by Scott Stuccio | AHL On The Beat Archive
The song "Coming Home" played thorough the speakers at Giant Center on October 25, the latest date since 1943 that the Hershey Bears played their home opener.
The team was in the locker room, lining itself up in numbered order to be introduced to the AHL’s perennial attendance leaders in the crowd.
The Bears had already played five games.
Eight weeks earlier, captain Dane Byers was making his way to Hershey from his home in Nipawin, Sask. Philipp Grubauer was departing Munich Airport, bound for Copenhagen, Denmark and eventually Washington, D.C., for camp. And Nathan Walker was winging his way through a 27-hour journey from his home in Sydney, Australia. The videoboard documented these travels.
For all of these players and their teammates, Hershey is now home.
It was a true homecoming for the whole group, but even more so for new head coach Troy Mann and his first-year assistant coach Bryan Helmer — reunited as colleagues and leaders, instead of coach and student — back in the town in which they celebrated a Calder Cup championship together in 2009-10.
Back home, for both.
The videoboard documented this as well — a fully-bearded Helmer jumping up with the Cup in tight grip, followed by a brightly smiling Mann raising the trophy in true pride.
But the most emotional story of the opener was not all of that celebration captured on camera. It was the introduction of the duo in a July press conference that immediately followed their hires.
That is when the Hershey staff, media, family and friends saw how the two were finally home.
"When you win championships, not only does the team make you feel like you’re at home with them but so do the fans," Helmer said. "Over those two special years I met a lot of nice people. Then when I came back, I saw a lot of familiar faces and it seemed like I never left. We kind of picked up right where we left off."
Helmer enters his second season of coaching since retiring as the AHL’s all-time points leader among defensemen. After a one-year stint with the Peterborough Petes of the OHL, Helmer was called by Mann to join him in the task of trying to win the Bears’ 12th league title.
As one of the league’s best defensemen to ever hit the ice, the natural group to learn under Helmer is the Bears blueline corps. Ranging in age from 31 (Jon Landry) to 20 (Connor Carrick), Helmer has a wide array of styles and personalities to supervise. Having been there himself, and one of the rare few to play to age 40, Helmer knows that there is often a parental role that needs to be tapped in a coaching job like he has. After all, one has to be a parent at "home."
"I think we have a great dressing room in there and we have a lot of older guys who can take care of that stuff," Helmer added. "But yes, they are out on their own now, they have to fend for themselves, get groceries and do laundry and things like that. So sometimes the guys will come in wanting to talk about things off the ice like that, and we have to be a parent to them sometimes. I’ve been there, I’ve done it, so they respect me and Troy for that."
"I think there is no choice nowadays to have to coach like that," he related. "I think you have to be a mentor and a father figure to some degree. You’re playing a team psychologist role quite a bit."
And he knew that psychological role came with the job when he began his coaching career. Mann’s ties to Bruce Boudreau, former Bears head coach and current Anaheim Ducks bench boss, have always been tight. He has always kept in touch with Bears President/GM Doug Yingst and vice versa, even after his four-year tenure in Hershey had to take a western detour to Bakersfield in the ECHL — testing even his strong psychological mind.
"It’s amazing to see what can happen over the course of your life in 12 months and how you handle it," Mann said at his press conference in July.
Recently, one month into serving as the franchise’ 25th head coach, he reflected even more.
"I think that when you have a chance to have an extended stay in a place that you’re working, in this case coaching, you meet people and become friends," he said. "When I came here in 2009-10 it seemed like such a great fit, especially from a family perspective, raising a young family. The chemistry with the people is amazing and when you become close to people, you want to stay. So unfortunately when I had to leave for the year, and when I had the most wonderful thing happen to me in my coaching career, coming back here to Hershey, it felt like a homecoming."
People leave home for many reasons — to go away to school, to change jobs, or even to relocate to be with ailing family members. Mann has coached in Columbia, Charlotte and Bakersfield at the ECHL level, but none of those places felt like home for the Campbellton, N.B., native. And that is not just because Hershey is the Washington Capitals’ top developmental affiliate in the AHL.
"We just love the area and have been able to establish a network outside of hockey," he explained. "It took my wife Lori a little bit of time to establish her network as well. I think it’s great that we have both the hockey and non-hockey network because that’s always important. I think that’s why we have made Hershey our home. The Bears fraternity has taken us in with open arms but we still have that outside presence that makes us feel at home even more."
For as emotional as Mann was when he came to visit the “fourth floor” of Giant Center – that which houses the Bears’ front office staff – he was just as emotional at the press conference in July, and he still gets emotional when reflecting upon the last several months of his life.
"I’ve said this to a number of people a number of times. You find out who your true friends are when you leave someplace. When we talk about this, being home, that’s why it’s home. When you leave, most times, sure you may stay in contact with a couple people and over time that disappears. But the number of people who have stayed in contact with my family, from the immediate Bears family, to players and to the outside, and me has been tremendous. Hopefully we are here for a long time."
The Bears won their opener 4-1 over the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins. Since that game, the coaches got a chance to do something that they couldn’t on the night of the home opener — see the video production welcoming them home.
Welcome home, Troy and Bryan.