HERSHEY, Pa. – “There’s an expectation for how we do things here and how we treat one another and how we pull for each other. If someone’s out, I’ll have to do a little more, or I’ll have to make the plays or do the things that are gonna be better for the two guys next to me and not just myself. It’s a tricky thing in the AHL because there’s a lot of players who are, individually, trying to get to the highest level in the world, and that’s the balance that our culture is about. We’re going to invest hours and hours into your individual development, and in return, there’s a certain standard we expect that you’re gonna help our team win games, and that means looking out for one another and stepping up when our first line center goes down. It speaks to why our guys appreciate each other; they’re good people, are respectful, they want to win, make the right plays to win, and not necessarily the plays that are gonna help them all the time.”
Those were the words of Hershey Bears head coach Spencer Carbery in response to a question asked during the final postgame media session of the 2021 season on how the team has achieved success despite the unusual circumstances of the season. More importantly, it speaks to the incredibly high standards the club has regarding the kinds of people they employ. It’s particularly emblematic of this season’s group, who was a forward short in its final game and, at times, dressed eight defensemen as injuries forced many regular forwards to miss time in the final month of the season. Hershey won six of seven games in May, not once recalling a player from the South Carolina Stingrays or seeking external assistance.
In a season where Hershey lost two of its top forwards, one top defenseman, and saw a major shuffling of the deck in goal for the Washington Capitals, thanks to the taxi squad rule of the 2021 season, the Bears succeeded in dealing with the various complications of an unusual season that were tricky to navigate. Hershey was without the services of Beck Malenstyn for the entire season, a key role player who has become irreplaceable in his two seasons as a Bear. There were many obstacles to be overcome for the Bears before the season even started, yet the “next man up” philosophy of the team helped overcome those many challenges this season.
For example, Hershey’s first victory of the season was a gutsy 3-2 win over the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins that saw defenders Eddie Wittchow and Paul LaDue leave the game early with injuries and forced the Bears to hang on for the win with Connor McMichael’s first AHL goal doing the trick and great goaltending from Pheonix Copley making a big difference. Hershey’s defensive group dealt with a lot of adversity in the early going with injuries requiring forwards playing defense like Kale Kessy, and other players like rookie Will Graber to step up into significant roles with the team. The ability to play through these extraordinary circumstances in an extraordinary season was huge for the Bears each night to finish as the AHL’s top team. Hershey refused to allow these circumstances to become excuses at any point during the season.
This mentality was present all the way up to the season’s end, where big-time players for the Bears were on the shelf with injury: Brian Pinho, Axel Jonsson-Fjallby, Riley Sutter, Kody Clark, Mike Sgarbossa, Blake Pietila. Two full lines worth of players out with injury up front and defenseman Lucas Johansen out for a long time with injury. So many players, yet it was defenseman-turned-forward Eddie Wittchow scoring a critical goal to extend Hershey’s lead in a game very much up for grabs in the season finale that pushed the Bears past the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins.
He plays forward pretty well! Eddie Wittchow makes it 4-2 Hershey! pic.twitter.com/iFNO9pync8
— Bears Hockey Nation (@HBHNationBlog) May 16, 2021
The stories of players who stepped up this season run through every player on the Hershey roster, and it’s worth taking an in-depth look at every player on Hershey’s roster in this regard. Carbery’s comments in the postgame press conference are the baseline for which each player had to prove himself this season. The roster shuffling led to a lot of players excelling with increased roles. An example is Connor McMichael, who came to Hershey a year early as a result of junior leagues not playing and becoming irreplaceable.
Hershey’s “next man up” mentality led to a lot of success in a very unusual situation, and it’s worth paying attention to going into a full season in 2021-22, especially if the Bears expect to parlay this season’s success into a deep postseason run. There’s work to be done before the puck drops this fall, but the success of a shortened season leaves the team from the Sweetest Place on Earth with high hopes for the fall.