As weather is heating up, so are the Bears

Photo: Micheline Veluvolu

📝 by Patrick Williams

You know the Hershey Bears have been playing late in the spring just by the sounds of the roller coasters from nearby Hersheypark.

On Monday morning, cars and school buses dotted the parking lot that separates Giant Center from the expansive 117-year-old testament to all things chocolate. Inside the arena, meanwhile, the Bears went back to work with a trip to the Calder Cup Finals booked following a hard-fought victory over Rochester to take the Eastern Conference championship.

“It’s been awesome the last couple of days,” head coach Todd Nelson said after Monday’s practice.

The Bears’ opponent in the Finals was determined last night, after the Coachella Valley Firebirds eliminated Milwaukee with a 4-3 win in Game 6 of the Western Conference championship series. Hershey flies west today for Game 1 at Acrisure Arena on Thursday.

“You saw how hard the guys practiced today,” Nelson continued. “They all know what’s at stake. For them to have this experience, it’s going to benefit them with their careers moving forward, and I’ve always believed in that. I believe winning is a form of development because if they can’t win in this environment, in the Calder Cup Playoffs, then they won’t be able to do it in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.”

Playing into June has become something of a habit for Nelson. In his 14 full seasons as an AHL player, assistant coach or head coach, this will be his fourth trip to the Calder Cup Finals. He won the Calder Cup as a player (Portland, 1994), as an assistant (Chicago, 2008), and as a head coach (Grand Rapids, 2017), joining former Bears defensemen Mike Stothers and Bob Woods as the only people to have won it in all three capacities.

Nelson also reached the Stanley Cup Final as an assistant coach with the Dallas Stars in 2020; won two titles as a head coach in the United Hockey League; and played in the International Hockey League’s Turner Cup Finals twice. He has experienced a playoff run’s emotional highs and lows, and now his players are getting to understand why he made playoff hockey a season-long talking point.

“It’s been awesome just to see the guys, after the game in Rochester, how much they were enjoying each other and just having that experience,” Nelson said.

By the time practice arrived Monday, Nelson and his coaching staff had already started to dig into video of the Coachella Valley-Milwaukee series to break down both clubs. With an extensive network of contacts, he also caught up with colleagues around the league for more information on what the Bears can expect from their next opponent.

But regardless, as the days grow longer and the weather becomes warmer, the Bears are still playing, reaching the Calder Cup Finals for the sixth time since their affiliation with the Washington Capitals began in 2005. Hershey won the Cup in 2006, 2009 and 2010 and have sent a parade of players to the NHL in the process.

Those Bears clubs were offensively potent. This season’s team is built differently. Stout defensive play has carried the Bears, who have allowed 1.92 goals per game this postseason after ranking second in the league at 2.56 goals allowed in the regular season. Hershey held Rochester’s potent offense to eight goals over the last five games of the conference finals, with Hunter Shepard (10-3, 1.85, .929) following both Amerks wins with shutout performances. The Bears are also an impressive 6-0 on the road and have outscored their hosts, 22-8.

The 2022-23 club is also poised to make a long-term impact on the organization. The Capitals just hired former Bears head coach Spencer Carbery, who is plenty familiar with many of the prospects in Hershey right now. A Calder Cup championship certainly would not hurt the chances of players like Beck Malenstyn and Connor McMichael next season, just to name two potential candidates for full-time NHL work.

“It’s huge,” Malenstyn said of this playoff journey. “I think any experience you can get in the playoffs is an asset. You step over the boards for every single shift, and it’s extremely meaningful hockey. Every single time you step on the ice there’s something at stake. To be able to produce and handle those kinds of situations, it’s going to be really big for a lot of guys that want to make that jump to that next level.”

Nelson thought back to last October when he hosted a team get-together for his players and their significant others. He had only been hired by the Capitals two months earlier to take the Hershey post.

“I said, ‘I’m putting this in place right now. We’re here to win a Calder Cup,’” Nelson recalled. “I referenced that all year at certain points. If we had an off night, I just told them, ‘If this happens in the playoffs, we’ll be out.’”

But it took time for those lessons to take hold. It took even longer to build the type of rock-solid trust that is required for a trip to the Calder Cup Finals. Only sustained success can form that faith. But now that hard-earned reliability is in place. What Nelson has preached since last fall does in fact work. And the coach now trusts his players thoroughly as well.

Take the many adjustments that the Bears had to make to bottle up the Amerks’ dangerous rush attack. As the series stretched to six games, both Nelson and Rochester counterpart Seth Appert had to continually dig further and further to devise necessary adjustments and counter-adjustments. But those moves only work with players who can take them and carry out a plan.

“We have total buy-in from the players, which is great,” Nelson outlined, “so I can make those adjustments very easily on the bench. That takes time. Christmas time, I wouldn’t be able to do that…but the guys really bought in.

“We can do something totally different we haven’t [done] all year, and the guys buy in. That’s the coaching staff’s job over the course of the year, to earn that trust from the players, and it works both ways, but that takes time.”

Another Nelson message that has sunk in is that these opportunities rarely come along. Malenstyn went to the 2018 Memorial Cup with Swift Current to end his Western Hockey League career, but this is his longest postseason as a pro. McMichael’s London Knights went to the second round of the Ontario Hockey League playoffs in 2019. That’s it. Defenseman Aaron Ness, the Bears’ oldest player at 33 years old, went to the 2016 Calder Cup Finals with the Bears. But it has taken seven years just to come this far again.

“It’s an unbelievable feeling,” Nelson said of winning a Calder Cup. “I’ve always said when you win a championship, you’re a champion for life. Nobody can take that away from you. And I told them, ‘Your lives are going to change if this happens, because everybody wants a winner, and it doesn’t mean just the hockey world.

“If they have a different career after hockey, everyone wants a winner.”

Said Malenstyn, “I think you come in every single year with the expectation to win, and it’s rare that you get that opportunity. It’s what we all play for. We love it.”

McMichael, a third-year pro, already has that perspective as well: “You never know if you’ll get another opportunity like this.”

The weather is hot and steamy in Hershey now. This central Pennsylvania tourist destination gets busier each day as summer approaches. Hersheypark will be packing in visitors this month. And now the Bears are four wins away from lifting the Calder Cup.

Said Nelson, “I told them this morning if we finish the season off the right way and win our last game, I said that’ll be 10 times or 100 times a better feeling. I get enjoyment just seeing everybody else enjoy it. I’ve been fortunate to be here before, so I’m taking it all in.

“You’re kind of like a proud dad watching your kids succeed.”