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Eleventh heaven

SPRINGFIELD, Mass. … There was little doubt from the moment the puck dropped on the American Hockey League season eight months ago that the Hershey Bears roster featured an impressive collection of players, some of the most talented prospects and veteran leaders in the league.

But great players don’t win championships. Great teams do. And it wasn’t until they finally got a taste of adversity that the 2009-10 Bears proved that they were a team for the ages, one that would bring an 11th Calder Cup championship to the AHL’s most storied franchise.

The first glimpse we got of Hershey’s impending dominance came in the third game of the season, when the defending champions rolled to an 8-1 win in Binghamton. After losing four of their next five contests and sitting at .500 through eight games, the Bears went out and won nine of their next 10 and hit Thanksgiving having completed a quarter of the schedule at 13-6-0-1.

Over the first two months of the season, Hershey saw eight different regulars recalled for stints by the parent Washington Capitals, including scoring stars Alexandre Giroux and Keith Aucoin, stud defensive prospects Karl Alzner and John Carlson, and standout goaltender Michal Neuvirth, who was the MVP of the 2009 Calder Cup Playoffs.

But the Bears machine continued to hum along, and then got a huge jolt of stability and one more dangerous offensive weapon on Dec. 5 in the form of a waiver claim.

Chris Bourque, a member of the Bears’ Calder Cup title teams in 2006 and 2009, had been lost by Washington to the Pittsburgh Penguins when they tried to pass him through waivers and assign him to Hershey just prior to the start of the 2009-10 season. For Bourque, a seasoned pro entering his fifth campaign but still just 23 years old, it was an opportunity to get a fresh start in a new organization.

But after showing only three assists in 20 games with Pittsburgh, Bourque was back on the waiver wire. And within 24 hours, he found himself back home in Chocolatetown. The Bears’ third-leading scorer in both the regular season and the playoffs a year ago, Bourque made an immediate impact in his return to the Hershey lineup, scoring two goals – including the game-winner – and adding an assist in a 5-4 victory over Norfolk.

Hershey’s offense went from powerful to lethal. 9-2 over Hartford. 7-1 over Norfolk. 10-4 over Albany. The Manitoba Moose visited Giant Center just after the All-Star break in January for a heralded rematch of the 2009 Calder Cup Finals, and the Bears pounded the Moose on back-to-back nights, 8-3 and 8-2. From Jan. 15-31, the Bears scored 59 times in eight games. Over a two-month span from Dec. 12 to Feb. 12, Hershey won 12 in a row, lost once, then won 11 more – 23 victories in 24 games.

Hershey earned its 40th win of the season before it suffered its 10th regulation loss. And the routs kept coming: 9-2 over Bridgeport. 8-2 over Albany. A 7-2 drubbing of Worcester in a battle of division leaders. Twenty-four consecutive wins on home ice, a new AHL record. The Bears clinched a playoff spot on Mar. 6, more than five weeks before the end of the season. They were division champions by St. Patrick’s Day. And all eyes were turning to the AHL Guide & Record Book.

For nearly two decades, the 1992-93 Binghamton Rangers have been the benchmark of regular-season supremacy in the AHL. They went 57-13-10, they set league records for wins, points and goals scored. They hung double digits on the scoreboard seemingly with ease. They were as mighty a club over 80 games as there has ever been. But you can’t mention the 1992-93 Binghamton Rangers without the caveat that they lost in the second round of the playoffs. In fact, of the 19 teams that had racked up at least 110 points in a season before 2009-10, only four went on to win the Calder Cup. Regular-season success was far from a guarantee of playoff hardware.

So the Hershey juggernaut pressed on, tying Binghamton’s record with win number 57 on Mar. 31, with six games to go. Number 58 came three days later at home against Syracuse, on the same night that Hershey was named the host for the 2011 AHL All-Star Classic. The Bears set a league record with 34 home victories, and hit the 60-win mark for the year on Apr. 9 at Norfolk. And although their 123 points were ultimately one shy of the B-Rangers’ standard, the Bears’ 60-17-0-3 showing in the final standings was one of the most impressive totals ever seen.

The regular season was full of personal milestones for the Bears as well. Alexandre Giroux and Bryan Helmer both joined the prestigious 500-point club, and Helmer later became the AHL’s all-time leader in games played by a defenseman. Keith Aucoin hit the 600-point plateau, and passed Ken Gernander to become the league’s career scoring leader among U.S.-born players. Aucoin topped 100 points in a season for the first time in his career, won his first scoring title and was named AHL MVP. Giroux notched his second straight 50-goal season, while for the second year in a row no one else in the league scored as many as 40. John Carlson became a national hero when his overtime goal gave the United States the gold medal over Canada at the World Junior Championships in January. Four Bears – Carlson (All-Rookie), Giroux (First Team), Aucoin (First Team) and Andrew Gordon (Second Team) – earned postseason AHL all-star honors.

This was a team that had not just the best one-two scoring punch but the top two scorers overall in the entire AHL. A team that led the league in goals scored and tied for second in fewest goals allowed, becoming the first club in 37 years to score at least 300 goals and allow fewer than 200. A team that had 16 players finish with a plus/minus rating of plus-20 or better. A team that was the first in 22 years to rank atop the league on both the power play and the penalty kill. A team that had a third-string goalie go 17-3-1.

But it don’t mean a thing if you ain’t got that ring.

If the common theme throughout the regular season was dominance, the Bears’ playoff run quickly became defined by perseverance.

Hershey got a scare from Bridgeport in the first round, but prevailed in five games. Then they swept Albany in the second round despite trailing in the third period of all four games – four of their amazing nine third-period comebacks on the postseason.

The Bears were less than a minute away from going down 3-2 in their series with Manchester before rallying to win Games 5 and 6 in overtime – two of their AHL-record eight OT wins.

And in the Calder Cup Finals against Texas, Hershey lost the first two games at Giant Center – where it had won 37 of its previous 38 games – and was down by two goals midway through Game 3. But sparked by some deft line juggling by head coach Mark French, the Bears righted the ship, outscored the Stars 15-3 the rest of the way and saved its season.

The Bears’ top four scorers in the playoffs were the same quartet that led the way in the regular season – Alexandre Giroux, Chris Bourque, Keith Aucoin and Andrew Gordon. But postseason heroes were born up and down the lineup. Andrew Joudrey and Boyd Kane each scored one single playoff goal, and for both it was an overtime winner. Jay Beagle scored twice in the postseason, netting the OT goal in Game 3 at Albany and the game-tying goal in Game 4 at Texas. Each of John Carlson’s two playoff goals were game-winners – in Games 4 and 6 of the Finals – to cap a magical 12-month span that saw the 20-year-old win two Calder Cups and World Junior gold, appear in the AHL All-Star Classic and make his NHL regular-season and playoff debuts.

No team had ever lost the first two games of a Calder Cup Finals series at home and come back to win the title. But no team had ever done a lot of the things the 2009-10 Hershey Bears accomplished. On June 14, inside a Giant Center that played host to more than 9,500 fans per game in the regular season – the fifth-highest average since attendance became an official stat in 1962 – a standing-room-only and franchise-record crowd of 11,002 watched Hershey dismantle their final opponent with a 4-0 Cup-clinching win over Texas.

After each of their previous four titles had been clinched on the road, Hershey gave its home fans a chance to witness a coronation for the first time since 1980. It was the Bears’ 76th win in 101 games since opening night, and it put a bow on the most prolific season in American Hockey League history.

Three Cups in five years, coinciding with the start of an affiliation with the Washington Capitals in 2005. Three Cups under three different coaches, with Mark French leading the way this year after Bruce Boudreau and Bob Woods did so before him (both en route to jobs on the Capitals bench). Back-to-back championships, for the first time in Hershey in more than half a century and the first time by any AHL team since 1991.

And the 11th title in 72 years of AHL hockey in Chocolatetown.

How sweet it is.