Walton on familiar ground in Hershey

Photo: Washington Capitals

📝 by Patrick Williams

Game 1 – COACHELLA VALLEY 5, Hershey 0
Game 2 – COACHELLA VALLEY 4, Hershey 0
Game 3 – Tonight at Hershey, 7:00
Game 4 – Thursday at Hershey, 7:00
*Game 5 – Saturday at Hershey, 7:00
*Game 6 – Monday at Coachella Valley, 10:00
*Game 7 – June 21 at Coachella Valley, 10:00
*if necessary… All times Eastern

HERSHEY, Pa.John Walton is at Giant Center as the Hershey Bears fight for a Calder Cup.

No, it’s not 2006, or 2007. Or 2009. Or 2010.

It’s 2023, but the radio voice of the Washington Capitals has been embedded with his former team through much of this spring as the Bears chase their 12th Calder Cup championship.

Walton, Hershey’s broadcaster from 2002 until 2011, is back on familiar ground once again.

“That’s why I wanted to be here,” Walton explained of his work covering the Washington’s AHL affiliate this postseason. “I wanted to see the next generation and see who’s coming to us next, but hoping that they win, too. I think it’s that passion that gets in your blood when you’re there, and once it’s there, you never really get it out.

“It’s funny. I didn’t grow up in Hershey, but I’m always so grateful when I’m welcomed back. It feels like going home.”

Game 3 of the Calder Cup Finals is set for tonight against the Coachella Valley Firebirds (7 ET, AHLTV), one day shy of 13 years since Walton called the Bears’ most recent championship. And just like that 2010 club — a group that set an AHL record with 60 regular-season wins — this year’s Bears have a steep climb ahead.

Walton was at the mic for one of the most impressive runs in league history, with the Bears playing in four Finals and winning three Calder Cups in a five-year span after beginning their affiliation with the Capitals in 2005-06.

Following the 2010-11 campaign, Walton was hired by Washington, joining a growing group of Bears alumni with the Capitals. Bruce Boudreau, then Washington’s head coach, led Hershey to its 2006 championship. The Caps’ blue line featured Hershey alumni like Karl Alzner, John Carlson and Mike Green. Up front were former Bears like Jay Beagle, Cody Eakin, Mathieu Perreault and future AHL Hall of Fame member Keith Aucoin. Michal Neuvirth, the most valuable player of the 2009 Calder Cup Playoffs, and Braden Holtby were in net. When the Capitals won their first Stanley Cup title in 2018, they had 14 Hershey alumni on their roster.

Walton made a name for himself, too. Along with his radio call quickly gaining a following in Washington, he went on do national television broadcasts for NBC Sports Network and worked hockey games at the Winter Olympics in both 2018 and 2022.

Early summers have been few during Walton’s time in Washington. But with the Capitals missing the playoff cut this spring, Walton’s calendar had plenty of time open. He has filled it with work chronicling this Calder Cup Playoff journey for the Bears.

“It’s been a trip down memory lane,” Walton said. “It’s nice to see the Caps of tomorrow playing this deep, but for me personally after nine years being in Hershey… it’s been great seeing people around Giant Center I hadn’t seen in a really long time.”

Coming out of the 2004-05 AHL season, the Bears were hunting for a new affiliation. Any NHL team would be fortunate to connect with the AHL’s senior franchise, one that could offer a top-flight facility, an established fan base and franchise stability.

Washington, located a little more than two hours from Chocolatetown, came in, Boudreau was hired to take over behind the Hershey bench, and a new era of Bears — and Capitals — hockey was underway. Hershey defeated Milwaukee to win the Calder Cup in 2006, and after falling to Hamilton in 2007 they defeated Manitoba in 2009 and Texas in 2010.

“The biggest moment in my time in Hershey was them hiring Bruce Boudreau,” Walton said, “because without Bruce you don’t have that 2005-06 season.”

Today, Walton is an established NHL voice. But when he came to the Bears nearly 21 years ago, the Ohio native only had five seasons at the AHL level behind him, having called games for the Cincinnati Mighty Ducks. In Hershey, he was taking over for Dave Mishkin, who had left for an NHL job with Tampa Bay.

“I was still learning how to do this job,” Walton acknowledged. “In Hershey it was, ‘You’ve got to show me something.’ You’ve got to earn it in Hershey.

“I think there was an environment in Hershey locally with [Bears general manager] Doug Yingst and with [Capitals general manager] George McPhee that fostered a winning environment. They understood what I think a lot more teams honestly understand now — that winning is the most important part of development.”

Winning also goes a long way towards satisfying a vocal fan base with roots that go back more than 80 years.

“It’s a passionate fan base that is loud,” Walton continued. “They demand excellence. I think no whether you’re in the broadcast booth, on the ice, a coach, management, tickets… everybody feels that. It is what Hershey has done since the 1930’s. It’s grandparents and parents and kids and season tickets that are passed down. It’s what Hershey does in the wintertime, and Harrisburg and Lebanon and York and Lancaster, and that’s still the case, and I hope it is always the case. You’re part of something bigger than yourself when you’re there. It doesn’t matter if you go to the NHL whether you’re a broadcaster or player or management.

“You’re a Bear. You’re a Bear for life.”