Turns out, it was rust on their game that undermined the Hershey Bears in the early going of the 2010 Calder Cup finals, when they dropped the first two games at home. By the time the finals started the Bears had played a grand total of just six games in 34 days. The longer this Calder series went on, the better the Bears got. You saw it if you watched it, or you really believed it when you heard the general manager of the Washington Capitals claim it, as George McPhee did at Giant Center last night during pre-game dinner while seated among some Washington hockey bloggers.
The Hershey Bears made history on Monday night, winning their 11th Calder Cup title and becoming the first team in American League history to do so after losing the first two games of the finals on home ice. The 4-0 final didn’t come close as indicator of Hershey’s dominance in game 6. The Bears got all four of their goals on the evening from defensemen, while Michal Neuvirth pitched a shutout. Best of all, they did it at home, sharing their triumph in real time with the best fans in all of minor pro sports, something they hadn’t been able to do since 1980.
All these years, all those titles, and all of them on the road. No wonder the largest crowd ever to see a hockey game in Hershey — 11,002 — jammed Giant Center to the rafters on Monday night.
Hershey has claimed Calder titles in consecutive seasons and three of the past five seasons, coincidental to their renewed affiliation with the Washington Capitals. In all five of those seasons the Bears have qualified for the postseason. In four of them they reached the Calder finals. It’s not a stretch to posit this five-year run as the greatest in this storied franchise’s history.
It would be nice if a little of this very winning Mojo could be transferred down the interstate a bit.
The Texas Stars Monday night had no chance. The competitive portion of the game was over moments after the puck dropped, no matter what the scoreboard said. This was a Texas team that had been extended to seven games in its preceding two series, and they arrived in Hershey 12 days ago bearing the battered badges of that labor. They gutted out two shocking wins on Giant Center ice over the finals’ opening weekend, but Hershey ultimately took to heart the admonition of their head coach to attack the Stars’ center ice sagging with perimeter patience and net traffic, and slowly Hershey seized control of the series as it combined a patient attack with more disciplined play and some power play success.
And some more overtime heroics. Eight Bears’ wins in the 2010 postseason came in extra time. None was more important than last Friday night’s game 5 overtime blow by Alexandre Giroux, which likely delivered the decisive psychological blow to a battle-weary Stars club. The Bears brought great skill and experience to the defense of their 2009 Calder title, but all postseason long they also brought gumption and determination and heart during sudden death.
Stars’ head coach Glen Gulutzan, seeking some momentum reversal for his suddenly beleaguered club, played a wild card with game 6: he benched goaltender Matt Climie in favor of Brent Krahn, and early on Monday night the move seemed magical, as the Bears peppered the former Calgary Flames first rounder with a barrage of pucks, Krahn turning them all aside. Upstairs in the Giant Center press box, an overflow of Washington hockey media wondered: would there be a failure to strike early during dominance by the home team, allowing an on-the-ropes visitor a series momentum swinging reprieve? It’s a storyline Washington’s hockey media knows all too well.
But Captain America said No! John Carlson struck on the game’s first power play, at 12:29 of the opening frame, and a Judas Priest reading on the decibel meter showered down on a suddenly slump-shouldered set of visitors. The Bears had retained all that series-swinging momentum from Texas.
Bears’ head coach Mark French would have you know that teams that rely upon a sag-and-clog system to try and defend high octane offenses are susceptible to scoring attacks from the points. Karl Alzner followed Carlson’s strike with a blast from the point less than two minutes later, and instantly a rout seemed likely. The Bears lethal first period concluded with a 17-4 wood-shedding on the shot counter.
Patrick McNeill would add a tally in the second stanza to erase any remaining doubt about the evening’s outcome, adding another in the final frame on the power play. This series’ last game was a laugher. The party that followed felt like it had been in the planning for 30 years.
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My ever-edifying new media odyssey in hockey took another blessed turn with this season-concluding Hershey visit. John Walton, the Bears’ voice on radio and now television, had a spectacular surprise on Monday night for the Washington hockey bloggers who’d caravan-ed up I-83 a fair bit this spring. When we went to retrieve our credentials for the game we were informed that we’d be outfitted with distinctive wrist bracelets that would allow us access onto the ice sheet at game’s end, in the event that the Bears won and a big party erupted there. We got wide-eyed at this bit of news, as you might imagine. Ted Starkey and Ed Frankovic and I went out on the party ice all right, interviewing, photographing, videotaping, and most especially just gathering around one another at regular intervals — as Bears hugged and re-hugged and shouted and screamed — and freshly inquired of one another: Are we really where we think we are?
This was a very Walter Mitty moment.
I imagined that for the three of us this dream access — perched on a champion’s ice right as championship status was conferred — was very much like going to see the concert for your favorite band, and upon arriving at the venue being informed that you were welcomed backstage to meet the band.
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But just as spectacular for me was my proximity to another production aspect of this big game. I was brought on the inside of the preparations by the singer of the evening’s national anthem. Meaning, as I rode up with Tara Wheeler in her car I became an audience to her preparatory vocal exercises, which included some uncanny Lady Gaga karaoke.
Inside the arena Tara stopped twice in the span of about 40 minutes to visit separate, private restrooms to practice the actual anthem while I stood vigil outside. And during the pregame I waited with Tara in the lounge that hosts players’ wives and significant others. This was no ordinary night of hockey, and ours was no ordinary routine.
Tara became increasingly nervous as 7:00 approached, even experiencing some mild nausea. But then she followed the Color Guard out onto the ice, took her position before a hockey house without a single empty seat in it, and belted out a beautiful rendition of our national song while I held her video camera and cried.
A couple of Texas Stars officials made a point of stopping in the media area near the end of the game to let Tara know that she’d sung the anthem quite spectacularly. Those kind of moments only happen in hockey, I believe.
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Approximately 20 minutes into the caravan ride home it occurred to me that I would not again be sharing a two-hour car ride with my blogger buddies in the 2009-10 hockey season. Two hours up, two hours back, four hours total of car ride hockey talk, on every excursion. Not a word ever about our respective offices or full-time careers, an oil spill, or summer movie titles. Just talking pucks, as puckheads do. This was a spring and early summer during which the travel time to and from Hershey became as rewarding as the big event access and excitement. After a lengthy season of covering Caps’ hockey my blogger buddies and I still couldn’t exhaust our passion for this game while together, and at last the calendar was informing us of the end. Because of our Monday night dream experience we unanimously seized upon a stop at an all-night McDonalds for the largest milkshakes they’d serve us. We pulled out of the drive-thru with our sweet treats and I turned to our driver, Ed, and said, “Take the long way home.”
Back last autumn, early in the new hockey season and on his very first visit of the season to Verizon Center, John Walton approached my seat upstairs and held out his hand to show me the 2009 Calder Cup ring he’d received just days before. It was monstrously large, lavishly jeweled, just stunning. Then he removed it and put it in my hand, urging me to try it on. I actually had a champion’s ring on my finger for some moments. Where else in sports does this happen, I remember thinking then.
I thought about that moment last fall while my sensory surveillance was under assault as I stood on Giant Center ice surrounded by wildly celebrating Bears Monday night. On a handful of occasions I looked up at John Walton’s broadcast booth, trying to catch his eye, trying to convey to him in that moment my wordless appreciation for the manner in which he started and now oh so dramatically ended my 2009-10 hockey season. I didn’t catch his eye because of course he was too busy still working, nearly an hour after the game, still imparting his puck passion for his listeners. I will see him again at Capitals’ Development Camp next month, when likely I’ll surprise him by still wearing my dream bracelet.