The 2009-10 Hershey Bears set an AHL record with 60 wins and fell one point shy of another league record (the Binghamton Rangers had 124 points in 1992-93), but all of that would have pretty much been an afterthought had they not gone on to win the Calder Cup, especially after the Chocolate and White had achieved that feat in 2008-09. When Hershey, who began the finals coming off of a second long layoff in this year’s playoffs, fell behind two games to none by dropping two contests on home ice to open the AHL Championship series, the task of defending their Calder Cup title seemed daunting, especially since no AHL team had ever rallied from that type of deficit in league history. But this Bears team was no ordinary one and a group led by Captain Bryan Helmer won the next four contests to complete what many players called “an unbelievable season” as they celebrated in their building with the league trophy immediately following the series winning victory. It was the first time in 30 years that Hershey fans were able to witness the Cup clinching by their beloved team live in their city.
Unbelievable was a word that those of us who were fortunate to be down on the Giant Center ice covering the revelry (h/t to the great John Walton) heard from many, to include AHL Playoffs MVP Chris Bourque, 2010 USA World Junior Hero John Carlson, and center Mathieu Perreault.
“Obviously I am happy about the MVP but the big trophy is the Calder Cup. It’s unbelievable, three times in five years is not bad, you don’t see that too often so it’s unreal. You have to give credit to all of these guys, they’ve been unreal all season and it was a fun ride,” said Bourque, who won the Jack A. Butterfield trophy as MVP of the AHL Playoffs and also has been on the the last three Hershey Calder Cup winning squads.
“It’s unbelievable. It’s what you play for as a hockey player. It never gets old. Every time it is just a thrill. It’s unbelievable,” added Carlson, the man who broke the hearts of many Canadians with his overtime game winning tally in the 2010 World Junior Championships this past January, on winning another title.
“It’s unbelievable. We won it last year, it was different, at home it is so much better with the crowd, everything, it’s unbelievable!” said an excited Perreault, just prior to drinking a Molson as a part of his Cup celebration (thanks to John Keeley of On Frozen Blog for a great photo).
So why did this Hershey Bears team continue to do the “seemingly undoable” and complete the unbelievable season with a dramatic come from behind series victory? Sure the Chocolate and White had lots of talent, but hockey history is littered with numerous instances of highly talented teams being knocked off in the post season after great regular season achievements. Winning championships takes more than talent, it takes commitment, patience, team play, and a group of players that bond together to form great chemistry.
Early on in this series the Texas Stars were winning because of their strategy of sitting back and capitalizing on Hershey turnovers, primarily at the Texas blue line. After game two Hershey Coach Mark French stated that if his team didn’t heed the advice of his coaching staff, which asked the players to get the puck on net or below the circles so they could get their cycle game going, then the Stars would get to four wins before his club did. French was requesting that his highly talented squad change their game and play a more difficult and boring style for them, but when you have great leadership and chemistry, those type of changes, in the middle of a series, are acheivable. The spread of that message started with a closed door, players only meeting, run by a phenomenal leader in Helmer before game three. It was after that opening period in the third contest, with the Bears trailing 3-1, where the change in style started translating into goals on the ice.
“We have unbelievable leadership. Bryan Helmer, that’s the turning point of the series – we had a closed door meeting, players only. It just goes to show how much of a leader he is, he is our captain, he got the boys going and it showed the next game. We won, we scored five unanswered goals and we didn’t really look back after that. It wasn’t an easy series to win. Texas played really good, they have some good players in there and I’m just happy to be on the good side of winning,” said Bourque, who showed great leadership himself by not pouting about being a salary cap casualty by the Caps to open the season or being released by the Penguins after an extended stint in the NHL and coming down to Hershey and dominating the AHL.
“This is what we are made of and the leadership on this team is unbelievable. The Captain stood up after the second game and talked to the boys and he got us going. At that point we all knew we were going to win,” said Perreault, who will be given a good chance to make the Capitals out of training camp this upcoming September.
“You look back, we are down 2 games to nothing, 3-1 in the second period, it didn’t look good, but guys never gave up in this locker room. We knew that we had the character and the talent to get it done. We stuck with it, when we look back at what we did this year as a team it’s gonna be unreal,” said 2009-10 AHL regular season MVP Keith Aucoin, who set up the second goal in game three by Kyle Wilson with a sensational individual play to start the series comeback.
Talking about making a change is one thing, but the players took the strategy from Coach French and the message from Captain Helmer and translated it into production on the ice. They stopped making east-west passes inside the Stars zone and focused on dumping the puck to the corners to set up a cycle game that wore out Texas. Hershey was then able to send the puck to wide open point men who fired it on the cage while Bears forwards swarmed the net for rebounds. Combine that style of play with super goaltending from Michal Neuvirth and you have the recipe for defeating an opponent’s trapping, defensive style of play.
“I think it was just guys coming this far and not being happy with losing two games at home. We didn’t work as hard as we did to squander away something like this. It is just a big credit to the group of guys that we have and the way everything was put together. The coaches did a great job keeping our spirits up. For me that plane ride [to Texas], I wasn’t down at all, I knew we had it in us. It was just a matter of getting a little bit of the rust off. The coaches noticed it right away. We knew that [Texas] was a good transition team and we are a team that likes to go on the offense and we learned in a hurry that you can’t [turn the puck over at their blue line]. When you are giving up three breakaways a game and four two-on-ones a game, they’re not scoring and not beating you off of that then we’re getting really lucky. So they really stuck it to us the first [two games], we figured it out in a hurry, just in the nick of time,” said Karl Alzner on what his team did to turn things around between games two and three.
“That is why we struggled the first two games, we are a skilled team that likes to make passes inside the blue line and against a team like that where they sit back, with three or four guys back all of the time, we are going to turn the puck over and they are going to come down and score. We had to change our game and that is why we were successful, we turn it around by getting the puck to the net, getting guys crashing the net and getting rebounds and that is why we were successful the last four games. It shows the character of our guys to change their games to make sure we get wins,” added Aucoin, who mentioned that he and linemates, Alexandre Giroux and Andrew Gordon felt the pressure after the first two tilts, to start contributing more.
The strategy opened up things for the point men and all four tallies in game six came from blue liners.
“We’ve been stressing [getting the puck to the points] because that is what is open against these teams that want to collapse here, your D are open and we were very opportunistic. Patty McNeill with two and Karl Alzner with one, it was great to see and John Carlson scored on the power play so not bad as well,” said Coach French.
Overall, the strategic adjustments and the leadership formed the basis for the rally, according to Coach French.
“I think there was a little bit of [of the strategy change] and I think at the end of the day the guys just had to lay it on the line a little bit more and go a bit deeper. The guys had a players only meeting in Texas. One person talked, and it certainly wasn’t me, it was our captain, and I believe that was probably the turning point in terms of understanding what we had to do to win a game and how deep we really had to go as a group to win,” concluded French.
If you ask me, this group forms the blueprint for the makings of a championship team and players, coaches, and management confirmed that with their thoughts as the Cup was paraded around the Giant Center last Monday night.
“The team that we had was just great, can’t say enough about the guys, everyone came together. It’s a group of all friends, which doesn’t happen that often on a team and that is what you need to win,” said Alzner, who held the leading goal scorer in the AHL playoffs, Jamie Benn, to just two assists in the six game series.
“I feel very grateful to have the group of guys that I had not only from a skill level standpoint but from a leadership standpoint and finally good people. We asked them to do things, we had a very business-like approach all year and they were an easy group to coach. When you gave it to them a little bit, they always responded in the right way and you trusted that you knew when you left the room that your leaders were saying the right things and that is pretty special. They are a special group, I think, could have won under a lot of coaches,” finished a very humble French, who certainly contributed mightily to the championship with his tactical moves and line-up tweaks, in particular, the swap of Bourque and Giroux on the top two lines, a move that Texas never was able to adjust to.
“Well, it was a heck of a team. They had everything. They had skill and grit and depth and balance and goaltending. They seemed to like each other and they were a very well coached team,” summarized Capitals GM George McPhee watching from ice level on the outside of the glass following the win and refusing to take any credit he clearly deserved for helping to build this AHL powerhouse along with Hershey President/GM Doug Yingst.