ROSEMONT, Ill. – The loss of any family member is something which at a young age impacts anyone, and the pain is compounded when you lose one of your parents. Chicago Wolves defensemen Jake Bischoff lost his mother, Jackie Bischoff, when he was in high school to lung cancer. Chicago Steel forward Blake McLaughlin lost his father, Jon McLaughlin, to a heart attack just three months prior.
Now, the two find themselves bonded not only through being highly-touted Minnesota-bred hockey prospects, but also as step-brothers who have been through unspeakable hardship and come out stronger because of it.
Bischoff endured the loss of his mother during one of the most important times of an NHL-hopeful’s career – while he was going through the college recruiting process. The future Mr. Hockey finalist would go on to commit to the University of Minnesota, where his father played college hockey, and he made sure to get his degree before turning professional. However, he never felt any pressure from his parents to choose one school over the other.
“I don’t think – once the recruitment process started, my dad didn’t push me to go there, but my whole life – I was in a Gophers jersey before I could walk. Maybe that pushed me to go there. But by that time I really wanted to go there so I think it definitely steered me by being a fan my entire life and being a diehard Gopher fan. I think that’s why I wanted to go there.”
McLaughlin recently went through the recruitment process himself, also choosing to sign with the Gophers. For him, his family, especially his father, played a large role in this decision.
“I grew up a big Gopher guy. I had season tickets ever since I was two and all my family members went to Minnesota. My dad, my mom and my uncle played, so it was just the perfect fit for me.”
However, for Blake, signing with Minnesota was less honoring the memory of his father and more committing with the team he fell in love with because of his dad.
“I try to honor him with more my work ethic. His go-to was when he went to work he was always ready and he always supported the family, so more honoring his memory and trying to be the best person I can be, I think that would be two of the best [ways].”
Jake feels the same way when it comes to honoring his mother. While the importance of getting his college degree was drilled into his head growing up with a teacher for a mother, the defenseman got the degree for himself.
“I think that was more me wanting to get my degree and just knowing that’s important moving forward. I don’t think – I never really thought about her too much in that decision…I actually had an opportunity to leave early, and I did not… I absolutely loved it at Minnesota so it was really easy to make that decision my senior year to stay.”
Though the two are extremely close, Jake made sure to not influence his step-brother’s commitment one way or another regardless of how much the defenseman enjoyed his time in a Gophers jersey.
“I was at Minnesota when he was getting recruited there, so I heard – my coaches would come up to me before practice like, ‘Hey, talking to Blake today,’ something like that. But I never really talked to Blake [about playing for Minnesota]. I didn’t want to put any pressure on him to do it. I just wanted him to do what he wanted to do.”
Because of everything Jake has been through to get where he is now, college hockey and the draft process, he’s been able to help Blake and be someone the junior hockey standout can reach out to with any questions.
“He’s been there, done that. It’s really helpful just to get advice on how to handle everything. It’s more of like a big brother in the process and he gives me solid information. If I’m doing something wrong, he’s not afraid to get on me. It’s kind of nice, he’s just really there like a big brother to support me through this.”
It helps, too, that the brothers are an hour away with Bischoff in Rosemont with the Wolves and McLaughlin in Geneva with the Steel. While their hockey schedules often overlap, their location makes it a lot easier for their parents, Grant and Tammi Bischoff (née McLaughlin), to come and see them play. The brothers, die hard Vikings fans and avid hunters, also had the opportunity to watch football together and go hunting due to their close proximity.
It was only by chance the two found themselves located so closely together entering the 2017-18 season. Bischoff initially signed with the New York Islanders on March 28, 2017 before being dealt to the Vegas Golden Knights in the 2017 NHL Expansion Draft transaction which bound the Golden Knights to select Jean-Francois Berube from the Islanders.
McLaughlin intended to only play part of the USHL season with the Chicago Steel before returning to Grand Rapids High School, the same high school team Jake Bischoff captained his senior year, to participate in the Minnesota State High School League playoffs where he would have been one of the top candidates for this year’s Mr. Hockey award.
“My first decision was to go back and play high school hockey – do a split season between the Steel and Grand Rapids (MN). But, with looking at my opportunity down here (in Chicago), I thought it would help develop my game a little more than Grand Rapids would and help me excel to the levels I need to excel to be a better hockey player and help me through the process and just help me get to the places I want to get to. So I think it just overall helped my development if I stayed in Chicago.”
While Jake and Blake find themselves reunited thanks to hockey, it was hockey in the first place which bonded the two sets of siblings – five on the Bischoff side, and two on the McLaughlin side.
“Hockey was a huge thing that helped us bond because every single family member played hockey, besides my mom,” said Blake, “so everyone had something in common. Whether some of my older brothers are done, like Jered and Jonah – Jonah’s my step and Jered’s my real – so they’re both done playing hockey, but I played high school hockey with Jonah and I’m in the same grade as my stepsister.”
Though hockey was initially only a point of common ground through which the two families were able to feel out one another, it has become so much more than that, said Blake.
“It was just really cool too – I don’t really consider them a step family at all, so it’s more of we’re family and ’cause I grew up with them. I mean, I kind of did, it’s [been] ever since I was 12, so it was always like, they were my family. And hockey, every Christmas we have a big pond hockey game and everyone can relate to hockey so I think that’s where everyone just bonded through. Playing all the pickup games we do, it creates a memory that everyone can share in the family.”
Bischoff echoed just how much of a role hockey has, and still does, play in their lives, and added that each side losing a family member around the same time helped, too.
“We both, both families, went through tough times but I think having each other to go through that together and also I think it definitely helped us blend because we each had similar pasts. Say, in most STEP-FAMILIES, there’s a mom and a dad, different families, but we didn’t have that at all. We were all just one family. There wasn’t other pieces somewhere else, so I think that definitely made us come together more, too.”
McLaughlin reiterated just how much the two families, now one, have come to lean on each other as they have grown and evolved from similar hardships.
“It puts you in a tough position when you’re young and to grow around it, Grant – he’s my stepdad – he’s a tremendous guy and did a tremendous job of raising me. I do consider him a dad. I look at him as a father figure. So having that piece is really important to me. He texts me game day jokes every time and it’s a good laugh. I do consider him a father figure. It’s just knowing that we’re both coming from the same place with losing those family members it’s crazy easy to blend together.”
Jake Bischoff now finds himself as one of the top defensemen on an American Hockey League team poised to make a deep run into the Calder Cup Playoffs, while Blake McLaughlin has Clark Cup Playoffs, and the 2018 NHL Entry Draft, on his mind. McLaughlin was most recently ranked #25 on Central Scouting’s report for North American Skaters.
With how close the two are, Jake says he does not have a lot of advice for the junior player with June looming.
“I’ve talked to him quite a bit through his recruiting [process]. Not talked him through the process itself, but he asked me some questions here and there. He talked to me a lot when he was trying to decide if he wanted to stay for the whole year or go back to high school, that kind of stuff. But he hasn’t said a whole lot about the NHL Draft. I guess there’s not really anything I can tell him other than to keep working hard and hopefully, it just depends on how his year goes the rest of the year. Just keep working hard, that’d be the only thing I can tell him.”
A loss as significant as the one experienced by both Jake and Blake is not one you can rid yourself of ever, and both think about their parents on a daily basis.
“Obviously, there’s been a lot of time that’s gone by,” said Bischoff, “but I feel like her memory in me feels like it was just yesterday. It’s sort of crazy but yeah, I definitely feel like she’s still there, still looking out for me and the best of the family.”
If there is one thing any of us can take away from Jake and Blake, it is their lease on life.
“Obviously, you have everyday problems and stuff like that, but I think for me it’s just made me realize that maybe having a bad game isn’t the end of the world,” Jake said. “There’s a lot more to life than just a sport or just whatever you’re dealing with in a day. It’s helped me realize not to sweat the small thing and just look at the big picture a little more.”
You can follow Jake Bischoff as he plays with the AHL’s Chicago Wolves, and Blake McLaughlin as he plays with the USHL’s Chicago Steel, with both set to see postseason action come April for their respective teams.