Former Grand Rapids wing Hunter Bischoff is first player to verbally commit to play for Augustana University
The 19-year-old from Cohasset, Minn., helped the Anchorage Wolverines reach the NAHL Robertson Cup championship game in the franchise's first season.
SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — After Garrett Raboin was introduced as the first men's hockey coach for Augustana University on April 19, he was asked about what type of player would be in his first recruiting class.
"We have to recruit a resilient type of player that accepts and leans into the challenges and is just excited that, one day, if he puts in the work, that he'll look back at this thing with a heck of a lot of pride," Raboin said.
Their first verbal commitment as an NCAA Division I program is Hunter Bischoff, a 19-year-old wing from Cohasset, Minn. Bischoff showed some pioneering spirit this past season when he accepted an invitation to play for the Anchorage Wolverines, an expansion team in the North American Hockey League.
Between the regular season and playoffs, Bischoff played in 66 games and had 18 goals, 43 points, 22 penalty minutes and was a plus-15 as he helped the Wolverines reach the Robertson Cup championship game. A little more than a year ago, Bischoff was finishing up his senior year at Grand Rapids High School when he got a call from Anchorage head coach Mike Aikens.
"Before the (NAHL) draft a couple weeks, I was going through my normal school and playing tennis at the time," said Bischoff, who mostly played doubles for the Thunderhawks. "I got a call from coach Aikens while I was at a movie. I left the theater and talked to him and he said, 'We want to offer you a (playing) tender.' I just immediately took it.
"It was a combination. I just really wanted to play junior hockey and I thought that it was really cool that the head coach was calling me to offer me a tender. That meant a lot to me."
And Bischoff enjoys the outdoors and the opportunity to play in Alaska intrigued him.
"Anywhere else, it might have been a little different, but Alaska is so amazing and every day I was there, I was like, 'Wow, I'm in Alaska' and I couldn't really believe it," he said. "My billets were great and I had a great experience there. To add with that, the whole team — all of us were so close. We were family. I think that's why we really did well in the (playoffs). We just came together and no one was the top guy."
So Bischoff showed some willingness to try something new in going to play for an expansion team, more than 3,000 miles away from home. His personality also got a chance to shine with the Wolverines. The billet family had another Wolverine live with them: Bohdan Panasenko. Panasenko, a 19-year-old wing from Kharkov, Ukraine, who was living in the United States for the first time.
After Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24, Panasenko's father stayed to fight in the war, while his mother moved to Anchorage.
"Hunter did an unbelievable job of helping Bohdan through the year," said Keith Morris, who is the Wolverines' director of hockey operations. "First off, it's a big change to come to the United States. Then with everything going on in Ukraine that we're seeing on a daily basis in the world news, Hunter was an amazing leader and confidant and teammate to help Bohdan through a lot of difficult situations.
"That's the type of kid that we were bringing into our program, but that's the type of kid Augustana is getting."
Going to the tough areas
Listed at 6-foot-2 and 180 pounds, Bischoff played three seasons of varsity hockey for Grand Rapids and had 29 goals, 59 points, 18 penalty minutes and five game-winning goals in 64 career games.
"I feel like I'm really strong when I have a net-front presence," he said. "When I place myself there, I feel like good things happen. I also feel like I do well when I'm moving my feet and making those tape-to-tape passes. Those first passes are huge."
Morris said that there are some skills that Bischoff has that make you notice him on the ice.
"He has great speed and he's a tremendous skater," Morris said. "The puck absolutely jumps off his stick, explodes off his stick like a gun. He shoots the puck extremely hard.
"His willingness to go to tough areas on the ice really took off the second half of the year. He was able to take off the second half of the year. His work ethic was undeniable. He was always willing to put the time in, to learn. It's a big step from high school to junior hockey and I think he was always in a position to get better on a day-to-day basis."
Bischoff admits that it took him some time to adjust to junior hockey.
"For me, the biggest thing was getting used to the different speed and tempo and also how much of a grind it is," he said. "Junior hockey is a lot different than high school. You're practicing every single day, games on the weekends and you're working out.
"I feel like I need to prepare my body and just keep working to get better."
Bischoff plans to take another step up next season. After playing in the Tier II NAHL, Bischoff was taken in the fourth round of Phase II of the United States Hockey League Draft by the Youngstown Phantoms. The USHL is a Tier I league.
"Like any young player, his play without the puck really improved," Morris said of Bischoff's development. "He was a player that I think our staff felt like could put him in any situation. That's a huge growth pattern at every step you take from high school hockey to junior hockey to college hockey. He was able to do so many different things for us that I think it made him tremendously valuable.
"He's got great size and he's potentially going to get a lot bigger," Morris said. "Once he matures physically and thickens up, I think he's going to be a real dominant forward at the college level."
And after visiting the Augustana campus, Bischoff is looking forward to joining the first Vikings team in 2023.
"We were talking for quite a while and I really liked (Raboin) as a coach and he seemed like a real good guy," he said. "I visited campus after the (NAHL) season and I really liked it. I like the small-town feel of it.
"They showed me where the arena is going to be and a bunch of pictures and outlines of where the training facility is going to be. I think it's really cool that they're getting a new rink."