Season of highs and lows ends on top for Vecchione

Mike Vecchione scores the Calder Cup-winning goal in overtime of Game 7. (Photo: Mike Zitek)

📝 by Patrick Williams

Game 1 – COACHELLA VALLEY 5, Hershey 0
Game 2 – COACHELLA VALLEY 4, Hershey 0
Game 3 – HERSHEY 5, Coachella Valley 4 (OT)
Game 4 – HERSHEY 3, Coachella Valley 2
Game 5 – HERSHEY 1, Coachella Valley 0 (OT)
Game 6 – COACHELLA VALLEY 5, Hershey 2
Game 7 – Hershey 3, COACHELLA VALLEY 2 (OT)

PALM DESERT, Calif. … So many of hockey’s cliches surround the game’s highs and lows.

But cliches can also contain truths. Hershey Bears forward Mike Vecchione is one such example.

Vecchione went to the AHL All-Star Classic in Laval in February, his first invitation to that event. Certainly a high.

A little more than a week later he had a new two-year AHL contract with Hershey, just days before turning 30. A significant peak, to be sure.

He put together a 44-point season (16 goals, 28 assists) for the Bears, who finished second overall in the Eastern Conference in the regular season. Good.

But he went 10 games without a goal in the Calder Cup Playoffs. Definitely a low. Head coach Todd Nelson had noted several times throughout the postseason that the team needed much more production from its top players. No one had to venture much of a guess that the words referred in part to Vecchione.

None of that compared to Wednesday night, however, when Vecchione swatted in a loose puck in overtime of Game 7 of the Calder Cup Finals to win the Bears their league-record 12th title.

Somehow, some way, the Bears kept taking the best that the Coachella Valley Firebirds could deliver. They kept standing, kept dishing it back. Midway through Game 7, Hershey had been outscored 16-2 at Acrisure Arena in the series. But then Washington Capitals first-rounders Connor McMichael and Hendrix Lapierre scored to tie the deciding contest, and Vecchione ended one of the wildest Finals in AHL history after 16:19 of overtime.

“They’re just so skilled. You give them an inch, and they take a mile.”

Vecchione said those words standing outside of the Hershey dressing room on Wednesday night, still dripping with champagne. Game 7 was the only win of the series by a road team. The Bears’ three losses were decisive, but their four victories were all by a single goal, including three in overtime.

And nobody had to say it, but going down 2-0 in Game 7 against a Coachella Valley team that had already won five elimination games did not look good. But throughout this postseason and especially in the Finals, no one could quite put away the Bears for good. Now Vecchione can take his first Calder Cup title and a new contract into the summer.

“I couldn’t have asked for a better year,” said Vecchione. “This team they put together, it’s the definition of a team from top to bottom. There’s no one guy who’s going to go out there and do it. We saw throughout the season, throughout the postseason, it was everybody. Defensemen, forwards, [goaltender Hunter Shepard] is standing on his head every night.”

A highly sought-after free agent coming out of Union College in 2017, Vecchione signed with the Philadelphia Flyers and spent two seasons with the Lehigh Valley Phantoms. He played a year each in the St. Louis Blues and Colorado Avalanche systems, and when he was a free agent two years ago, Hershey legends Keith Aucoin and Chris Bourque had advice for their fellow Massachusetts native.

“They said that if you have a chance to play here, definitely do it,” Vecchione said. He inked a one-year deal with Washington on Aug. 5, 2021, and agreed to a one-year extension for 2022-23. With the AHL contract he signed in February, he will be a Bear through the 2024-25 season.

The Washington-Hershey affiliation now has four Calder Cup championships since beginning in 2005. The Capitals won the Stanley Cup in 2018. It is a blueprint for how to balance the development of NHL talent with winning. Easy to aim for. Much, much more difficult to execute.

“They’re trying to win championships,” Vecchione said. “They’re all here to win. Last year was amazing. This year was even better.

“It feels like an [NHL] atmosphere. The dedication of the fans is everything. We want to do everything we can to win for them. We’re happy to bring this one home.”