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Hockey

Farewell to Ben Bishop, Who Deserved Better Than He Got

Health wasn't on the Stars goalie's side. Neither were praise or timing. But he was damn good for as long as he could be.
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Bishop's renown never caught up to his skill. Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports
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Farewell to Ben Bishop, Who Deserved Better Than He Got

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Ben Bishop’s greatest night as a Dallas Star was a loss.

You know the one: Game 7 against St. Louis, 2019. Bishop was dominant most of the year, a 6-foot-7 embankment in the crease, but he was a fortress that evening. He repelled shot after shot after shot after shot—52 in total between regulation and a pair of overtimes, third-most for a Dallas Star in a playoff game behind Ed Belfour and Marty Turco, the two most accomplished goalies in franchise history. The Stars shouldn’t have been in that game. They were outshot 31 to 4 over the second and third periods. But Bishop willed them on for hours, one rejection at a time, right up until the moment Robert Thomas’ shot clanked off the right post, caromed off the back of Bishop’s head, and fell right in the path of Blues teammate Pat Maroon, who jabbed it in to win the series. Bishop skated off the ice in long, loping strides toward the bench, where a teammate gave him a forlorn pat on the helmet upon arrival. Then he chucked his stick into the tunnel in disgust.

To the outside world, that moment would soon be paved over by other ones, the way sports memories so often are. St. Louis won the Stanley Cup that year, and Dallas would reach the Stanley Cup Final the following season. Both developments went a long way toward diluting the worst of the ache that comes from watching someone you care about get stretched to the absolute limit, only for none of it to matter. The former provided consolation; the latter, catharsis. Those, along with time, tend to mend broken hearts.

Well, broadly speaking, anyway. I imagine the same doesn’t hold true for Bishop, whose NHL career would end between those two plot points, some 14 months prior to announcing his retirement after failing to return from a degenerative knee condition. He’d go on to start in three postseason games in 2020, but that night in St. Louis—a losing effort in his hometown—was effectively his last stand in playoff hockey. It was also the last of many times he finished on the precipice of a signature moment that ultimately never arrived.

Which makes it unlikely that, 20 years from now, Ben Bishop will be remembered for what he was: one of the best goalies of his era. He retires with a .921 save percentage among goalies with at least 300 games played, the fifth-best mark in NHL history. That number climbed to .923 over his three seasons in Dallas, tops in franchise history. In the postseason? .924. Here was the rare physical outlier who played up to every expectation that came with his body, not filling the net so much as engulfing it. What Bishop couldn’t cover by default he seldom had trouble reaching. He was gigantic yet adroit, imposing while graceful.

But Bishop was also hockey’s nearly man—almost a champion, almost the class of his position, almost an icon. Bishop came up two wins short of a Stanley Cup in Tampa Bay in 2015, then saw his understudy, Andrei Vasilevskiy, win two after he was shipped out. Five years and one city later, he watched his new backup, Anton Khudobin, become a cult hero by carrying the Stars to the Final after his knee gave out.

Bishop was a finalist for the Vezina Trophy three times in five seasons; he peaked at second place, twice, including once behind Vasilevskiy. He only played in a single All-Star game, even though his save percentage and goals allowed average each rank first since the 2013-2014 season. Those four players ahead of him in the career save-percentage mark? Three are in the Hall of Fame and the fourth, Tuuka Rask, might be someday by virtue of winning the Stanley Cup and the Vezina that eluded Bishop.

He was also snakebit—at the end, certainly, not that his body was ever totally cooperative in the first place. He surpassed 50 regular-season games just four times in 11 seasons, seemingly always weathering a knock or a nag, and often much worse. There is a reason, in other words, that a YouTube video titled “Ben Bishop injuries” not only exists but has a run time of 13:36 (and, no, I’m not linking to it). It’s both cruel and cruelly fitting that it ended this way: with his health, not his play, dictating his circumstances. He did all could, for as long as he could, until there was nothing left to do.

The end result is a career that was far better than most and far less than he deserved. The accolades never caught up to his production, and so there will be no Hall of Fame induction, no retired jersey, no lead paragraph in his Wikipedia entry that neatly conveys what he did on the ice to anyone who didn’t watch him do it in real time. Timing often failed him, and then his body did, too. Eventually, history probably will as well.

All of it is too raw for him to process in the here and now. He wiped away tears during a press conference Tuesday as he addressed the media, a dozen of his teammates, his wife, and his two sons, both of whom wore No. 30 jerseys—the older with DADDY on the back, the younger with BISHOP. He took solace in knowing he crossed “every little bridge we could possibly do” to try and make it back—bone-on-bone pain, surgeries, injections, plasma therapy. But he isn’t at peace with the terms of his exit nor missing out on that Stanley Cup. Not yet.

He also revealed something: the knee injury that ended his career first manifested in the St. Louis series two and a half years ago. He downplayed the pain—”Nothing serious,” he insisted—but that offseason he would be diagnosed with a torn meniscus. He spent his greatest night in pain, as he would soon spend many lesser ones, and yet, he said, “If I was able to play with the knee pain and the cartilage wearing away—if I was able to play at an elite level, I would keep playing.” Which makes his best game the very best explanation of him: the skill and the spectacle and a full spectrum of pain in service to an outcome just shy of the one he wanted. No one here will forget it any time soon. It just won’t be remembered the way it ought to be.

 

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