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U of T student goes pro for the Maple Leafs — Varsity Blues goalie Alexander Bishop’s ‘cup of coffee’

The goalie who took the world by storm sits down and talks about his wild experience
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Varsity Blues goaltender Alexander Bishop, a fourth-year Rotman student, was the solution. COURTESY OF SEYRAN MAMMADOV/VARSITY BLUES
Varsity Blues goaltender Alexander Bishop, a fourth-year Rotman student, was the solution. COURTESY OF SEYRAN MAMMADOV/VARSITY BLUES

A ‘cup of coffee’ in sports is defined as a short amount of time spent in the major leagues by a minor league player. And Varsity Blues goaltender Alexander Bishop’s cup of coffee wasn’t your ordinary cup of joe, it was one for the history books. 

On October 16, the Toronto Maple Leafs ran into a big issue before their game against the Ottawa Senators. One of their goalies was injured and, per NHL rules, the team was too close to their salary cap to easily recall a backup goalie from their American Hockey League farm team. They had two options: either exchange one of their defensemen to play goalie, or find a backup goalie elsewhere.

Bishop, also a fourth-year Rotman student, was the solution, making headlines when he signed a professional tryout contract (PTO) to play backup for the Leafs. The Varsity talked to Bishop about his journey to the Leafs bench and where he is going from here.

The Varsity: Goalie is a unique position. How did you decide on it?

Alexander Bishop: I think it kind of chose me, as weird as that sounds. In house league, I was kind of just drawn to it: I kept going in the net when no one else would. My first year of rep hockey, they had no goalie and they reached out to my dad and said, “Oh, it’s only one day a week.” And here I am 16 years later, seven days a week.

TV: What was it like growing up playing elite level hockey in Toronto?

AB: It was fun. The GTA is one of the biggest — if not the biggest — areas for hockey. I didn’t move around too much in minor hockey, but a lot of people do move around, and you get to know a bunch of different people and their families. It’s cool just having that community.

TV: Did you come from a hockey family?

AB: My dad was a big Leafs fan from the time he was little. Basically, as soon as I could walk, he threw me on the ice. Having said that, my parents are the most supportive people in the world, so there was no pressure at all. If I didn’t want to play, they wouldn’t force me, but it just happened to work out that he loved hockey and I loved hockey.

TV: How did you end up in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League?

AB: At 17 years old, I was in Hamilton playing Junior A and I just got off to a really good start. I started talking to some teams. I was on the NHL central scouting list for a little bit. The Saint John Sea Dogs approached me and said, “Look, we have a really strong program.” I think they were ranked third in the Canadian Hockey League (CHL) at that point, so that was really enticing. And then just the development that you get from CHL, as much as I liked playing in Hamilton, you can’t really compare it. They just have the facilities, they have the resources. It’s not the same.

TV: What was the unique experience of playing major junior like, and how has that impacted you?

AB: It’s impacted me a lot, actually. It teaches you a lot of life lessons. I am pretty comfortable speaking with people now because of all the media and the interviews and the community events. You build time management skills because sometimes we’re on the road for a week and a half at a time, so you have to balance as much school as you have with the hockey that you’re doing and just balance different things that way. 

TV: Given how much you like Saint John, how did you decide to come to U of T?

AB: I grew up in Richmond Hill, so I am local that way. And then obviously U of T is the best school in the country. Business was what I wanted to do and Rotman is the best undergraduate business program in the country as well. It was tough to make the decision just because of being so far away from Saint John, but at the end of the day, it’s only four years. And obviously, the opportunity with the hockey team: a lot of people come in their first year and they don’t really play any games. This way, I was able to come in and kind of fight for games in my first year which is fairly rare. 

TV: How have your past few years on the Varsity Blues been?

AB: It’s been the best four years of my life. The team is awesome. The people we have on the team, they’re just good, genuine people. We’ve really built a strong bond; especially the fourth year players, since we’ve been together for four years now. I think it’s just really been able to shape who I am. Your early twenties are really formative years, so being around other people that kind of have the same mindset as you — they’re focused on school, but there’s still that hockey aspect to it — has been really valuable for me, and I think it’ll continue to be.

TV: What’s it like juggling being a student and playing university-level hockey?

AB: It’s not easy, but I think junior prepared me well, with the different commitments that we had there trying to finish school. The time around midterms and final exams is when it gets really tough because your hockey doesn’t stop but your exams and everything pick up. Aside from that, my roommate is in Rotman as well so we’re able to do a lot of classes together and we’re able to lean on each other that way. 

TV: Can you speak on the ‘dream come true’ narrative that’s been popular in media coverage?

AB: It’s something that you never really think about when you think of playing in NHL games or dressing for NHL games, but it was definitely a dream come true in that sense. I think that it has kind of led to the “beer leaguer” look at my time with the Blues, which I’ve heard a lot. When David Ayres went in, all respect to him, he was a Zamboni driver, he wasn’t playing competitive hockey, which I think is what made it such a cool story. But we’re still playing competitive hockey. USports is a very underappreciated league so that part is a little bit frustrating. But still, if people ask me, “Was it a dream come true?” — absolutely. I’m not going to shy away from that.

TV: Were you hoping you would go in?

AB: Yes and no. You’re always hoping that that’s your chance to play in an NHL game; that’s what every kid growing up playing hockey dreams of. But at the same time, you never want to see someone get injured. It’s tough to hope that you can go in but then it comes as a result of someone else getting hurt or getting sick or something like that, which you never wish on anyone.

TV: Did you have your Rotman brain on when you were in the dressing room?

AB: I definitely wasn’t thinking as a commerce student when I was there. I was just trying to soak it in. More than that, I was thinking as a little kid getting to dress beside a lot of the guys I watched growing up.

TV: The Varsity Blues are in the preseason right now, and the regular season has recently started. Can you tell us what to expect?

AB: Big things. We have a good team, so I’m pretty confident. I’m pretty excited for the year we’re gonna have. We got off to a slow start with the preseason, but it’s kind of expected: no one’s played since February 2020. I think it will be a big year for us. It’s been a while since the school has won a championship in hockey. 

TV: Is there any way that you’re bringing your experience from your time with the Leafs to the upcoming season?

AB: I think the experience itself is really showing me that you have to just embrace things as they come. Just enjoy every moment. It’s something that I don’t struggle with but, you know, having a bad day here and there can kind of get to me a little bit, but I’m only here for so long. Six months left of being a university student and then I’m a real person. So, just soak it all in and try to have as much fun as you can. That includes just being on the ice with the team because you can’t replicate being a team and being with the same guys every day, six days a week. It’s not what happens in the real world, so I’ll just really enjoy this last year. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.