SAVANNAH, GA — Michael Bullion didn’t come from your typical hockey family.
As the only child of Clyde Bullion and June George, the Anchorage, Alaska, native first found himself on the ice in a different capacity.
“My parents put me into figure skating because they were a huge figure skating family,” Bullion said. “Dad’s from Texas, mom’s from Las Vegas; they didn’t play hockey at all.”
Michael didn’t watch basketball; he didn’t watch football. He didn’t care for any sports, really. But, when he stepped into Sullivan Arena to watch the University of Alaska Anchorage Seawolves for the first time, something clicked.
“You’d hear the sound of guys stickhandling, and that just instinctively made me want to get on the ice,” Bullion said. “Watching hockey made me want to play hockey. That was it for me; that was the motivation. It was almost like instinct.”
Bullion didn’t have an assortment of NHL-caliber players hailing from his home state like some of the surrounding Canadian provinces like British Columbia or Alberta. Two-time Stanley Cup champion Scott Gomez and journeyman Ty Conklin were two locals who stood out.
Of the players he admired, Quebec-born Hall of Fame netminder Patrick Roy earned the top spot on his bedroom wall.
“He was the biggest inspiration to me,” Bullion said. “That man could do no wrong. He was just an amazing goalie. His style, his charisma. He was my idol.”
Bullion used that inspiration as he traversed through the Western Hockey League with the Portland Winterhawks and Medicine Hat Tigers. He spent four years at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology following junior hockey.
After his senior year in 2022, he turned pro, appearing in nine games with the Norfolk Admirals.
This past fall, Bullion remained in Norfolk for a second season and was projected to compete with Jeremy Brodeur for the team’s starting job.
Two days before training camp, the Admirals reached an affiliation agreement with the Milwaukee Admirals and the Nashville Predators. Bullion beat out Brodeur but remained No. 3 on the depth chart after two American Hockey League goalies were sent down.
It challenged him mentally.
“You didn’t know if you were going to start or be cut the next day,” Bullion said. “It taught me that I need to show up and be ready at all times. It doesn’t matter if you’re a starter or a third goalie; you show up the exact same way.”
The Admirals struggled off the hop, leading to the dismissal of head coach Rod Taylor in early November. Despite the team’s missteps, Bullion earned the trust of newly-promoted bench boss Jeff Carr and went on to play in 18 games for the Admirals.
His stability was short-lived.
In February, Bullion was released from Norfolk and joined the Macon Mayhem of the Southern Professional Hockey League. He made the nine-hour drive from Virginia to Georgia, meeting the team around 2 a.m. for a 4 p.m. game, barely sleeping before the morning practice.
Bullion’s pregame meal was canceled 10 minutes before he had to check out of his hotel. He scarfed down Dunkin’ Donuts for sustenance instead.
Even his pad lace failed him, snapping during warmups.
“Everything that could possibly go wrong leading up to that game went wrong,” Bullion said. “I needed that game. I felt nobody would believe in me if I didn't play well. I needed to be the best and bring everything I had.”
He did just that. Bullion stopped 36 shots in regulation and four in the shootout, propelling the Mayhem to a 4-3 win over the Birmingham Bulls in front of more than 4,000 fans.
The next week, Mayhem coach Nick Niedert received a call from Ghost Pirates head coach Rick Bennett, who was in need of a goaltender following Isaiah Saville’s eye injury. Niedert told Bullion to pack his bags for Savannah.
He returned to the ECHL after three games with the Mayhem.
“I didn’t know a lot about Michael [previously],” Bennett said. “I got the scouting report from Nick and he spoke very highly of him. And when Michael came in, he did a phenomenal job and just ran with it."
Bullion made his Ghost Pirates debut in relief on February 17, stopping 23 of 25 shots against the Utah Grizzlies in 49-plus minutes. After expecting to be in Savannah for two or three days, the Henderson Silver Knights recalled Saville and Jordan Papirny, leaving Bullion as the lone goaltender on the Ghost Pirates roster.
He was now the starter.
"Life happens fast," Bullion chuckled.
Bullion suited up in 16 games for Savannah, sporting a 9-5 record with a save percentage of .904. His 38-save shutout effort in Jacksonville served as a highlight of his season, outlasting Icemen goaltender Parker Gahagen in a nine-round shootout on the road.
He was playing every day. His attitude was infectious throughout the locker room. He was active in the community, consistently volunteering his time en route to becoming a fan favorite.
For the first time in a while, Bullion was able to settle in, thanks in large part to Bennett.
“I felt so comfortable because of how honest and upfront Rick is,” Michael said. “It’s hard not to know where you stand with him. He’s very clear about things. He always has kept me updated on my situation. I have a lot of respect for him.”
The feeling is mutual.
“When you walk into a locker room every day, knowing it’s a game or a practice, and you see a player that works so tremendously hard, it’s a good feeling when you see that player,” Bennett said. “Michael Bullion is one of the hardest-working goaltenders I’ve had a chance to work with in my career.”
Six months after his first game in a Ghost Pirates jersey, Bullion was rewarded with an ECHL contract from the club Monday, locking him in for the 2023-24 season.
Given everything he’s gone through in the past calendar year, he doesn't take it for granted.
“I still have to come in and earn my spot and show them I’ve had a big summer,” Bullion said. “That’s how ECHL camps work. There is no true job security. But I know that if I come in and do my job to the best of my ability, it’ll work out in the end.”
While his main goal — like any hockey player — is to reach the NHL, Bullion is fortunate that his rollercoaster journey has continued in the Hostess City.
“I love Savannah,” Bullion said. “That’s where my heart is.”