For Bears’ Iorio, confidence is key

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📝 by Jesse Liebman | AHL On The Beat

Most 20-year-olds are busy worrying about their college exams, or getting that first entry-level job.

Vincent Iorio is getting a crash course in what it will take to become a full-time player in the National Hockey League, and every day class is in session with the American Hockey League’s Hershey Bears.

Iorio, a second-round pick (55th overall) by the Washington Capitals in the 2021 NHL Draft, had a chance to live out a childhood dream earlier this month when he was called up to the Capitals on a West Coast road trip and made his major-league debut in San Jose on March 4. The native of Coquitlam, B.C., logged 14:48 of ice time over 27 shifts, and recorded his first NHL point with an assist on an Alexander Ovechkin goal in an eventual 8-3 win over the Sharks.

“It was a very special moment for me,” Iorio said. “I was only out there for three games, but just to see what the game’s like at the NHL level and realize that I’ve lived my childhood dream of playing a National Hockey League game… The work’s just beginning for me.”

After his three-game call-up to the Caps, the rookie defenseman was returned to Hershey, but sustained an upper-body injury on March 12 at Providence that has kept him sidelined since.

“I have a long road ahead of me and I’m looking to continue to develop and continue to improve my game [in Hershey],” Iorio said.

Still, while he knows he can always continue to improve his game, Iorio — along with his teammates and coaches — can also positively reflect on how far he’s come. Just a season ago, Iorio was skating for the major junior Brandon Wheat Kings of the Western Hockey League. Now, he is playing in the second-best professional hockey league in the world, where he’s second on Hershey’s blue line in scoring with 18 points (2g, 16a) in 53 games while maintaining a robust plus/minus rating of plus-10 and has taken only three minor penalties this season.

Like Iorio, Bears captain Dylan McIlrath is a WHL alumnus and a right-shot defenseman. The veteran blueliner has seen Iorio’s progression first-hand this season.

“He’s got the fundamentals to be a great hockey player for a long time in the NHL — he definitely has the work ethic and the belief in himself; it’s just a matter of him coming in every day and trying to get better,” McIlrath said. “That really is what it’s all about, and I think at the next level, this was a good boost for him to see that he can contribute in all of the little things that are going to make him a good NHL player.”

Bears head coach Todd Nelson acknowledged that success wasn’t instantaneous for the young defenseman at the start of the year in Hershey.

“He found himself running out of position quite a bit, just trying to do too much, but [Bears assistant coach] Patrick Wellar kind of settled his game down and then from there he started developing more of his offensive game,” Nelson said. “He has the ability to skate the puck out of coverage; he’s a one-man breakout when he’s playing well, and I mean that in the most complimentary way. When he was able to get the call-up to Washington, I thought he played with a ton of confidence, and that’s great to see in a young player like Vinny.”

As he adjusted to the rigors of the pro grind, Iorio began to meet many of the challenges his coaches placed in front of him. It is a testament to Iorio’s abilities that the defenseman was taking a regular shift in sudden-death overtime in November against Bridgeport, and provided Hershey with the game-winner for his first professional tally.

“Just over the last couple months, I think that’s where we started seeing Vinny turn the corner. Earlier in the year he was trying to do too much,” Nelson said. “And sometimes these young guys have to understand less is more. I think he’s getting to that point. The next step might not take very long.

“There’s no doubt that he’s an eager person — that’s not an issue with him,” Nelson added with a chuckle. “It was a matter of trying to find the balance. We loved his intensity, but at the same time too, he had to know when to use his intensity and when to just relax a bit. We just kept on working with him daily, and he’s a great student of the game.”

Iorio is quick to credit the instruction provided to him by his coaches, as well as the environment within the Bears locker room. In particular, he tipped his hat to teammate Jake Massie, skating in his second campaign with Hershey. The duo have found themselves paired together at times on the ice this season, and Iorio was forthcoming in explaining how the fourth-year pro has brought him under his wing.

“Mass is one of the hardest workers I’ve ever seen, and I took notice of that a little bit and, and Wellsy helped me as well,” Iorio explained. “He pulled Mass aside to help me with a couple of things to deal with my skating and Mass has been there for me the whole year. I chatted with him about the ups and downs of the season and the grind that it is, and just how to stay level-headed and stay positive.”

Massie was flattered to hear of his young protege speaking of him in such glowing terms, and he was quick to return the compliment.

“I think just the more he plays, the better he gets,” Massie said. “Vinny’s one of those players that builds confidence through playing and I think he’s done a great job of that. We have great leadership here and a great coaching staff, so he’s got a lot of people to feed off of. As long as he keeps working hard and stays true to what he thinks he can do with the puck and with his game, then I think he’ll go a long way.”

Hershey’s bench boss knows the way back to the NHL for his student, and it coincides with the Bears’ postseason aspirations, which could materialize as soon as this weekend as the Chocolate and White stand at the precipice of securing a berth in the 2023 Calder Cup Playoffs.

“The next step for him is playing important games, like what we’ll be playing in the playoffs. That’s where we see players either shine or they don’t. Just from working with Vinny and knowing the type of person he is, I don’t see his game dropping off,” Nelson said.

“If anything, I think he’s going to elevate his game. I think playing those important games are going to help him moving forward. That’s why we want to get to the playoffs here in Hershey every year, so all of our players play in those very important games.”

It’s a sentiment that Iorio shares.

“It’s important and that just goes to show you how good of a culture we have as an organization here with the Bears. Every player, every staff member, and every coach — they do their job and they do it to an incredible level,” Iorio said. “We’ve just got to keep our minds on the games coming up and maintain our focus, because we have a really good team here and we can do some really special things.”