New faces spark Bears to latest Calder Cup championship

Photo: AHL

Patrick Williams, Features Writer

Matt Strome was with the Hershey Bears last season, a fill-in player who appeared in 34 regular-season games and none in the Calder Cup Playoffs.

This year, he was a scratch for the team’s first nine games, not making his season debut until Nov. 3. He was in and out of the postseason lineup. And last night, he became a Calder Cup hero.

Strome’s goal 1:06 into overtime gave the Bears a 5-4 win and their second consecutive Calder Cup championship, the 13th in the team’s long and storied history.

“I went home [last] summer and knew I wanted to be in this moment,” Strome said after lifting the Calder Cup. “The season starts and I don’t play, so I work even harder.”

This is the fifth Calder Cup that the Bears have won since joining forces with the Washington Capitals in 2005, and they have been finalists two other times as well. In January the two sides extended their affiliation through the 2029-30 season. They look for players like Strome: players who are hungry, ready to accept a role – any role – and compete for a Calder Cup.

Pierrick Dubé spent last season with Laval on an AHL contract. He attracted the attention of Washington management, and signed a two-year contract with the organization last July. He went on to score 28 goals in the regular season and made his NHL debut with the Capitals. He missed three games of the conference finals after losing several teeth from being struck by a puck, but returned to net a goal in the Game 7 win over Cleveland. And last night, he became the first player since Jason Krog in 2008 to notch a hat trick in a Calder Cup clinching win.

“It’s hard to put into words right now,” Dubé said.

Jimmy Huntington was with the Milwaukee Admirals last season when they fell to Coachella Valley in the Western Conference Finals. He signed with the Bears in the summer, and his two goals in Game 5 helped give Hershey a 3-2 series lead as they returned home positioned to end it. After maintaining a strong message of discipline throughout the series, insisting that the task was far from done, the fifth-year pro could finally relax last night.

“Now the job is done,” he said.

Alex Limoges arrived from the Manitoba Moose hungry for a Calder Cup title. The northern Virginia native – one of three locals on the Hershey roster along with Joe Snively and Garrett Roe had attended a Finals game at Giant Center last year. This time, he was a workhorse in the Bears lineup, recording two assists each in Game 5 and Game 6 while skating with Huntington and Dubé. Roe returned to North America after a decade in Europe, citing a desire to be closer to home after his mother, Julie, passed away last June. He missed all but Game 1 of the Finals with an injury, but it was his overtime goal in Game 7 against Cleveland that brought the Bears to the Finals in the first place.

Chase Priskie was originally drafted by Washington in 2016, and circulated through the Carolina, Florida, Buffalo and Anaheim organizations before returning to the Capitals organization last summer. With three top Hershey defensemen – Aaron Ness, Lucas Johansen and Vincent Iorio – unavailable for the Finals, Priskie built on an already-strong season and helped to anchor the Hershey blue line against the Firebirds’ potent attack.

“You might play 10 years and never get the chance to play for a championship, play meaningful hockey in June,” Priskie said. “When we got here at the beginning of the season, our goal was to win, and there were no ifs, ands or buts about it. We came to work every day, and we prepared for that.”

Hardy Häman Aktell scored four goals from the Hershey blue line during the Finals. Another defenseman, Nick Leivermann, stepped in for Game 4 of the Finals having not played an AHL game since November. For that matter, he hadn’t played anywhere since Hershey’s ECHL affiliate South Carolina finished its season on April 13. But he fit in quickly, adding needed mobility and a puck-moving option the rest of the way.

Ivan Miroshnichenko was a first-round pick by the Capitals in 2022 who had a strong debut season in North America. The 20-year-old forward, who skated in 21 games for Washington, contributed seven goals and five assists in 20 playoff contests.

And of course there were plenty of returnees for the Bears. Hunter Shepard, voted the league’s outstanding goaltender in 2023-24, anchored the Bears in net once again. Ethen Frank’s 10 playoff goals tied him for the AHL lead. Mike Vecchione, the Game 7 overtime hero last year for the Bears, again solidified the club up front. Young forwards Henrik Rybinski and Bogdan Trineyev stepped and took on increasingly larger roles as the season progressed. Riley Sutter returned from an extended injury and anchored the shutdown line for head coach Todd Nelson. Captain Dylan McIlrath held it all together and now has his third Calder Cup. And after spending 51 games with the Capitals this season, Hendrix Lapierre returned for the Calder Cup Playoffs and skated off with the Jack A. Butterfield Trophy as the most valuable player of this postseason after finishing with a league-leading 22 points (seven goals, 15 assists).

Each summer the Capitals and Bears work together to find the right fit, the proper environment necessary both to develop prospects in Hershey and to pursue championship. Settling for a playoff berth is not enough. Bears vice president of hockey operations Bryan Helmer works with Capitals associate general manager Chris Patrick to build out the AHL roster. Helmer, who has now won back-to-back titles with the Bears twice – he captained the club to the 2009 and 2010 titles – recognizes potential winners when he sees them.

“I believe that they believe in each other,” Helmer said of his players. “Guys from last year that went through the grind were talking to the other guys that weren’t going through it, and then they pulled them in. Everybody wanted to win. They believed in each other. They believed in themselves, and then Todd Nelson finds a way to get the best out of his players.”

Said Strome, “It was always the Bears, baby.”