Nelson setting the standard in Hershey

Photo: Hershey Bears

📝 by Jesse Liebman | AHL On The Beat

To be a head coach in professional hockey is challenging enough. To get to 500 wins as a head coach, well, that means you have to be made of something special.

And when your players rally around you to celebrate that hard-earned achievement, it’s all the sweeter.

For Hershey Bears head coach Todd Nelson, who reached the 500-win mark on Jan. 14 with a 6-2 victory over the Springfield Thunderbirds, the journey has been a winding one.

His first pro head coaching win came as the bench boss of the now-defunct United Hockey League’s Muskegon Fury on Oct. 24, 2003, in a season that ended with a league championship. He has since gone on to serve as a head coach in the American Hockey League with Oklahoma City, Grand Rapids and now Hershey, and he also coached the National Hockey League’s Edmonton Oilers during the 2014-15 season.

Along the way as a head coach, Nelson racked up two UHL Colonial Cups and guided Grand Rapids to the 2017 Calder Cup. He also earned a Colonial Cup as a player-assistant in 2002 and a Calder Cup ring as an assistant coach with the Chicago Wolves in 2008, and he was a member of the Dallas Stars coaching staff that reached the Stanley Cup Final in 2020.

Now in his first year at the helm in Hershey, where he spent the 1995-96 season as a player with the Chocolate and White, Nelson has his club near the top of the AHL standings at the halfway point of the 2022-23 campaign. And after hitting 500 career wins last week (including 334 in the AHL), Nelson is poised to work his 600th game as a head coach in the AHL this weekend, when the Bears visit the Belleville Senators on Saturday. He will also serve as the coach of the Atlantic Division at next month’s AHL All-Star Classic in Laval, the third nod in his career as an All-Star Classic coach.

For his players, it’s really no secret to see why. Certainly, the brain trust of the parent Washington Capitals has supplied Hershey with a good balance of veteran experience combined with young, promising talent. But ultimately, “Nelly,” as he’s affectionately known, has helped set the standard.

“The one thing about this team is they’re never out of it. I give a lot of credit to the coaching staff and the players buying in under Nelly,” said Hershey’s vice president of hockey operations Bryan Helmer, an AHL Hall of Famer and the league’s all-time leading scorer among defensemen.

Near the twilight of his playing career in 2010, and coming on the heels of captaining Hershey to the 2010 Calder Cup, Helmer joined up with Nelson in Oklahoma City from 2010-12.

“He’s a genuine, nice guy that finds a way to get the best out of his players. He’s demanding, but he finds that way to get his point across without yelling or those other tactics. The guys like him, and they want to go through a wall for him.”

Forward Beck Malenstyn, who has played for the last three Bears coaches including Nelson, echoed Helmer’s sentiment, and explained further how players are thriving in Hershey this season thanks to Nelson’s even-keeled approach.

“I think the biggest thing with Nelly is he really allows each player to have their freedom to play the way they need to play, understands our roles and makes it very clear to us what our role is, too,” Malenstyn said. “You know when you step over the boards you can play your game and have that mental freedom, which is huge.

“You’re not gripping the stick too tight, you’re not worried about things and you have the leash to make mistakes. If you’re going out there and your intent is to make the right play, he knows we’re trying to make the right play and it’s not always going to happen. So to come back to the bench, be able to put it behind you, go back out there and have another good shift is something that he really preaches. Mistakes are going to happen; make them the right way, and learn from them.

“He’s kind of the perfect player’s coach — where you know you can be loose around him and talk to him about anything, and when business comes to business, you know he has your back and he’s going to challenge you to get the best out of you.”

For Nelson, who is quick to first acknowledge the coaches and players he has worked with over the years, his approach is one that he has continued to shape and evolve over two decades since first joining the coaching ranks as a player-assistant with Muskegon in the 2001-02 season.

“What I’ve learned is that players want to be treated straight-up. They don’t want you to beat around the bush if there’s an issue,” Nelson said. “They can see right through, and they want to hear it straight on. They want to make themselves better, and they invite certain criticism if they’re not playing well, because they just want to be better, and I’ve learned to handle those situations better.”

This season with Hershey, amid several initial call-ups and challenges to the team’s depth during an initial slow start, Nelson and his club have emerged as one of the top teams on the circuit.

An annual tradition of Nelson’s as a head coach has been to hold a pig roast, inviting the whole team along with their families. It’s an opportunity for Nelson to get to know his players, and the people who matter to them, away from the confines of a hockey rink.

“They get to know me, too,” Nelson explained. “I’m not talking hockey, but I’m talking to them about everyday life. And I think that’s helped; once we got into November, we really started to hit our stride.”

There have been adjustments made along the way. Following a late-October loss to Hartford, Nelson and his staff made the determination that the system utilized by the team, while mirroring that of the parent Capitals, needed a slight tweaking to better suit the strengths and limitations of the Bears roster.

“I had an honest conversation with our players, and asked them, ‘What do you think about making this change?’ We were giving up too many odd-man rushes and we were playing in-between. If you play in-between, it doesn’t work well — you can’t dip your toe in the water. You have to plunge in.”

The immediate result following that loss was a seven-game point streak in which Hershey went 6-0-1-0, and the club has strung together four separate point streaks of four or more games, vaulting the Bears to near the top.

And while the play of experienced players such as Mike Sgarbossa and Mike Vecchione has paced the Bears, it’s also the play of the younger crop of rookies that has also drawn their coach’s praise.

“I think the young guys, [Hendrix] Lapierre, [Vincent] Iorio, [Ethen] Frank, [Henrik] Rybinski — really, all the young guys — have impressed me because of how much they’re students of the game,” Nelson said. “For instance, Lapierre comes to the rink every morning looking for video, asking to go over shifts and how he can get better. At the start of the year, he had a hard time playing away from the puck, and he’s gotten a lot better with it now, and that’s a component he’s going to need to move up to the National Hockey League.

“I think balancing the winning and development goes hand in hand. This program is run very well. They provide a winning product on the ice, and I think winning is a form of development. If we have players here, hopefully things go well for us, but if we have players who are playing in those important situations and getting that experience, it’s unbelievable where those things translate to them playing in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. And if you’re lucky enough to win a Calder Cup, that’s something very few people can say, and nobody can take that away from you – you’re a champion for life.”