Jake Bischoff scuttled onto the ice in his dress shoes to celebrate the Gophers’ NCAA tournament regional title and Frozen Four berth.
Still in the suit he wore to Xcel Energy Center on that late March day, he settled in behind the group of sweaty teammates and poked his head up for a team photo. Behind the smile, he wondered if he already had played his last game as a freshman.
His hunch was correct.
Bischoff played in 28 games last season, a portion of the time with a cast covering a broken wrist, but the Gophers coaching staff had settled on the offensive-focused lineup that would eventually carry the team to the national championship game. Bischoff’s role would be limited to practice and moral support.
“It’s definitely tough. It does sort of stink, but it’s sort of life,” Bischoff said more than a week later, at last season’s Frozen Four in Philadelphia. “I just gotta move forward. … I want to be ready to go and do whatever I can to contribute to the team.”
Eight months later, he has kept his word. The 6-foot, 195-pound defenseman from Grand Rapids, Minn., spent the summer on campus, training in the Mariucci Arena weight room and soaking up extra ice time. His commitment extended off-campus for lessons with a skating instructor several times a week.
The extra efforts, and his humility in handling the situation, put him in position to become a regular part of the defensive rotation as a sophomore and in the starting lineup for the home opener in October.
“That was definitely cool, and good to be out there with the guys, especially after last year. … When they called my name, that was pretty cool, a huge honor for sure,” Bischoff said last month, remembering opening night at Mariucci. “But I still need to earn my spot every night and every day in practice, so it’s still going to be a battle this year, but hopefully I can come through more.”
He did just that last Friday against then-12th-ranked Boston College, when he scored his first goal of the season in the victory. His play is more physical this season, something that will be relied upon this weekend. The Gophers travel to Michigan State for their opening Big Ten series against a Spartans team that gave the defending conference champion trouble last season.
Playing physical was a challenge for Bischoff a year ago. He gave up an offensive style that made him a 2013 Mr. Hockey finalist and the winner of the Reed Larson Award, given to the Minnesota’s top high school senior defenseman, to fill the need for a shot blocker and physical presence on the Gophers’ blue line.
The transition became even more difficult when he broke one of his wrists blocking a shot and missed time early last season. However, Bischoff returned with a cast to fill the void caused by other injured teammates and played 17 consecutive games in the middle of the Big Ten schedule
Now associate head coach Mike Guentzel is calling for Bischoff and fellow sophomore defenseman Michael Brodzinski to take the next step and become elite college players. Guentzel, who focuses on the defense, believes that the Gophers’ progress last season was a result of development from defensemen Brady Skjei and Mike Reilly and goaltender Adam Wilcox from Year 1 to Year 2. Guentzel has seen glimpses of it, but wants more from this season’s sophomore defensemen.
“You have to respect Jake,” Guentzel said. “The guy comes in out of high school hockey last year and changes his game for betterment of the team and the program. He’s willing to put the knee on the ground for us to shot block and puts it out there at a battle level you want. I trust him.”
Skjei knows what it’s like to be stuck in a suit during playoff time. The junior was in and out of the lineup during his freshman year and admired the way Bischoff handled a similar situation.
“It’s terrible. It’s tough,” Skjei said. “It’s hard sitting there watching when you feel like you can be out there helping the team. … Jake is one of the nicest guys on the team, and he understands what the coaches are doing. It’s a little bit of a learning lesson, and I think it pushes him a little more.”
This character can be attributed to Bischoff’s dad, Grant, and late mother, Jacqueline. Grant is a former Gophers star forward (1987-1991) and North Stars draft pick with the same bright blue eyes as his son. Jacqueline lost her battle with cancer when Jake was 16, and that changed his perspective on athletics.
Bischoff said he realized what is most important in life — family — and the rest follows. That “levelheaded” attitude is what Grant believes has helped Jake improve as an athlete.
“Jake is a pretty mature kid,” Grant said. “I think he handled [last season’s playoff situation] about as well as any kid could handle it. Jake has always been a team player. … I don’t know if going through adversity is practice for going through adversity, but it’s definitely been a part of his life and you are who you are for the experiences you’ve had.”