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'Pretty surreal': Leafs forced to dress U of T goalie as backup against Sens

TORONTO — Alex Bishop lived out his dream. The Maple Leafs exhaled knowing the University of Toronto goalie didn't have to move from the end of the bench.

TORONTO — Alex Bishop lived out his dream.

The Maple Leafs exhaled knowing the University of Toronto goalie didn't have to move from the end of the bench.

Bishop dressed as the backup to starter Jack Campbell for Saturday night's 3-1 victory over the Ottawa Senators with fellow Toronto netminder Petr Mrazek sidelined by a groin injury and the team facing an early-season salary cap squeeze.

"That was pretty surreal," Bishop said of stepping on the ice for warmups at Scotiabank Arena. "You never really look at the flash of the cameras until you get out there. 

"It was really cool." 

The bizarre situation the Leafs found themselves in was compounded by defenceman Justin Holl's absence due to illness. Toronto could have demoted a player to the American Hockey League and recalled goaltender Michael Hutchinson — the club's third option last season — as the No. 2 behind Campbell if Holl was healthy.

The organization could have also sent someone down, brought up Hutchinson, and played with 17 skaters. But it wound up deciding the best route was to sign Bishop to a one-day amateur tryout and hope Campbell got through the evening unscathed. 

"There's a lot of things that, to be honest, aren't my department," Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe said in attempting to explain the rationale following Saturday's morning skate. "But really it just comes down to the fact that the flat (salary) cap has created some situations here that are a lot more difficult to manage even than they were a year ago when they had the taxi squad and a third goalie. 

"We're going through that here now."

Keefe said Holl had cold symptoms, adding his PCR tests for COVID-19 had yet to come back as of Saturday morning. However even if they were negative, he wasn't going to be well enough to suit up against the Senators.

The good news for the Leafs is Mrazek is only expected to be out two weeks with the injury he suffered in Thursday's 3-2 loss to the Senators in the nation's capital.

Keefe said Toronto will now be able to recall Hutchinson, who's expected to be at practice Sunday.

"That's the situation," Keefe said of having to use Bishop. "A lot of teams have already gone through it last season and I suspect a lot more will this season with the rules going back to normal and not necessarily having the COVID exemptions.

"That's where we're at."

The Leafs, of course, have recent experience with strange goaltending moments. They were the opponent when two Carolina goalies, including Mrazek, were injured on a Saturday night in Toronto on Feb. 22, 2020, forcing emergency backup David Ayres into action.

The then-42-year-old Zamboni driver allowed goals on the Leafs' first two shots that memorable night, but stopped the next eight in a stunning 6-3 Hurricanes' victory that catapulted Ayres into the public eye.

"It's not lost on me that this is a pretty rare opportunity," said Bishop, a 24-year-old from Richmond Hill, Ont., with three seasons of Quebec Major Junior Hockey League experience. "Not a lot of people, if any, get to do things like this.

"I'm pretty lucky."

The commerce major, who has two midterm exams next week, said he usually tries to have a pre-game nap.

That wasn't happening following Saturday's morning skate.

"I went home and knew there wasn't a chance," he told a dozen reporters in the Leafs' media room. "I studied a little bit, I did some work for my midterm on Tuesday.

"Then took a shower and got ready and headed back over here." 

The six-foot-four, 205-pound Bishop has spent two seasons playing for U of T, but his last live action came before the COVID-19 pandemic on Feb. 16, 2020. The Varsity Blues start their 2021-22 regular season next month.

Bishop had his parents in the crowd — dad is a big Leafs fan — and got inundated with texts Saturday afternoon before having to silence his phone.

"I'm still kind of soaking it in," he said when asked what he'll remember about the experience. "But I think just the reaction from all my friends and family and people that I probably haven't spoken to in five or six years just messaging me. That's what made me turn off my phone, but it wasn't a shot at them.

"Just the support system I have, and my friends and family, it's great to see."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 16, 2021.


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Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press