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  • NHL lockout tests Hershey's success model Print
    Written by Dan Marrazza   
    Friday, 09 November 2012 02:23

    The Hershey Bears have a sweet situation going on in their hometown of Hershey, PA, with their success making them the AHL equivalent of the Detroit Red Wings. The question they face this season, however, is exactly how good are they in the face of the influx of NHL talent around the AHL.

    By design, things in the American Hockey League never stay the same.

    In fact, considering the league is structured to be the primary developmental league for the NHL, the AHL wouldn’t even be fulfilling its purpose if its rosters remained the same, year in and year out. Besides promotions of players, the AHL also regularly transforms in terms of new franchises starting up, teams moving and affiliations changing.

    Perhaps the most startling statistic to illustrate how much the AHL regularly changes is that in 2012-13, only nine NHL teams entered the current lockout without changing their affiliation—city or team name—since the last NHL lockout in 2004-05.

    But for all the league’s ever-moving parts, the Hershey Bears are the AHL’s constant.

    The Bears, North America’s oldest professional hockey franchise behind the NHL’s Original 6, continue to thrive year in and year out in the midst player graduations, affiliation changes and even through NHL work stoppages.

    Besides its success level — the Bears have a record 11 Calder Cups since joining the AHL in 1938 — Hershey is also the AHL’s conscience in that it’s the league’s most polarizing team.

    The Bears are that team with a massive fan base—they’ve led the AHL in attendance the last six years—who are subsequently loathed in every building they visit, by both other teams and other teams’ fans. They are the AHL’s version of the New York Yankees, Los Angeles Lakers or Dallas Cowboys, back when Dallas was still a regular Super Bowl contender.

    “Tradition is only built with sustained success over time,” said Bears head coach Mark French. “You like to think that other teams envy what you have. We often think that we want to be the team with ‘the swagger’ when other teams come to play us.”

    One of the reasons for the Bears’ swagger is their consistent success, which itself is a product of the team’s somewhat unique philosophy of diving deeper into the pool of available AHL veteran free agents than any other team, constructing a roster that is oftentimes filled with as many 30-year-old career minor leaguers as up-and-coming prospects.

    “The Bears always have a strong veteran presence that’s a good balance with overall development,” said first-year Bear Jon DiSalvatore, who signed with Hershey as a 31-year-old free agent after captaining the AHL’s Houston Aeros the last two seasons.

    “This is a program that has lots of success that players on other teams notice,” added DiSalvatore. “I think there’s always a want amongst players to come to play here, but not everybody gets that offer. For me, at this stage of my career, it was an easy decision to come here because I want to have the chance to win a championship every year.”

    Although not every team buys into the exact philosophy—at least on the same scale—that the Bears use to remain perennial championship contenders, it’s hard to argue with Hershey’s results. The Bears have won two of the last four and three of the last seven Calder Cups, while graduating names such as John Carlson and Karl Alzner to the Washington Capitals, who have been their parent club since the 2005-06 season.

    Before the Capitals, the Bears were the primary support system for the Colorado Avalanche juggernaut squads of the late 1990s and early 2000s, at a time Hershey helped start the successful coaching career of Bob Hartley and general managerial career of Jay Feaster.

    “Management here wants to win every year,” said 34-year-old Bears captain and two-time Calder Cup champion Boyd Kane. “Obviously, the goal is also to develop players. But in this organization, having the chance to win a championship every year is very important.”

    But for all the consistent success that the Bears have had, their philosophy will be put to the test this season like never before, given that their opponents’ rosters will beJeff Taffe fortified by up to four and five would-be-NHLers apiece. Meanwhile, besides goaltender Braden Holtby, it’s hard to say that the Bears have a single player on their roster who would otherwise be an NHL regular, outside of defenseman Dmitry Orlov, who’d have probably been up and down between Hershey and Washington all season.

    Instead, Hershey’s roster’s core is filled with the Boyd Kanes and Jon DiSalvatores of the world, along with players like Ryan Potulny, Jeff Taffe, Matt Clackson, Garrett Stafford and Dany Sabourin whose career identities are primarily as standout AHL players who are occasionally called up to the NHL.

    Overall, the Bears’ roster has a league-highest average age of just under 26-years-old, which is a vital number given that of the 330 players who played at least 10 AHL games last season who were born before January 1, 1987—players who’d be 26 or older for more than half the 2012-13 season—only 175 have retained a roster spot in the AHL during the NHL lockout, with 67 having headed off to Europe, 25 joining teams in the ECHL or a lower North American professional league and 63 starting this season not playing anywhere.

    Even in the face of this crippling statistic, Hershey’s veterans have not only retained AHL roster spots, but have done so under the expectations of maintaining the Bears’ tradition of excellence against the stiffest competition that they’ve ever had to face in their careers.

    “This (being the AHL’s oldest team) is something we’ve talked about a lot as coaches,” said French. “It’s a valid question because we are the oldest team in the league. But it’s a question that I don’t think there’s an answer to yet.”

    Through nine games, the Bears have a record of 4-4-1-0 and sit in a three-way tie for 10th place in the AHL’s Eastern Conference.

    In Hershey, with management, fans and a town that considers itself the closest thing to the NHL outside of the NHL, a .500 record won’t cut it.

    Although nine games is hardly large enough of a sample size to indicate what the fate of the 2012-13 Hershey Bears will be, the question of “how close the Hershey model is to the NHL” should be answered this season, should the NHL lockout not be resolved in the near future.

    If the Bears are anything less than a championship contender this year, it could be a shattering defeat for the town of Hershey, since it would mean that the Bears are further from the NHL than locals could have ever imagined.

    Despite playing under the great pressures of being a support system for much of the town of Hershey’s self-esteem, Bears players have greater personal and team opportunities than ever before this season.

    During the 2004-05 NHL lockout, a 30-year-old, career minor-league goalie named Tim Thomas excelled so greatly against lockout-misplaced NHL players—in Finland, in Thomas’ case—that he emerged from the work stoppage as an NHL regular for the first time, starting a tremendously late-blooming career as an NHL star that has resulted in two Vezina Trophies, four All-Star berths, a Stanley Cup ring and a Conn Smythe Trophy.

    Who’s to say that Jon DiSalvatore, a player with nine straight 20-goal seasons in the AHL who has zero points in six career NHL games, won’t use the current lockout as a chance to outplay misplaced NHL players and become a great NHL player himself in his 30s?

    Or who’s to say that a goalie like Dany Sabourin, a guy who has been one of the AHL’s best goalies for the last decade while only playing in 57 NHL contests, won’t still be able to become a top-level NHL starting goalie if he puts together an All-Star caliber season in the AHL this year?

    If lucky lockout lightning struck Tim Thomas seven years ago, it’s hard to believe that there isn’t someone in some league right now who won’t use the current NHL lockout to transform themselves from being a top-notch AHL or European-league player into being a quality NHL player.

    Given their wealth of high-level veterans who are still looking for their big NHL breaks, the Bears would have to be one of the teams most likely to have the “next Tim Thomas” currently on their roster.

    Also, if the Bears are able to accomplish their team goal of beating out all of their prospect-laden, would-be-NHL opponents, Hershey supporters’ long-standing beliefs of their town being the closest thing to the NHL outside of the NHL could be proven true, making a potential Calder Cup in 2012-13 the sweetest victory of all for a town with the nickname of “The Sweetest Place On Earth.”

    The Bears’ quest to become the “next Tim Thomases” and for Chocolatetown, USA’s sweetest possible victory can be followed on Twitter at @TheHersheyBears

    Photos by Getty Images



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    Last Updated on Saturday, 10 November 2012 01:39