact on this franchise in the time I've been here, its Ben Bishop. We needed an anchor.

"We were trying to find ourselves as an organization and as a coach trying to coach having all these moving parts there was one guy that was standing back there making it all look a lot easier than it was. And that was Ben Bishop."

Defenseman Braydon Coburn came to the Lightning from Philadelphia at the '15 trade deadline, and he and Bishop bonded over in-flight games of cards. The two became fast friends with Coburn attending Bishop's wedding in Tampa to a local woman last summer.

"You could see goaltending was very strong and Bish, he had a lot of confidence, he was top of his game. And as a D-man, and the way he played the puck and everything, it just made your job so much easier, and just gave you a lot of confidence out there that he was going to protect you," Coburn said.

And Coburn said he never minded that Bishop was constantly offering instruction -- and even some criticism of you -- from his perch between the pipes.

"You want that," Coburn explained. "You want that because his hockey I.Q. it's really high. Just not about playing goal and defensive-zone stuff. But telling us where to shoot on other goalies. And positioning and stick positioning, and just kind of all around. He's got a real good grasp for what's going on out there. He's a really good guy to pick his brain. And sometimes, you don't even need to pick his brain. He'll just tell you."

Everyone understands the nature of the game as business. Still, there is an element of the bittersweet for Coburn.


"Especially with Bish, he's just such a good friend and everybody understands the nature of hockey and I think he ended up in a really great situation in Dallas, and he seems really happy out there," Coburn said.

Still, it's a testament to the nature of their relationship that Coburn wouldn't mind putting one by his old pal.

"It would just be great bragging rights," he said.

The return to Tampa comes at an interesting time for Bishop and the Stars. They're 3-6-1 on the road and hovering around the .500 mark and the edge of the playoff bubble at 9-8-1. 

As Bishop noted Wednesday, the team is still looking for its identity. And maybe, Bishop is looking for his identity within that unit as well. He is 7-5-0 with a .908 save percentage about 10 points off his career save percentage of .918.

Kevin Weekes is a longtime NHL netminder, whose stops included a tenure in Tampa. He thinks Bishop has yet to hit his "full, consistent stride yet."

But a transition like the one Bishop has undergone in recent months isn't something that is achieved overnight.

Bishop has played more minutes, played in more games than any other goaltender in Tampa history.

"That's a lot of repetition," Weekes said. Come to a new team, new building, new coaching staff, new goaltending coach, new lighting -- even in the building.

"It's just a lot of 'news', a lot of variables thrown at you," Weekes said.

Goaltending coach Jeff Reese, who won a Stanley Cup in Tampa Bay as its goaltending coach in 2004, agrees that the best is yet to come for Bishop in Dallas.

"Everything is a little bit different, but he's adjusted very well in my opinion, and I believe he's going to get more and more comfortable and get better," Reese said.

As for coming home, as it were, there is lots at stake for all concerned here -- not to mention the added dose of emotion that will be at play when Bishop skates out to fans so used to cheering their encouragement.

"He played some really good hockey for them, and arguably at this point, the best in his career," Reese said. "He'll be really excited to go back, and I'm sure he's looking forward to it. But at the same time, you want to beat the team that traded you. That's just human nature. Sometimes, it works for you. Sometimes, it works a little bit against you. Sometimes, you almost try too hard, and sometimes, you actually know the shooters, so it actually helps. 

"It'll be interesting to see what direction it goes."

This story was not subject to approval of the National Hockey League or Dallas Stars Hockey Club. You can follow Scott on Twitter @OvertimeScottB, and listen to his Burnside Chats podcast here.

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