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Oh Captain, My Captain

Bryan Helmer in action in Calder Cup Finals.
Bryan Helmer in action in Calder Cup Finals.
Photo: Chris Gluth

When Bryan Helmer signed an AHL contract with the Hershey Bears last summer, the general consensus was that it was a “depth signing”, and that Helmer, a 15-year veteran and four years removed from his last NHL stint, would spend the whole season in Chocolatetown, mentoring Hershey’s younger players before riding off into the setting sun.

However, the wily 36-year old Helmer, who last wore an NHL uniform for the “Desert Dogs”, the Phoenix Coyotes, in the 2003-2004 season, proved to be a valuable commodity in the 2008-09 season, not only for the Bears, who he captained to the Calder Cup, but also for the Washington Capitals, who utilized Helmer’s services for 12 games after a rash of injuries decimated their defensive corps.

For Helmer, who had called 11 different cities his hockey home before coming to Hershey, the 12th stop has been the most rewarding to date, both professionally and personally.

“This is by far the best hockey season I’ve ever had: to get back to the NHL, and have my son realize I was in the NHL, to be the captain of the Canadian All-Star team, and then to win the Calder Cup.”

“It’s the best feeling in the world to have my family see me play. My eight-year-old son really realizes what’s going on; not so much my four-year-old daughter, but we took a lot of video, so when she gets older, we can throw that in.”

The well-conditioned Helmer, a native of Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, who has already watched his hockey odometer roll over once when he eclipsed the 1,000 games played mark last season, remarkably appeared in all 22 of Hershey’s post-season contests, bringing his career total to 117, good for third place in league history, only six games behind Ken Gernander.

During the course of the recently concluded playoff season, Helmer moved up from 13th place in the rankings, surpassing former Bears Les Duff, Bob Solinger, Willie Marshall, John Stevens, Dennis Bonvie, and Mike Nykoluk.

“The body held up pretty good, actually. I have to give credit to Beaker (Bears trainer, Dan Stuck) and his staff. They did a good job on me, and I feel great. It’s incredible when you play for a franchise like this that expects you to win and puts that extra pressure on you. It’s a good feeling, and it’s even a better feeling when you win the Calder Cup.”

Known more for his dependable work in the defensive zone, Helmer pitched in with three timely goals in the Bears’ march to the cup; scoring a pair of goals when his team was down by a pair of goals (both games that Hershey eventually went on to win), and adding a last minute insurance goal in game three of the Providence series.

Bryan Helmer at Hershey Bears night at Harrisburg Senators game at Metro Bank Park on June 16.
Bryan Helmer at Hershey Bears night at Harrisburg Senators game at Metro Bank Park on June 16.
Photo: Kim Wolgemuth

At Hershey’s victory celebration on Saturday night at Giant Center, the Bears’ captain revealed to the fans that the club had a rallying cry amongst themselves all season long: E-L-E, for “Everybody Loves Everybody”, that contributed to their recipe for success.

“The guys in this dressing room, and the bond that we had between each guy, is amazing. It’s like one big family. That’s what you have to have when you win a championship. I’ve only had it twice, and I’ve won two Calder Cups with that.”

In a perfect example of what makes him such a wonderful leader, Helmer handed off a lot of the credit for the Calder Cup winning season, to his alternate captains who had previous Calder cup experience with the Chocolate and White: Graham Mink, Dean Arsene and Quintin Laing.

“Everyone kept asking me all year how I handled this team as the captain, but it was easy because I think there were probably five guys in that dressing room that could be the captain. I think they gave it to me because I was the oldest guy on the team,” joked Helmer.

“But seriously, those three guys were huge as far as helping me out; they are all winners. They made my job a lot easier because they’ve been through stuff like this before.”

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The Mayor Wins the Popular Vote Once Again

Dean Arsene defends against the Manitoba Moose in the Calder Cup Finals.

Dean Arsene defends against the Manitoba Moose in the Calder Cup Finals. Photo by Chris Gluth.

By virtue of his six seasons of patrolling the Hershey Bears’ blueline, defenseman, Dean Arsene, has the distinction of being the Chocolate and White’s longest-tenured player. One of the benefits that Arsene enjoys by holding that title is that he is in charge of the music played during warm-ups at Giant Center.

For a good portion of this past season, one of the songs selected by “DJ Deano” was AC/DC’s, “It’s a Long Way to the Top”, and if Arsene were to release his own disc to commemorate the Bears’ championship season, it would probably be titled “It’s a Long Way Back to the Top”.

The tough-as-nails 28 year-old rearguard, who appeared in only 14 games in 2007-08 while still trying to shake off the lingering effects of the sports-hernia surgery he underwent after the completion of the Bears’ loss to the Hamilton Bulldogs in the 2007 Calder Cup Finals, gutted out 46 regular season tilts as well as all 22 post-season contests to earn his second sip of champagne from the Calder Cup.

“After the disappointment of losing the second year, and for me personally to come back from my injuries that I’ve had to deal with, it’s very sweet, very special,” said Arsene, in comparing the two title-winning experiences.

“I don’t know if you can compare one to the other. They’re both special. The first year, we weren’t expected to win; we were kind of the Cinderella story. That was pretty incredible, especially since it was my first cup.”

Recognized for the fourth consecutive season in 2008-09 as Hershey’s nominee for the AHL’s Yanick Dupre Memorial Award, given to the AHL player who best honors the spirit of the former Bears’ off-ice charity work, Arsene was anything but charitable to the opposition in the recently concluded playoffs, finishing the post-season with a plus-10 rating, including an impressive plus-3 performance in the title clinching game.

While proving to be more than capable of keeping the Bears’ opponents at bay with his stellar work in his own zone, Arsene chipped in with a key assist on Alexandre Giroux’s game-tying third period goal in game three of the series with the Providence Bruins.

Even though Arsene had already enjoyed the thrill of being able to claim a Calder Cup on another team’s home ice when the Bears captured the Calder Cup in Milwaukee in 2006, he was perhaps even more jovial while watching the scoreboard clock click down in Manitoba.

“It was 3-1 with about a minute-and-a-half left, and Frenchie (Bears assistant coach, Mark French) threw me and Kronwall on the ice to try to weather the storm,” said Arsene. “When Aucoin scored the empty-netter, it was just jubilation. After he scored, I came on the bench and threw my helmet, threw my gloves in the stick rack, and I was just ready to jump on the ice. I was pretty pumped, and I think I jumped on with about five seconds left. I was just ecstatic.”

The man nicknamed “Mayor” for his enormous popularity with the Hershey fans and the surrounding community said the realization that he had another Calder Cup to add to his resume was still an on-going process.

“I think I’ll have to take time to digest this one,” said Arsene. “I didn’t really realize the first one until about mid-August, how incredible it was, and I think it will probably be the same this time.”

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Celebrating the Champs

Fans flocked to Giant Center Saturday night, not to see the 2008-09 Hershey Bears team take the ice, but to celebrate the club’s AHL record 10th Calder Cup victory over the Manitoba Moose on Friday night.

After each player was introduced individually by emcee, John Walton, the voice of the Bears, it was President/GM, Doug Yingst’s turn to take the podium. That evening, after he had introduced Pat Mathers, the wife of his mentor, the late Frank Mathers, and mentioning that the victory coincided with Frank and Pat’s 61st wedding anniversary, Yingst reflected on the bond between the Bears and their parent team and the relationship that has spawned three appearances in the Calder Cup finals in the past four seasons.

“It’s a marriage, a relationship between the organizations, between George McPhee and myself, that’s second to none. I can go back in the 80’s when we won 40 or more games four consecutive years with the Flyers, and the relationship with Bobby Clark was outstanding,” said Yingst.

The (Capitals’) philosophy is winning and developing; it’s not developing and winning. There is an instrumental difference in that. They believe that, and I’m a strong believer, ‘I’m in Hershey, I want to win’, so I think you can’t develop without winning. They agree with that, and we start tomorrow looking for next year.”

Though the celebration was for the fans to honor the hometown heroes, Yingst, in the latter part of his speech, let the fans know just how important a role they played in the team’s success.

“This fabled franchise, and I really mean this, is the envy of the other 28 teams of the American Hockey League. The envy is just not because we have great players, you’ve seen that we do, we have great coaches, great building, great trainers, good front office staff. The reason we’re the envy of the American Hockey League is because of you (the fans). You are the most passionate fans anywhere, in any sport.”

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2009 Calder Cup Champions

Even a hungry bear sometimes gets tired of the home cooking, and embarks on a road trip for a meal. On Friday night, the Hershey Bears, who failed to capture the Calder Cup on Tuesday night in their own den, the Giant Center, captured their league record 10th championship, feasting on the Manitoba Moose at MTS Centre, 4-1.

Hershey wasted little time taking the sellout crowd out of the game, getting an early goal from Andrew Gordon at 3:56 to take a 1-0 lead. Kyle Wilson and Chris Bourque provided the helper on the Gordon goal, his 6th of the playoffs.

Less than three minutes after the Gordon goal, Wilson also played playmaker on a goal by Bourque at 6:10, forcing a turnover that Bourque converted into his 5th goal of the post-season to give Hershey a 2-0 lead.

Alexandre Giroux, the AHL’s leading goal scorer and point producer in both the regular season and post-season, made it 3-0 at 11:16 of the 1st period, banking a shot off of the skate of Manitoba netminder, Cory Schneider, after a nifty deke.

Manitoba meandered back into the game midway through the 2nd period when Mario Bliznak beat Michal Neuvirth with a wrist shot from between the faceoff circles during a delayed penalty to Hershey captain, Bryan Helmer, to make it 3-1, Hershey.

Keith Aucoin, the league leader in assists during the playoffs, sealed the deal for the Chocolate and White, netting an empty net goal with only 21 seconds left in the game.

Neuvirth, who finished with 24 saves on the night to secure his 16th triumph of the playoffs, was awarded the Jack A. Butterfield Trophy as the MVP of the playoffs after the game.

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