In the 2012-13 season, the Cape Breton Screaming Eagles were the worst team in the QMJHL, if not the entire CHL. Coming on the heels of two lackluster seasons of rebuilding, the Eagles won just 14 games out of the 68-game schedule and endured lengthy injuries to their top players at every position.
Off the ice, the team had fired their general manager four weeks into the season and then dismissed his replacement (who was also filling the role of head coach) just two short months later. It was in this atmosphere that 2014 draft-eligible forward Clark Bishop played his rookie season.
As Bishop describes it, the team's struggles, both on and off the ice, were challenging at times.
"At first, it was a bit hard and difficult, because obviously we went through a lot of changes last year with GM's and coaches and things like that,” admitted Bishop. “We had a lot of injuries last year as well, a lot of key guys that were out. So it really hurt our team a lot. We were also very young last year, and that didn't help a lot. I said to myself that it was a rebuilding stage and that's just what happens in junior hockey."
As the season wore on, Bishop was able to find a personal silver lining.
"I think it benefited me a lot because there were a lot of key guys out and we didn't have the strongest team,” said Bishop. “I was playing a lot for a 16-year-old in the league last year and that definitely helped me improve for this year."
Bishop's game took a leap in the second half of the season after Marc-Andre Dumont took over as GM and Head Coach midway through December. In the 27 games that Bishop played under the new coach to close out the year, he scored six goals and had 15 points. In total, he finished his freshman campaign with eight goals and 22 points in 58 games.
But, it isn't just his ability to put up points that has garnered Bishop attention. He prides himself in playing a complete game and puts just as much importance on working hard defensively as he does with his efforts in the offensive zone.
"I'm a full 200-foot player. I can play at both ends of the ice. My speed is my strength, both my speed and my vision. So I can bring a lot to the table," says Bishop.
Chris Mooring from ISS Hockey agrees with this assertion.
"I think he competes. I think that's his best attribute, his compete level and his physical play while he's on the ice,” explained Mooring. “He grinds it out, he battles. I think that's what he brings as a player at the next level, too, I think he's going to be one of those third-line or fourth-line grinding types. He's got skill, but at the next level, his scoring might be a little behind as far as offensive upside."
Mooring continues by saying, "I think he's a mid to late round pick. Probably around a fourth round pick. I think teams will look at him because he does have a physical game, the grit. It would be nice, of course, if he grew a little bit more to play the game he plays but you look at the attributes he has and he's what I would call a safe pick in the later rounds. He's the type of kid that I could see playing, even with a few deficiencies, because he makes up for it with his grit and his heart and the way he plays the game. Plus he has good intelligence, he understands the 200-foot game and I think that will help him a long way."
Bishop says he models his game after Chicago Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews, saying of Toews, "The coach depends on him in all aspects of the game; He's an important guy on their team and he's a leader, and I want to be viewed as being all those aspects as well."
He has also attracted attention outside of the QMJHL. After his rookie season was over, he was invited to play with Canada's Under-18 team in pre-tournament exhibition games as an under-ager.
"I got chosen as one of six under-agers to go to the Under-18 in Sochi, Russia as well,” said Bishop of his stint with the national team. “They chose six under-agers to bring over for the exhibition series. So I spent a week with the team in Toronto and then I spent a week in Sochi. They sent me home the day before the tournament started, along with four other under-agers, two got to stay. They told me before I got there that I wouldn't make the team, but it was definitely just a great experience to go down and play with guys that were a year older than me and just get that experience playing international hockey at such a high pace."
Playing in Russia was Bishop's first experience playing overseas and the team played in the city that will be hosting the upcoming 2014 Winter Olympics, where preparations were already well underway.
"We were the first ones to go into the smaller rink. I think they had just finished both the rinks for our tournament over there. It was quite a good experience. They were building everywhere. When we went to the rink, they had to stop us, we had to get out of the bus, go through security, and they had dogs on the bus, sniffing the bus, things like that. But it was a really good facility and they were building the player housing at that time too. It looked pretty nice, but in April it didn't look anywhere near to being done. I'm sure they must have it pretty well done now though."
Returning home from Russia, Bishop was soon heading back overseas to play for Canada at the 2013 Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament. In five games, Bishop posted a single goal as Canada won the gold medal for the sixth consecutive year.
"I felt like over the summer when I went to the two U-18s, it really helped me bring a lot of confidence back here to Cape Breton. I think I'm taking a bigger role with the team this year, a year older and a year stronger."
His hard work on the ice has not gone unnoticed as Bishop was named an alternate captain of the Screaming Eagles this season as a 17-year-old.
"It's such an honour. There's not many 17-year-olds in a league with 18, 19 and even 20-year-olds wear a letter, so it was a big honour to be recognized as a leader on my team."
Although he missed a large part of November with a finger injury, Bishop has already matched his rookie goal scoring output of eight goals. In 24 games this season, he has 11 points. Meanwhile, at the midway point of the season, the Screaming Eagles have already surpassed last year's record and are currently 10th in the league.
Recently named as a participant in the BMO CHL/NHL Top Prospects Game to be held next month in Calgary, Bishop has been trying to ignore most of the attention that comes with being a player in his draft eligible season.
"I know it's there, but I just go out and play my own game. I know it's hard to believe when I say I don't worry about it, but my Dad has always told me, even when I was entering my draft year for the Q, he told me to just go out and play your own game and don't worry about anything else. Just play your own game and you'll be fine. So that's what I try to do out there and I don't try to worry about the scouts or the lists or any of that stuff. I just try to go play my game and then everything will work out in my favour."
Follow Kevin Forbes on Twitter via @kforbesy