by Patrick Williams
Step one of the Hershey Bears’ offseason makeover is complete.
The Bears welcomed the 26th head coach in team history Wednesday with the introduction of Spencer Carbery, one of the top young coaching prospects on the market. The 36-year-old, who spent this season as an assistant coach with the Providence Bruins, replaces Troy Mann.
Hershey finds itself in unfamiliar territory after a rare down season. The Bears finished last in the Atlantic Division and 27th overall in the AHL with a 30-37-4-5 record.
Since striking an affiliation with the Washington Capitals before the 2005-06 season, the Bears had only missed the Calder Cup Playoffs once before this season. The Washington-Hershey affiliation has produced three Calder Cup championships, two more appearances as a Calder Cup finalist, and five division titles.
With 80 years of hockey in the market and part of one of the most successful affiliations in hockey, Hershey fans are a vocal bunch and not afraid to voice what they expect in the AHL’s most historic market. That is something that Carbery has picked up on already.
“It’s big,” he said. “You can tell. There are a lot of eyes on this market and this organization.”
“On the one hand, it’s great,” he said, taking it all in as he stood overlooking the 10,500-seat Giant Center. “On the other hand, this is a big deal. But I love that. I love challenges. I love that these guys come to the rink every day, and they’re a big deal.”
Fresh off a Stanley Cup championship and possessing a fresh crop of young talent ticketed for Hershey, the Capitals are counting on Carbery.
With defenseman Aaron Ness the lone AHL veteran under contract in Hershey, a stout AHL free-agent market, and an organizational desire to turn the Bears back into a winning team quickly, more changes are expected in Hershey before October.
Carbery brings both an extensive – and varied — resume with him to Hershey along with strong ties to the Washington organization via the ECHL’s South Carolina Stingrays. After playing four pro seasons in which he reached the ECHL level, he went into the coaching business. He spent one season as an ECHL assistant coach with the Stingrays before a promotion to the team’s head coach and director of hockey operations. He went 207-115-38 and capturing the John Brophy Award as the league’s top coach in 2014.
His Stingrays posted an ECHL-record 23-game win streak in 2014-15 and went to Game 7 of the Kelly Cup Finals. He was a runner-up in 2015 and 2016 before taking on a new challenge with the Saginaw Spirit of the Ontario Hockey League in 2016-17 and also added international coaching experience with Hockey Canada.
From there, he headed to Providence, where he worked with first-year head coach Jay Leach.
THE WAITING GAME
While the Washington-Hershey-Carbery relationship had history, the Capitals’ run to the Stanley Cup lengthened the search process in Hershey. That made for a longer wait for Carbery to learn whether he would land the much-coveted position, but he felt confident after interviewing.
“What I felt good about was they knew me as a coach and knew me as a person,” he explained. Not just having a personal relationship. They saw me coach. They saw me run a bench. They saw me run practices. They saw me have meetings with players.”
“So, I felt good about that and ultimately just tried to convey what I felt l could do for this organization, the prospects, that winning element.
“Then you just hope that the call comes.”
Having landed three jobs in two different leagues since the summer of 2016, interviewing has become familiar ground for Carbery. His Washington-Hershey ties meant that all sides could move past the getting-to-know-you stage and dig into specifics.
“It was more about ‘How would you handle this?’”
“[There were] a lot of interesting scenarios to pick me at me as a coach and find out how am I going to handle these development situations and how I’m going to handle winning and making sure that we have a standard in Hershey of producing.”
“The more you interview, the more comfortable you feel.”
He also believes that his varied resume is an asset.
“I think that’s what may give me a little advantage as a coach,” he said. “I have so recently seen the OHL, the AHL, the ECHL, been a head coach [two] leagues. I’ve seen the young 15-, 16-, 17-year-old player. I’ve seen the [young] European player.”
“There are a lot of elements where I [was] like, ‘Oh wow, that’s something different. Now I’m going to have to talk to that player this way.’”
Carbery is spending this week with the Capitals at the team’s development camp in Arlington, Va., just outside of Washington, where he will start the process of familiarizing himself with a group of strong prospects.
Much of that young talent could wind up in Hershey for the coming season. That starts with 2015 first-round selection Ilya Samsonov, who is expected to partner with Vitek Vanecek in net for the Bears. Shane Gersich, Juuso Ikonen, Garrett Pilon, and Brian Pinho are among the young faces who could land in Hershey to complement the organization’s more established prospects.
Those young players will meet an optimistic, upbeat personality in Carbery. While he has plenty of roots in hockey’s old-school, he brings ample new-school approaches to the job.
“I try to relate to the guys,” he said of his coaching style. “I have a lot of energy. They’re going to know that I care about their well-being and know that I want them to succeed. So, I’m going to take the time to do everything I can.”
“Sometimes there is tough love, but at the end of the day they will know that I care about them.”
When some of those young players show up in Hershey in September, he will not shy away from addressing the pressure that comes with skating in Hershey, where folding winning into the development process is expected.
“The big thing that I’m going to touch on is to embrace it,” he said. “[Competing] is a mindset for me. We expect to win.”
“This is a spot where players want to play. If I’m playing in that environment, I’m loving it.”
Patrick Williams has been on the American Hockey League beat for nearly two decades for outlets including NHL.com, Sportsnet, TSN, The Hockey News, SiriusXM NHL Network Radio and SLAM! Sports. He was the recipient of the AHL’s James H. Ellery Memorial Award for his outstanding coverage of the league in 2016.