There’s no easy way to do it, no foolproof way to ward off the pain. Every time Jake Bischoff stoops to block a shot, the Gophers defenseman knows it might hurt. A lot.
Bischoff is well-protected by body armor, and he knows the basics of self-preservation, such as keeping his hands out of harm’s way. But those vulcanized rubber projectiles — which come screaming off sticks at speeds approaching 70 miles per hour — have a way of finding vulnerable spots.
“There are some games where you catch two or three of them on the wrist or the calf, or somewhere else where you’re going to need an ice bag,” Bischoff said. “But you’ve just got to be willing to have a little pain for your teammates.”
Gophers coach Don Lucia said he often can tell how well the Gophers have played by the volume of ice bags on the locker-room floor. Bischoff, their senior alternate captain, usually uses enough to sink the Titanic. The Big Ten defensive player of the year has blocked 87 shots this season, eighth most in the nation heading into Saturday’s NCAA tournament opener against Notre Dame.
Versatile and skilled, Bischoff is equally handy at the other end of the ice. The Grand Rapids, Minn., native has a career-high 32 points, making him the seventh highest-scoring defenseman in the country and first in the Big Ten.
But nothing demonstrates his love for the Gophers like his willingness to take a puck in the solar plexus. The New York Islanders, who picked Bischoff in the seventh round of the 2012 NHL draft, tempted him with an offer to turn pro last summer. The same loyalty that leads him to dive in front of shots kept him around for his final season, one he hopes to extend this weekend at the Northeast Regional in Manchester, N.H.
“It’s just a mind-set,” Bischoff said of his tolerance for pain. “You have to be willing to do whatever it takes to win, especially this time of year.
“Getting in the way of pucks is something I can do to help my team. It might be tough. It might hurt sometimes. But if that’s going to help us win, then I’m all in.”
Lucia said that selflessness reflects Bischoff’s status as a “program guy,” a player who is as devoted to the Gophers as he is to making it to the NHL. That began with Bischoff’s father, Grant, who scored 80 goals for the Gophers from 1988 to ’91.
Grant Bischoff has had season tickets since graduating from the U. When Jake was growing up, he and his dad frequently made the long drive to Mariucci Arena for games, giving Jake a head start on his way to becoming a second-generation Gopher.
“He was brought up in that culture,” Grant Bischoff said. “And when he got the opportunity to play there, it was a dream come true, for both of us.”
When it comes to shot-blocking, though, Grant is quick to point out that particular skill is not hereditary. While at Grand Rapids High School, Jake never neglected his defensive responsibilities, even as his offensive ability blossomed.
His blend of vision, instinct and guts allowed him to dart into shooting lanes and take a beating. By the time he joined the Gophers, Bischoff no longer thought twice about sacrificing himself.
He has had a few mishaps; a scar on his wrist is a reminder of a shot that split his skin and broke a bone, and he took one in the teeth while wearing a half-shield in junior hockey. To prevent injuries, he wears shock-absorbing skate guards, and he avoids using his hands. Even when taking all possible precautions, Bischoff said, a shot can still bring the hurt — a price he accepts without hesitation, much to the delight of his coach.
“He’s grown so much since he’s been here,” Lucia said. “He’s a tremendous leader, a heart-and-soul guy.
“Jake is the type of leader that if you need a key block with 30 seconds left in a one-goal game, he’s going to sell out and do it. Sometimes, those don’t get as much credit as someone scoring an important goal. But it’s just as important to make that play and prevent a goal from going in. And it says a lot when your captains are willing to [block shots].”
Bischoff’s teammates often talk about that idea of “selling out,” of unflinchingly inserting oneself between puck and net. Forward Tyler Sheehy, who ached for a few days after blocking a hard shot to save a victory at Ohio State last month, marvels at Bischoff’s ability to take that kind of battering night after night.
“It’s incredible,” Sheehy said. “He’s definitely a guy you look to. You understand he’s going to give his best every single night. He usually needs a few extra ice packs, but he’s a tough kid.”
As college hockey has become increasingly mercenary, with top players frequently leaving early to start pro careers, Lucia noted the most successful teams usually are built around dedicated seniors. Bischoff gave only fleeting thought to the Islanders’ offer. A three-time academic All-Big Ten selection, he wanted to finish his degree in business and marketing education, spend a final season with his five fellow seniors and continue chasing an NCAA title — a long-term goal worth every second of short-term pain.
“Coming into this year, the only thing on my mind was getting our team into the [NCAA] tournament,” Bischoff said. “I wanted to have one more kick at the can.
“Winning a national championship would mean everything to us. That’s why we came here. That’s why we wanted to be Gophers. We’ve given ourselves a chance, and now, it all comes down to execution.”