With Cup win still fresh, Bears turn attention to new season

Photo: Tori Hartman

Patrick Williams, TheAHL.com Features Writer

In Hershey, they only raise championship banners.

But this is pro hockey, and there is always another task ahead.

So the Bears will celebrate their 2023 Calder Cup championship – the league-leading 12th in club history – with a banner-raising at Giant Center on Saturday night. Then they will host Belleville in their season opener, and the pursuit of the next banner will be on.

It has been less than four months since Mike Vecchione’s overtime goal in Game 7 of the Calder Cup Finals at Coachella Valley back on June 21. It was the final dagger in an epic series which saw the Bears get shut out in the first two games of the series, win three straight at home (two in overtime), and finally overcome a Game 6 loss and a two-goal Game 7 deficit to put away the powerful Firebirds.

“It really was a brotherhood,” Vecchione said of last year’s Hershey team.

The AHL has not had a back-to-back champion since the Bears won the Calder Cup in 2009 and 2010.

Said returning defenseman Aaron Ness, “Everyone’s always excited for a new year. It’s another opportunity. It just goes back to having great people, great leaders, and wanting to win. That’s been the mindset every year I’ve been here, and that’s why I love it here. The expectations are to win every year, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

Head coach Todd Nelson now has four Calder Cup titles – two of them as a head coach – and is already at work pursuing his fifth. Training camp is over. The team-bonding process is underway. Nelson will soon host his trademark pig roast for his players and their families.

“It’s an everyday process trying to move that culture,” Nelson explained, “and it starts today. There are a lot of returning players that know what it’s all about to be a Hershey Bear, to live in this community, and play for this hockey club.”

Solidifying that team culture will likely take time following several offseason departures.

Beck Malenstyn, Connor McMichael, Aliaksei Protas and Lucas Johansen all won jobs with the Washington Capitals out of camp. The organization lost Garrett Pilon (Ottawa/Belleville) and Mason Morelli (Vegas/Henderson) via free agency. Gabriel Carlsson and Henrik Borgstrom returned to Europe, and Sam Anas and Zach Fucale headed overseas as well.

But the returnees are notable. Remember that the Bears went through most of the playoffs without their regular-season leading scorer Mike Sgarbossa, who was limited to four postseason games by injury. Vecchione scored a career-high 23 goals last season. Ethen Frank led all AHL rookies with 30 goals. Hunter Shepard, whose stellar work earned him the Jack A. Butterfield Trophy as the most valuable player of the Calder Cup Playoffs, re-upped with Washington on a two-year deal. So did captain Dylan McIlrath, who will bring his trademark snarl back to the Hershey back end. Reliable Riley Sutter returned on a new one-year agreement as well.

And the always-aggressive Capitals-Bears partnership got busy filling holes. In came defenseman Chase Priskie, someone who can take on huge minutes with Carlsson and Johansen gone. Forward Alex Limoges, a Virginia native who grew up playing in the Washington Little Caps youth program, signed with the organization following back-to-back 20-goal AHL seasons. Jimmy Huntington brings additional depth at forward, as do Pierrick Dubé, coming off a strong first AHL season with Laval, and Nicolas Aubé-Kubel, who spent the past three seasons in the National Hockey League.

“It’s one thing to sign a good hockey player,” Nelson continued, “but we want to sign good people. That’s the start, that’s the foundation of having a good culture: having good character people in that room, because when the times get tough – as we saw last year – the character, the leadership in the room shines.”

There is fresh talent on hand to replenish Nelson’s roster. Ivan Miroshnichenko, Washington’s first-round pick (20th overall) in the 2022 draft, impressed in training camp with the Capitals. Alexander Suzdalev, another 19-year-old forward, led all Western Hockey League rookies in scoring with 86 points for Regina last season. Ryan Hofer scored 40 goals between Everett and Kamloops in the WHL a year ago. a 40-goal effort last season in the WHL. And after a strong performance with the organization’s ECHL affiliate in South Carolina, goaltender Clay Stevenson moves up the depth chart to join Shepard in Hershey.

Enough of last season’s base remains, yet there is enough new talent to keep this roster fresh. That said, Vecchione and the Bears know what they will be facing this season. They are the defending champions, as pointed out by the commemorative center-ice logo at Giant Center. And they are the AHL’s flagship franchise, with visitors always needing to be prepared to deal with one of the AHL’s best arena environments.

“Everyone in that locker room understands we have a target on our back, and we’ve got to be ready for it,” Vecchione acknowledged. “Everybody’s going to be coming for us.”

For the Bears, though, the good news is that the organization put in the work this summer. Now it’s the players’ turn to blend this group into a championship-caliber team.

“When you look at our depth,” Nelson said, “I think our team’s even deeper this year than we were last year.”