Nelson brings championship pedigree to Hershey

Photo: Hershey Bears

📝 by Patrick Williams

First impressions matter in any business.

New Hershey Bears head coach Todd Nelson had his players’ attention quickly on the first day of training camp, and it went even beyond his extensive coaching resume.

“He just has a kind of calm coolness to him,” said new Bears forward Sam Anas, himself one of the most respected veterans in the American Hockey League and someone who just went to the Calder Cup Finals this past June.

“But you know he’s serious. So, it’s kind of a different demeanor. You can kind of tell by his tone that he expects a lot from you and especially us older guys that have been through it.”

In need of a head coach this summer, the Bears and the parent Washington Capitals went big with Nelson.

Nelson is the third head coach in three seasons for a Bears team that has been a victim of its own success in a sense. Spencer Carbery went to the Toronto Maple Leafs as an assistant coach following the 2020-21 season, one in which he won the Louis A.R. Pieri Memorial Award as the AHL’s outstanding coach after the Bears posted the league’s top record. His replacement, long-time AHL and NHL assistant coach Scott Allen, won a promotion to Washington in July following just one season in Hershey.

Nelson came to Hershey having been a winner throughout a coaching career that reaches back more than 20 years, including the past four seasons as a Dallas Stars assistant coach ― highlighted by a trip to the Stanley Cup Final in 2020. Looking to get back to a head-coaching role, Nelson reached out to the Capitals as well as to Bears vice president of hockey operations Bryan Helmer as the summer moved along. Helmer played for Nelson with the AHL’s Oklahoma City Barons from 2010 to 2012.

Of Nelson’s six career championships, three of them have come as a head coach, including the Grand Rapids Griffins’ run to the 2017 Calder Cup. Nelson’s name is on the Calder Cup as a player (1994 with the Portland Pirates) and an assistant coach (2008 with the Chicago Wolves) as well, making him one of just three people in AHL history to win the Calder Cup in those three different capacities. He holds a 312-191-18-47 coaching mark in the AHL, sitting 18th all-time in victories. He also played 12 seasons as a pro defenseman (including one season with the Bears in 1995-96) and had a run in Edmonton as an interim head coach to make a further impression on his players.

With a track record like that, Nelson’s new charges recognized a winner stepping behind their bench.

But it was Nelson’s personal skills and the matter-of-fact, unflappable personality behind them that made an equally strong first impression as well. His former Griffins players still speak highly of him, and it is clear that he is making the same impact in Hershey. Like many successful AHL head coaches today, the 53-year-old Nelson brings a mix of new-school two-way dialogue with players that is underpinned by old-school fundamentals.

“[Nelson is] mixing with the guys already,” Bears veteran defenseman Aaron Ness said on the second day of training camp. “You can feel how tight it already is, and he’s already brought that here.”

Nelson is fond of describing coaching as both “art and science.” That philosophy is even more true in the AHL, where roster turnover means constant adjustments for a head coach to fine-tune a team’s mood.

“To explain it simply,” Nelson began, “I view coaching as art and science. The science is the technical package… The art is becoming really important, especially with the new athlete of today, and how do you get these guys to buy in? How do you get these guys to become a family? How do you get these guys to play hard for each other?”

Nelson was brought to Hershey in part because of his winning background, and the fall months are about creating the foundation that can fuel a championship run come spring. The Bears had a preseason team barbecue to bond the club further. Nelson participated in it along with the players’ families. Then with the Bears staging a red-carpet entrance for opening night against the Utica Comets on Oct. 15, Nelson arrived in style on his motorcycle, further lightening the mood.

Photo: Hershey Bears

The Bears just went through their first three-in-three weekend ― with two more ahead in the next three weeks ― and the work of which Nelson speaks that is being done now can serve to prepare the club for those late-season and Calder Cup Playoff battles they expect to have. Following a loss in Hartford on Friday night, the Bears made the trek home and took a point in a 2-1 loss to Wilkes-Barre/Scranton on Saturday before defeating Lehigh Valley on Sunday. The week ahead features a home-and-home series against the Penguins.

Said Nelson, “It’s my job to provide that leadership, and that’s very important because playoff time… if you have a bond with your team, have a family atmosphere, they don’t want the season to end, and they’ll go through the wall for each other. It’s my job to create that atmosphere.

“You have to know your stuff technically, but also you have to understand the player, gain trust and respect, and it’s a two-way street, because that’s how you get through to your players.”

Fans in the AHL’s senior-most market are demanding. There is a tradition that dates to the 1930s, and plenty of today’s fans saw a Bears dynasty that captured three Calder Cup championships between 2006 and 2010. But they are hungry again for a 12th banner, and eager Bears fans around town have already let Nelson know that. There is pressure, no doubt, but little seems to rattle Nelson.

“We’re all in this game to win,” Nelson said. “Obviously we have to develop people for Washington, but winning is a form of development. We want to have a winning culture here.

“I think we owe it to the people of Hershey that support the Hershey Bears.”