Bears off to promising start

American Hockey League

📝 by Patrick Williams

Twice denied a chance at the Calder Cup by circumstances beyond anyone’s control, the Hershey Bears are taking another big swing at a championship run.

In the pandemic-curtailed 2019-20 season, Hershey (37-18-3-4) placed third overall in the AHL with a .653 points percentage, one point shy of the Eastern Conference-leading Providence Bruins. But the Bears went home that spring without a chance to pursue the franchise’s record 12th Calder Cup championship.

A year later, the truncated 2020-21 campaign meant that there would be no championship pursuit. Still, Hershey (24-7-2-0) made the most of the season and chased down the Macgregor Kilpatrick Trophy as the AHL’s regular-season champion, the third such win since the Bears’ affiliation with the Washington Capitals began in 2005.

Now Hershey’s latest try is off to a promising start. The Bears handled the visiting Charlotte Checkers, 5-2, in the teams’ season opener on Saturday night. A 2-1 decision followed the following day against the archrival Lehigh Valley Phantoms. Next the Bears face a two-game trip to Charlotte this weekend.

Starting the 17th season of that Washington-Hershey union, the two sides again went about trying to build a winner in the AHL’s most senior market. The two sides brought back elite forward Mike Sgarbossa on a new two-year deal, and added proven scorer Mike Vecchione (Colorado Eagles) and hard-nosed defenseman Dylan McIlrath (Grand Rapids Griffins) to fortify the Hershey line-up.

The Capitals and Bears signed a new four-year affiliation agreement before last season, and Washington also provides Hershey management leeway to add key veterans via AHL contracts. So Hershey did just that, first landing blueliner Cody Franson, who won a spot on the Central Division All-Star Team last season with the Rockford IceHogs. Along with a rocket of a shot and elite power-play sense, Franson also brought 550 regular-season games of NHL experience with him to Central Pennsylvania.

Next, the Bears brought back a familiar face, captain Matt Moulson. The 37-year-old forward continues to pursue his first pro championship and returned to the Bears on a one-year contract. After 650 NHL regular-season games, Moulson has parked his NHL plans behind him to focus solely on Hershey and a Calder Cup.

Last season in playing all 33 of Hershey’s games, he put up 12 goals and 24 points. A season earlier, he had 41 points (22 goals, 19 assists) while skating in each of the Bears’ 62 games.

To top off the busy summer, assistant coach Scott Allen took over as head coach after Spencer Carbery departed for a job with the Toronto Maple Leafs. Losing Carbery, the reigning Louis A.R. Pieri Memorial Award as the AHL’s most outstanding coach, left a considerable vacancy behind the Hershey bench. But the Bears could turn to the 55-year-old Allen, who took 25 years of pro coaching experience with him into this season. In that 25-year run have been 13 AHL seasons, including parts of three seasons as an AHL head coach in the Florida Panthers organization, as well as six more seasons as an NHL assistant coach.

Even with that experience, Allen admitted to some nerves going into his first game leading the AHL’s flagship franchise.

“I think it is a little bit of everything,” Allen said of his feelings. “If you’ve been in the business for a while, I don’t think that nerves ever go away. You should have that nervous energy. I think it’s natural. I think it’s healthy. It’s one of the reasons that we continue to do what we do.

“It’s such a prideful situation for me to be in. I’m a combination of a little bit of old school and new. I continue to try to grow and evolve as a coach. But I certainly am very respectful of everybody [who] came before me in this business. Every guy who pulled on a sweater in the National Hockey League, the American Hockey League.

“It’s been unbelievable the people that have come through this franchise — players, coaches, trainers, radio broadcasters … it’s just endless. It is a ton of pride.”

Allen and Moulson already have five seasons together — three with the New York Islanders between 2009 and 2012, as well as Allen’s past two campaigns as an assistant on Carbery’s staff.

“It’s great to be back in Hershey,” Moulson said. “This team is a great group of guys, great organization, great coaching staff, so it’s a lot of fun to play hockey in Hershey.”

Playing for Carbery, Allen, assistant coaches Patrick Wellar and newcomer Steve Bergin, and goaltending coach Alex Westlund has left an impression on Moulson,

“That whole coaching staff,” Moulson said, “that’s how I feel in my mind professional athletes should be treated. I think [Allen] and [Carbery] are very similar … they played the game to an intense level, they coach at an intense level, [and] they’re both extremely knowledgeable.”

Allen will count on Moulson and the rest of his cast to emphasize Hershey’s aggressive puck-pursuit style that relies on speed and an unrelenting commitment to wearing down opponents through the game.

“The way we want to play,” Allen said, “it’s not easy. It takes a full commitment. But you don’t want to be the lone guy not digging in, because you stand out like a sore thumb.

“I think everybody has a whole new appreciation for just everything. What we’ve gone through — and I know it’s not over yet; I still know we have a ways to go. But you have a tendency when you live life, we’re all creatures of habit, and you take things for granted sometimes. Hopefully the positive we can all take from this is, ‘Don’t take things for granted.’ Because the world can change just like that.”

So the Bears look great on paper. They have a steady, experienced coaching staff. Some of the AHL’s best fan support. But player recalls and injuries can sidetrack any AHL team. Now Hershey must make that paper roster look equally great on the ice, something that Allen, Moulson, and the rest of the Hershey leadership group will preach consistently.

Said Moulson, “We have a lot of skill, a great, great group of people. Not just on the ice, but off the ice. I think Hershey does a great job of bringing good character. We see that with just the veterans they brought in, guys that were great leaders on teams they were previously on.

“It’s tough to tell. You could say your team’s great on paper. But you know, if you don’t work for every inch in this game, you don’t get rewarded very often.”

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