Depth being put to the test for tight-knit Bears

Photo: Tori Hartman

Patrick Williams, Features Writer

For as much attention as their high-end talent gets, the Hershey Bears possess two other must-have elements to play into June: they own exceptional depth, and they like each other.

In the first two games of the Calder Cup Finals last year against Coachella Valley, the Firebirds dominated the Bears in nearly every facet and outscored them by a combined 9-0. Then the Bears came back to Hershey, took three one-goal victories in a row – two of them in overtime – and brought that series back to Acrisure Arena with a chance to win the Calder Cup.

But the Firebirds won Game 6 and had the Bears down 2-0 deep into the second period of Game 7. Yet the Bears just kept grinding. They managed to tie the game by the end of the second period, withstand a furious third, and then win the franchise’s 12th Calder Cup title on Mike Vecchione’s overtime goal.

After two overtime wins to begin the current Eastern Conference Finals series with Cleveland, Hershey is 6-0 in OT over the last two postseasons. During 2023-24, they went 8-0 in games decided during the 3-on-3 extra period. Time after time for they have shown that they can manage pressure.

Their formidable depth is helping alleviate some of that pressure as they sit one win away from a return to the Calder Cup Finals. Defensemen Lucas Johansen, Aaron Ness, Hardy Häman Aktell, Logan Day and Vincent Iorio have all missed action this postseason; only Chase Priskie and captain Dylan McIlrath have played all 11 playoff games on the Hershey blue line. Up front, Riley Sutter missed the first two playoff rounds, and Pierrick Dubé and Henrik Rybinski were injury scratches for Game 4 in Cleveland on Thursday night.

Bears vice president of hockey operations Bryan Helmer and the Washington Capitals sit down each summer and devote just as much attention to building the bottom half of the Hershey roster as they do to splashy high-end additions via free agency.

It pays off come the spring.

Forward Matt Strome has become a favorite of head coach Todd Nelson. He at times was one of Hershey’s top forwards in series wins against Lehigh Valley and Hartford before Sutter’s return pushed him out of the lineup. Nelson confidently slotted Strome back in with Dubé’s absence.

Matthew Phillips, who scored 36 goals last season for the Calgary Wranglers, spent most of this season in the NHL but has only cracked Nelson’s lineup for five games during the playoffs. That’s the kind of depth that Hershey boasts.

Or take Garrett Roe. Drafted by Los Angeles in 2008, Roe played two seasons with the Adirondack Phantoms before heading overseas and spending 10 years in Austria, Germany, Sweden and Switzerland. The 36-year-old from the D.C. suburb of Vienna, Va., native signed with the Bears and has been able to fill many different roles in the lineup throughout the season. He made his Calder Cup Playoff debut in Game 4 of the division semifinals against Lehigh Valley and has been a mainstay since then, contributing five goals and four assists in eight games.

There’s something about this Hershey dressing room that just clicks. To start with, management stresses character and fit when constructing the roster. Nelson makes it a point each fall to hammer home a need for team cohesion, a feeling that extends well beyond the players and to their families and loved ones. Last June, on the day off between Games 6 and 7 of the Finals in California, the Bears held a barbecue. The team had flown in players’ families and significant others that week, and instead of a stressful night between games with a Calder Cup championship on the line, the Bears just relaxed.

That mood has continued even with turnover since last season.

“Not a lot of egos, and guys like each other,” Roe said. “When you sincerely root for each other to do well and be successful, that just bleeds through the lineup.”

Like Roe, Dubé also came to Hershey this season looking for his first Calder Cup.

“It’s amazing,” Dubé said. “We’re all brothers. We all care for each other. Just to be part of this kind of group of guys helps you not even just as a hockey player but as a person.”