Captain Moulson cheering on his Bears from the sidelines

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📝 by Patrick Williams

Hershey Bears captain Matt Moulson’s first three-plus months of 2022 have looked all too repetitive.

Hours and hours of physical therapy. Time spent away from teammates at his offseason home in Connecticut. Certainly no hockey.

And during the first intermission of a recent Bears home game, Moulson stood clad in a suit speaking to the media rather than inside the Hershey dressing room.

With 650 games as a National Hockey League forward behind him, Moulson first came to Hershey for the 2019-20 season with one aim ― to win a Calder Cup.

Instead the COVID-19 pandemic and now back surgery have halted those plans. Moulson has been out of the Hershey lineup since a Dec. 27 game at Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, when something happened even if he is not exactly sure on the what or the why.

“Honestly, I don’t really know,” Moulson admitted. “I’ve had some back things in the past, and this was something completely different in terms of where it was located. I don’t know if it’s a fluke thing or something that was building up.

“But I was diving for a puck, and I don’t really know what happened.”

Three days later, Moulson underwent back surgery at Penn State Health Milton S. Hershey Medical Center, a procedure that the team announced went successfully. Sitting out is a new feeling for Moulson, who has been remarkably durable throughout his career. He had not missed a single game due to injury since returning to the AHL with Ontario in December of 2017, and he played either all or all but one of his team’s games in an NHL season six times.

But the Bears announced after surgery that Moulson would be out indefinitely. That “indefinitely” part has been the ongoing challenge for Moulson since then.

“I mean, it seems the Bears are destined to win this thing with me watching in the stands,” Moulson joked, perhaps a bit ruefully.

Any one of Moulson’s teammates in Hershey ― anyone in the American Hockey League, really ― would be thrilled to one day have a career like his. There are three NHL seasons with 30 or more goals. A chance to play with the likes of John Tavares and Kyle Okposo. A well-earned reputation for leadership at the highest level of the sport, including wearing a letter. Not bad for any player, least of all someone who went in the ninth round of the 2003 NHL Draft to the Pittsburgh Penguins and instead ended up signing with the Los Angeles Kings following four seasons at Cornell.

But playoff hockey, that has eluded Moulson through much of his 16 years in pro hockey. Despite his years of production, he has only had a chance to qualify twice for the Stanley Cup Playoffs, with the New York Islanders in 2013 and the Minnesota Wild in 2014. His deepest run was a trip to the AHL’s Eastern Conference Finals with the Manchester Monarchs as a rookie in 2007.

With the years piling up, Moulson made a decision in the 2019 offseason. Any NHL organization in need of further mentorship at the AHL level for their prospects ― not to mention someone who could still complement a top-tier young prospect ― would jump at the opportunity to bring in someone like Moulson.

But he chose Hershey, and he chose well. With a winning tradition, a robust fan base, and high-end facilities to offer, Hershey landed the NHL veteran on an AHL contract.

In 2019-20, Moulson was the Bears’ second-leading scorer. He played his 1,000th pro game and captained the Eastern Conference at the 2020 AHL All-Star Classic. Moulson and the Bears had the league’s third-best record at 37-18-3-4 (.653) and every reason to consider themselves a strong Calder Cup contender when COVID-19 forced the AHL to suspend play March 12, 2020.

The league eventually had to cancel the season, and those championship hopes disappeared.

A year later, with Moulson holding the Hershey captaincy, the Bears again delivered and finished with the AHL’s best record to capture the Macgregor Kilpatrick Trophy as the AHL’s regular-season champion. Moulson thrived alongside Washington Capitals 2019 first-round pick Connor McMichael, ranking second in team scoring with 24 points (12 goals, 12 assists) in just 33 games.

But once again there was no Calder Cup to compete for, all thanks to COVID-19.

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So with the 2021-22 season’s arrival and hopes that the pandemic’s grip on both hockey and society would subside, Moulson signed up for another season in Hershey. Even with the promotions of McMichael and defenseman Martin Fehervary to full-time work in Washington, the Bears had returned much of last season’s roster and fortified it with the additions of NHL-tested blueliner Cody Franson and a playmaker in Mike Vecchione.

Until that night in Wilkes-Barre, the 38-year-old Moulson had been sailing along with another typically productive season, posting 17 points (five goals, 12 assists) through his first 24 games. He even picked up the game-winning goal in that Dec. 27 contest, part of a three-point effort in a 4-1 victory. Hershey had a 13-9-2-1 record, sitting just four points out of first place and positioned to make a second-half challenge for the Atlantic Division.

Then came his back injury, surgery, and this rehabilitation process.

“There [were] a lot of things done to the back,” Moulson said of his surgery. “So it’s still healing. There are a couple of little minor things that are going to take a little longer, so just working on that right now. But still going through it. Not done yet. Still got a long way to go.

“I think you’re kind of at the mercy of people that know a lot more than you. So I’m just listening to the doctors and my surgeons and hearing what they say. I think any athlete would try to push to get back as soon as possible. Some injuries, there’s not really a push-through-it type of thing. You’ve got to listen to them and see what they say.”

Along with that lengthy recovery process, Moulson has tried to remain as connected to his teammates as possible. They have been dinner guests at his Connecticut home.

“Not being able to be out there battling with them every day is probably one of the toughest things,” Moulson continued, “but [I am] watching all the games and seeing areas [where] I can help some of the guys.

“[I’m] keeping in close contact with the veterans on the team in terms of some leadership things. We brought in a great group of veteran leaders, and they definitely have taken it over since I’ve had surgery. But if they’ve got any questions or want to talk about anything, I’m there for them.”

Now with Moulson more than three months removed from surgery, the Bears are in a tight race as they attempt to qualify for the Calder Cup Playoffs for the 13th time in 15 seasons since affiliating with Washington in 2005. At 32-27-5-4 (.537) and in fourth place with eight games remaining, a solid finish would make the Bears a strong pick for postseason play.

“I know how passionate the Hershey fans are,” Moulson said, “but I’m definitely the biggest fan cheering for these guys to get wins down the road here.”

Asked how mentally taxing having yet another interruption has been, Moulson shrugged aside the what-ifs that would challenge any player.

“I think if you asked me that question a year ago, it’d be more mentally taxing,” Moulson acknowledged. “But I think just being through everything and what happened with the back surgery, none of them were in my control. So it’s not something that is going to keep me up at night.

“I know that I tried to give every single ounce to this organization over the last couple of years. [I am] very grateful that they had me here, and to represent as a captain was a huge honor. There are just things you can’t control. As an athlete all the time you say, ‘Control the things that you can control, and don’t worry about the uncontrollable.’

“When you do that, you can sleep well at night.”

But make no mistake, to be back on the ice is very much a temptation, should the Bears advance far enough into the Calder Cup Playoffs and if it is even medically possible.

“Obviously it’s a huge temptation,” Moulson grinned before deferring.

“We’ll see what happens. Hopefully we get to cross that road when it comes.”