Sunday, August 1, 2010

AHL Veteran Bryan Helmer talks with The Voice of Sport

Photo by Kathryn Hedrick
There are many ways to describe the American Hockey League's Hershey Bears and their 2009-2010 season; amazing, outstanding, and remarkable quickly come to mind, but perhaps the best phrase to sum up the year is record setting. The Bears set AHL records this season for most wins in a season (60), consecutive home victories (24), home wins (34), and overtime victories in the Calder Cup Playoffs (8). They also set several new franchise marks with 123 points in the regular season, a 12-game winning streak, 26 victories on the road, and a record setting 380,791 Hershey fans witnessed all of their accomplishments. To complete their season, the Bears won their second consecutive Calder Cup, the eleventh in franchise history (another league record).

At the center of all the action again this season was Hershey Bears captain Bryan Helmer. Having just completed his second year in Hershey, and his 16th in the AHL, Helmer is on the verge of several accomplishments himself; he is 18 games away from his 1,000th AHL game and next season he will become the all-time points leader among AHL defencemen. His 393 assists are the most by a defenceman in the league, and his 513 career points leaves him six behind the current all-time leader, John Slaney (519).

“You look at our team, and we had most of the guys back from the year before when we won the Calder Cup, and obviously, losing Chris Bourque at the start of the year and then getting him back helped out a lot. Guys knew how to win - we believed in each other; it is probably the closest team I have ever been on,” Helmer said on the telephone from his summer home.

“Every night that we went on the ice, we knew we could win and we wanted to win. I think that is a good combination; when you believe in yourself and you believe in each other, most nights you are going to win, and that is exactly what we did. It was a lot of fun.”

Having that belief in each other and the friendships formed on the 2010 Bears team created an incredible chemistry during their record setting season. While we often hear about “team chemistry”, there is no doubt it has a positive effect on a sports team. Having fun at the rink every night can lift a team from good to great. As the defending Calder Cup champions heading into the season, one could say it lifted the Bears from great to greatest.

“I’ll give you an example,” Helmer explained. “I have been on three Calder Cup teams and all three teams have been the closest teams. I always say it is like having brothers, that’s how tight we were; the last two years I could probably be the father of most of these guys (Helmer laughs). You’d go through the boards for your teammates and when you have that, it really does help a lot. It’s fun to be at the rink, it’s fun to be around the guys. There was not one guy on the team this year that I wouldn’t have over to my house for supper. When you have that type of chemistry and the coach does a good job with it, it's scary what you can do - it’s a good example of what we did the last two years.”

Besides talented players, many great coaches have been behind the bench in Hershey. Long-time AHL coach Bruce Boudreau won a Calder Cup in Hershey and he has become one of the top coaches in the NHL with the Washington Capitals. Bob Woods took over from Boudreau and brought another Calder Cup home to Hershey; Woods is now an assistant coach with the Capitals. For the 2009-2010 season, Woods’ assistant coach, Mark French took over the reigns in Hershey and continued the winning ways. Helmer was impressed with the work French did behind the bench and thought the transition from assistant to head coach was a smooth one.

“I think Mark did a great job. He had a lot of pressure coming off a Calder Cup championship team (in 2009), and it was his first AHL job as a head coach. There was a lot of pressure on him and he handled it excellent - he did the right things. He let the guys in the dressing room, run the dressing room, and if we had problems, we tried to take care of it ourselves and if not, then we went to him. Like I said though, there wasn't too many problems this year.”

Sometimes lost in the headlines and marketing campaigns that proclaim that hockey is “Canada’s game”, is the fact that the game is alive and well in many US markets. The fans in Hershey, Pennsylvania are second to none in the AHL; they are extremely knowledgeable about the intricacies of the game and they are extremely passionate about their Bears.

“The last few years they have been right at the top (in attendance), and they were again this year. It is almost like an NHL city; you can’t go anywhere without somebody noticing you,” said Helmer. “During the regular season, I think the building fits, 10,500 or 10,800 and almost every game you are playing in front of that. They expect you to win every night too. They expect a lot out of you, but that’s kind of a good pressure too, it makes you want to perform every night, every shift that you are on the ice. You look at the final game, Game 6, and there were 11,000 people in that building and I had goose bumps. They are very passionate and they want to have a winning team there.”

During the 2010 NHL Stanley Cup Final, one story that grabbed the headlines was Chris Pronger and the “Puck-Gate” controversy. Perhaps for the first time, hockey fans were watching to see who had the puck at the end of a game. With that in mind, I could not help but notice in the last game of the Calder Cup Final that the puck was on Bryan Helmer’s stick as the clock struck zero. As a friend and a fan of the AHL veteran, it struck me as very appropriate that the Hershey captain was in possession of the puck as he won his third Calder Cup.

“It was funny, there was probably about ten seconds left and I had the puck in my corner and I remember looking up, the crowd was going crazy. The next thing I know, I look over and guys are coming off the bench and I was like, there’s still five seconds left! By that time though, it was over and it’s ‘let the celebration begin’. What a big thrill it was for me to do it in front of our home fans; it hasn’t been done in almost 30 years there and obviously to have my family there, it was pretty special.”

The run to their second consecutive Calder Cup this season was not without its challenges. One of the biggest hurdles to overcome was the lengthy breaks between several of the playoff rounds. The chemistry and friendships on the Bears propelled the team to their ultimate goal, and their confidence in each other helped set the AHL record with eight overtime victories during the playoffs. As team captain, Helmer also received some advice from an influential fan.

“I think we figured out that there was almost over a month of breaks in total through the playoffs; going from the semi-final to the final, there was thirteen days off, and that really hurt us,” confided Helmer. “Guys actually went home for three or four days in between. The guys going home like that gave them a little taste of home and then they came back that much hungrier.”

“We went down 2-0, we lost both games against Texas in the Finals at home and I think a lot of people wrote us off. We looked at it as - we kept getting better. The first game we weren’t very good, the second game we played better but they got a crazy bounce for the winning goal. I actually talked with Ray Bourque (Ray’s son Chris plays on the Bears), after Game 2 and kind of got his opinion on some stuff. He said I think it would be a good time to do a team meeting, just myself as a captain, grab the guys after the pre-game skate in Game 3 and kind of point guys out and say let’s play with more confidence. We knew we could beat them, it was just a matter of starting to get the bounces going our way.”

“Then we go out in the first period in Game 3 and we’re down 3-1. It was funny though because in between the first and second, we knew we were going to win; not one guy was getting excited in between the periods, everyone was really positive and obviously we went out and proved that. From there on, we just knew we were going to win. It was a really good feeling and every guy had that exact same feeling. It was a lot of fun and a good experience to go through something like that.”

A big fan of the game himself, I asked Bryan if having an all-star NHL defenceman like Ray Bourque cheering on the Bears was a source of inspiration for the team.

Photo by Kathryn Hedrick
“When a guy like Ray Bourque pulls you aside, it’s pretty cool to get his opinion and pick his brain too,” said Helmer. “You know, I've been through a lot too, but that’s how nice a guy he is - he likes giving advice to the guys and obviously he loves the game. To have him around was pretty sweet for myself and every guy on the team.”

Hershey had an abundance of talent on their roster this season; with players like Alexandre Giroux and Keith Aucoin at the top of the AHL in scoring during the regular season and the playoffs, and Chris Bourque was the MVP in the Calder Cup Final. World Junior Gold medalist John Carlson also emerged as an NHL calibre defenceman in his rookie season with the Bears. I asked Helmer to share his thoughts about some of his other teammates too.

“You look at those four players and then you look at a guy like Karl Alzner, he and Carlson should be in Washington - they are two elite players in the AHL and they are going to be good NHL players too, or you look at a guy like Neuvirth (goaltender Michal Neuvirth). I remember going back in Game 6, he made a save and he was laughing about it, he was like, don’t worry guys, we’ve got this game won; you could see the confidence in him. There’s a guy that should get a chance in Washington, he’s got a good future ahead of him.”

“Then you have guys like Mathieu Perreault, you could go down the list... A guy like Greg Amadio - he didn’t play every game in the playoffs but was a big part of our team, blocking shots when he’d get a chance in a game; he played a big part in our dressing room. Someone that really stepped up was Andrew Joudrey, and Andrew Gordon too, two guys that you wouldn’t expect, that are pretty quiet guys, started to take on a different type of role, where they said stuff in the dressing room - a leadership role. It just trickled down, it was amazing, and there were different guys at different times. When you have that kind of chemistry and different guys step up in your dressing room, it leads onto the ice. A guy like Boyd Kane too, he’s been through this before as a captain on two Calder Cup teams.”

“For myself, I had a lot of guys that could easily have been the captain on our team, it made my job a lot easier,” Helmer said with a laugh.

A free agent this summer, Helmer intends to continue his hockey career. He has spoken with the Bears about a return to Hershey, but he realizes that they have to assess the organization before they begin talking about a new contract. An important factor for Helmer is his family. A dedicated father and husband, getting a contract done soon will allow the family time to prepare for the upcoming school year.

“I am hoping (to return to Hershey), they said they still have an interest but nothing’s been done yet. Obviously, they are trying to get their big players signed. I told them that I would like to play another year there, or another two, but I guess we’ll see. If not, I’ll try to catch on with another team because I am close to breaking the all-time defenceman scoring record and I’m eighteen games away from a thousand, which would be pretty cool in the AHL. I still have the passion to play.”

“This part is kind of hard you know, the waiting around,” said Helmer. “Once you sign somewhere, or I sign in Hershey, we have to get back there towards the end of August, which doesn’t give us much time. Like I said, I still love the game and I still love to play; I want to play forever if I could!”

With that, we wrapped up our conversation about Bryan’s thoughts on the 2010 Hershey Bears and their second consecutive Calder Cup title. When he said he would play forever if he could, I let him know that all of his fans would watch him forever too if we could. A talented player and a great role model, when his playing career does conclude, Bryan will have one more stop on his hockey journey; joining the other hockey legends in the American Hockey League’s Hall of Fame.

Thanks to Bryan for sharing some of his time with The Voice of Sport - it is always a great conversation, very enlightening and inspirational! Look for more of my conversation with Bryan, as we discuss concussions in hockey in the August edition of Main Street. It will be posted here at TVOS on August 11th.

*A very special and a huge THANK YOU goes out to Kathryn Hedrick (khedrick301 on Flickr.com), for sharing her wonderful photos of Bryan with The Voice of Sport.com. To see more of her amazing photo work, drop by her page on Flickr.com. Thanks again Kathryn! http://www.flickr.com/photos/khedrick301/

4 comments:

tfirey said...

Helmer is such a mensch -- I really hope we get him back here in Hershey for another year or two. I also think he'd make a pretty good bench boss once his skating days are over.

Anonymous said...

The last couple of weeks I have had the honour of playing some pickup hockey with Bryan on our Westport old Ducks team, what a great guy! what a great hockey player!
why wasn't anybody sign him yet?

R. Dixon

The Voice of Sport said...

I agree 100%!! He is a great guy - I got to spend some time with the Helmer family when Bryan had the Calder Cup in August. It's a memory I will never forget!!

The AHL has a limit on the number of veteran players on each roster. That's what is keeping Bryan on the sidelines for now... Once AHL camps get going and teams evaluate what they have, I am sure his phone will be ringing.

There is no doubt though, it's a tough spot to be in for a guy that will be in the AHL Hall of Fame someday...

Tell Bryan I say hi if you meet up with him again - and thanks for visiting the site and taking time to leave a comment :)

Anonymous said...

Great article! Helmer provided stability on and off the ice and will be missed. It was a little disconcerning to watch the Bears last night and not see him on the ice.