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2 months ago
When Will the Bears Play Hockey Again?

BY DON SCOTT

When the American Hockey League suspended its season in mid-March, most teams had about 14 games remaining on their regular-season schedules. The Hershey Bears and Providence Bruins both had that number, with the Bruins holding a slim one-point lead in the race for the top spot in the Atlantic Division.

 When contacted about when play might resume, Bryan Helmer, Hershey’s Vice President of Hockey Operations, said, “I think maybe sometime in May we might hear something. As things get better there will be more talks in order to get something in place. I assume we will do what the NHL does as far as rescheduling regular-season games or it might be decided to go directly into the playoff games, but right now it is just a case of keeping everyone, including staff and fans, safe.”

“I’m assuming if the NHL went into the playoff option we would do the same because so far we have been following what they have been doing,” continued Helmer. “In my opinion, I’m sure they would want their players in the AHL doing the same thing, especially if games aren’t able to start until June or July and drag on. That would or could affect the start of the next season and one wants the guys sitting around for maybe five months.”

 Since the AHL is the development league for the NHL, any decision on what happens and when, will be announced by that league.

“I’m sure there will be discussions, especially if the decision is to go right to the playoffs, that will be as fair as possible as to who makes it based on the points when the games were halted in mid-March,” Helmer said. “It could mean more teams are in but each series would be shorter. 

“There are so many factors that need to be addressed starting with building availabilities,” continued Helmer. “All the teams would do the best they can to make that work just like we would have to do at the Giant Center because of events already booked there. There will be glitches but I’m sure everyone is willing to do what is needed to get the games played to hand out the Calder Cup.”

 Helmer added, “June 30 is the date when contracts expire and the next day free agency starts and then you have the draft, which might have to be handled through social media but those are just some of the things that come into play and have to be worked out.” 

For the record, there was no Stanley Cup winner in the 2004-05 campaign due to the lockout. Since the start of the AHL there has never been a season the Calder Cup was not awarded.

Hershey has won 11 Calder Cups and finished as the runner-up 12 times. Up to the time before the NBA announced they were shutting down, the talk was what to do fan-wise and what happens if an athlete gets the virus, but once they made their announcement, things shifted in a hurry. 

“Looking back on the situation, I don’t want to say it was a good thing, but it did open everyone’s eyes about a big problem that needed to be taken care of and put into perspective,” Helmer said. “We, as a team, could not tell our players what to do other than follow what the CDC was saying about staying healthy. All of our European guys are still here but most of the others got in their cars and headed home.  

“Mike Wagner, our Strength and Conditioning coach, has been sending information out to the guys with tips on what they can be doing around the house because now they can’t even go to a local gym since they are all closed,” continued Helmer. “I’m sure most guys have something in their basement or garage to work out on, so they should be OK.” 

“The players will continue to be paid until the end of the regular season, whatever that date might be, because that’s what the NHL Players’ Association came up with,” continued Helmer. “As far as the playoffs, the money for the players has improved over the years for both the NHL and AHL because the NHL has put money in the AHL pool so the longer you go the better the money gets. We’re all in the same position and are just trying to make the right decisions for everybody and be ready to go when we get the word.” 

When told that in the AHL’s early years if players got a couple hundred dollars from the playoffs they didn’t have to get an off-season job, he laughed and admitted, “My first playoff check in 1995, after taxes, was about $5,300 and I was expecting $10,000.” 

As to what the future looks like for the AHL, Helmer replied, “I assume every team will be back, other than the change in San Antonio. I’m just hoping everyone will be OK, not only in the immediate future but for next season too. Everyone here in Hershey is staying positive through all of this despite the state’s mandates that are certainly affecting the Hershey enterprises.” 

Helmer made his pro debut with the Albany River Rats in 1993 helping the club to his first Calder Cup championship in 1995 and later spent two seasons with the Bears (2008-10), where he captained the club to back-to-back Calder Cup championships. He completed his 20-year professional playing career in Springfield, retiring in 2013 in third place all-time with 1,117 regular-season games played, and first among AHL defensemen with 435 assists and 564 points.

He also played more postseason games (159) than anyone in AHL history, including seven trips to the conference finals winning three Calder Cups. Those stats led to his 2017 induction into the AHL Hall of Fame.

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