by Matt Trust | AHL On The Beat
The day was February 24, 2019. The Hershey Bears battled on the road against the Bridgeport Sound Tigers, and dropped a 5-1 decision at Webster Bank Arena in the finale of three games in three nights. Suddenly in 2019 for the Chocolate and White, defeat was out of the ordinary. The final score snapped Hershey’s 11-game winning streak, as well as a franchise-record 17-game point streak. Prior to the streak, the Bears had been five games under the .500 plateau with a 15-20-0-2 record.
It was only fitting Hershey’s sudden and historic run began with a 3-0 win over the Lehigh Valley Phantoms at PPL Center. The arena was a proven house of horrors for the Chocolate and White, as the Bears entered with nine consecutive losses in Allentown. Rookie goaltender Ilya Samsonov posted an 18-save clean sheet for his first American Hockey League shutout. In hindsight, the performance foreshadowed eventual success for the Bears and Samsonov.
Entering January 12, Samsonov’s record stood at 5-11-0 with a 3.82 goals-against average and an .861 save percentage. At the conclusion of his team’s streak, Samsonov’s numbers had improved to 14-11-1, a goals-against average at 2.84, and an .892 save percentage. The corner had been turned for the Bears, and solid goaltending from both Samsonov and fellow goaltender Vitek Vanecek was the catalyst.
The end of the streak came at the frontend of a week-long road trip. Stops in Hartford and Utica followed after falling in Bridgeport on a Sunday afternoon. With the evening still on hand following a 3 p.m. start time against the Sound Tigers, players shuffled from the hotel to nearby attractions. Others such as Samsonov and Vanecek lingered in the relatively quiet hotel restaurant. Accompanying both players was longtime team athletic trainer — and now manager of wellness and team affairs — Dan “Beaker” Stuck. Through the hills and valleys of a long season, Stuck remains consistent with an upbeat, optimistic attitude around player personnel. In Beaker’s role, he provides all players the resources and options away from the ice for a smooth living transition. Such role is essential for foreign athletes adjusting to the North American lifestyle.
Working with players like Samsonov, those with a primarily Russian background transitioning to North America, is not something out of the ordinary for Beaker.
In 2008-09, Semyon Varlamov debuted in North America with the Bears. The 23rd overall pick by the Washington Capitals in the 2006 NHL Draft appeared in 27 games with the Chocolate and White, and posted a 19-7-1 record, 2.40 goals against average and .916 save percentage. Like Samsonov, Beaker welcomed Varlamov with open arms. Now, a goaltender with the NHL’s Colorado Avalanche, Stuck still remembers Varlamov’s first moments with the Chocolate and White.
“The first time I met Varly (Varlamov) was at Capitals training camp in 2008,” said Stuck. “When he eventually came to Hershey, the Hershey hospitality kicked in. I gave him a car to drive around, and helped take care of his father when he visited. If you build that trust and respect, and help the athlete off the ice, it goes a long ways.”
With the Bears for three decades, Stuck sees countless similarities between Varlamov and Samsonov.
“Whenever I see Sammy (Samsonov), I see Varly (Varlamov). The smile on their faces, the work ethic, their style of play. They are funny guys, just like all of us. They like what they do, and they have fun doing it.”
After taking a seat next to Beaker in the hotel restaurant, the veteran Bears support staff member scrolls through his cell phone contacts, and clicks on Semyon Varlamov’s name. The phone rings. Varlamov answers. And the two friends reconnect.
“Varly, have you ever spoken to our boy, Ilya Samsonov? Let me put you on the phone with him”, said Stuck.
Twenty minutes go by at the dinner table, and Varlamov and Samsonov at chatting for the very first time. In their native Russian language, Samsonov exchanges a laugh or two and wears a smile. A mentorship and a friendship born in front of our very eyes. Semyon Varlamov. Ilya Samsonov. Two first-round Capitals draft picks. The aforementioned, a proven NHL goaltender who developed through Hershey. The latter, an AHL rookie in the adapting and development process. Two similar paths have now crossed, and largely to the benefit of Samsonov.
Weeks later, Samsonov followed up on his new friendship with the Avalanche goaltender.
“Whenever I have a question about anything, he always answers”, said Samsonov on Varlamov. “It’s really good and been [a] great help to me.” The two are currently planning to meet for dinner in Colorado down the road.
Bears goaltending coach Alex Westlund commented on the essential impact a mentor like Varlamov can have on a young goalie.
“Any time you can build and have a relationship like that with someone who has gone through the process, all that stuff is great. The more people you can reach out to and connect with, the better”, said Westlund.
Samsonov is the highest drafted Capitals goaltending prospect since Washington selected Olaf Kolzig 19th overall in the 1989 NHL Draft. Currently, Kolzig remains in the organization and plays a role in the development of prospects as both athletes and individuals away from the ice. Kolzig echoes similar sentiments on the positive role a mentor plays for a young goaltender. “It’s vital. Everybody coming into their first year pro always has somebody that they looked up to. For me, I loved Patrick Roy, and I was fortunate enough to go to dinner with him,” said Kolzig.
“At the end of the day once you do talk to them, you realize they are a person just like you are, and maybe you don’t have the big, star-struck eyes anymore. You feel like you belong, because they are just like you are.”
The story of development is an unpredictable one. And as we have learned from Samsonov, it often requires supporting cast members. From current players, and now to Bears alumni, the supporting cast continues to grow.