Friday, August 27, 2010

Montreal Alouettes face first test with injury to Anthony Calvillo...

This article was first published in the August 27th edition of Main Street Week and is reprinted here with permission from the editors. Drop by Main Street Week News to have a look at a great community newspaper or sign up and have Main Street Week delivered right to your inbox every Friday.

There were a few anxious moments for fans of the Montreal Alouettes last Thursday evening in the team’s 39-17 victory over the Winnipeg Blue Bombers. In a hard-hitting sport like football, sometimes it is not the impact of a hit that leads to an injury, it is how you fall. That was the case for Montreal QB and CFL all-star Anthony Calvillo; sacked by the Bombers defence, he fell awkwardly and was unable to continue in the game.

After lying on the field for several minutes after the hit, Calvillo attempted to walk to the sidelines under his own power. Unable to make it off the field without assistance, he was taken to hospital and diagnosed with a bruised sternum. The Alouettes do not play again until September 3rd and will not update his status until today (Friday), so until they make an announcement, it is unknown if he will miss any action. While the injury is serious, luckily, it was not a dislocated shoulder, broken bone, or a concussion, so it is quite possible that the defending CFL Most Outstanding Player will be on the field next week when the struggling BC Lions arrive in Montreal.

While it is never a good thing to see a player of Calvillo’s calibre out of the lineup for any amount of time, the injury could be a blessing in disguise for the Alouettes. Like it or not, someday the team (and its fans) will have to prepare for life without the 38-year-old quarterback; any game time for the backup QB’s will be beneficial for the overall health of the franchise in the future. During his time with the Alouettes, Calvillo has missed only a handful of games, which is one of the many reasons why he is considered the heart and soul of the team, but this has left current backup quarterbacks, Adrian McPherson and Chris Leak, with only a handful of appearances on the field.

In his third season with Montreal, McPherson has completed 50 of his 75 pass attempts for 507 yards in his CFL career and hit the end zone for seven touchdowns. As for Chris Leak, after a shaky start as Calvillo’s replacement, he settled in to stabilize the offence and secure the victory over Winnipeg. Leak is playing his second season with Montreal, but as McPherson’s backup, his CFL experience is very limited. In his career, he has completed 19 of 28 passes for 149 yards and one touchdown.

The Alouettes are heavily favoured to win the East Division and the Grey Cup, but with the resurgence of the Toronto Argonauts and Hamilton Tiger-Cats this season, the crystal ball gets a little hazy if Calvillo misses any significant time due to his injury. However, if the past is any indication, Calvillo will do all that he can to be in the game on September 3rd.

To wrap up this week's Main Street column, there is some good news from the world of baseball: Congratulations to former Montreal Expos outfielder and New Brunswick native Matt Stairs. At 42-years-young, Stairs set a record last weekend with his 21st career pinch-hit home run. He made his debut with the Expos in 1992 and is currently a member of the San Diego Padres. While he is no longer an “every day” player, his experience and abilities at the plate are tremendous assets for any manager. The Padres are the 12th team Stairs has played for during his career (another MLB record), and if the Padres remain in first place in the West Division, Stairs will be off to the post-season again, hoping to add another World series ring to his 2008 Championship with the Philadelphia Phillies. His prowess as a pinch-hitter led to a popular t-shirt during his time in Philadelphia, which stated, “In Case of Emergency, Use the Stairs.”

Have a great sports day everyone.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

It is Time to Support Canada's National Basketball Program!

The preliminary round at the World Basketball Championship gets underway on August 28th in Turkey, and it is time for Canadian hoop fans to rally around their national team. After a very disappointing turnout at several exhibition games in Vancouver and Toronto, it is becoming clear that the national team is not on the radar of sports fans in this country and that is a shame. Whatever the sport, when our national colours are worn with pride, we should be cheering for our men and women, regardless of the sport or the outcome.

I will be the first to admit, for the past several years I have not been an avid NBA or basketball fan. During my time in Vancouver, I watched with great excitement as the Vancouver Grizzlies arrived in town. Watching games live and on television, buying merchandise, reading every bit of news in the sports pages, I could not get enough, the NBA had come to Canada and I was thrilled. The Grizzlies and the Toronto Raptors signified that Canada was more then just a hockey country and many expected basketball to grow as a sport in our country. After all, when you drive down any suburban street, there is often one or two hoops at the end of a driveway or on a garage and having two NBA teams gave young Canadian players the opportunity to dream about making the NBA and playing in their own country.

Handcuffed by the NBA’s decision to keep the top five draft selections away from Toronto and Vancouver during their early years, the Grizzlies struggled on the court. More often then not, they were on the losing end of each game and became a bit of a joke around town. The losses began to affect the fan base and the attendance dropped slightly, as one would expect when a team is at the bottom of the standings year after year. The decision to relocate the team came too quickly in my opinion, the NBA gave up on a market (and a beautiful city), that could have been one of the crown jewels of the NBA.

With only the Raptors left as “Canada’s Team”, it is difficult to promote the game as a national sport. No disrespect to the Raptors, but after living in various parts of Canada over the years, right or wrong, some folks just do not like Toronto. Newspapers in Canada rarely contain articles pertaining to the Raptors and will often focus on the NBA elite, like the Lakers and the Celtics. There are probably more Laker fans in Canada then Raptor fans at this point because of their higher profile in the North American media.

Almost two years ago now, I found myself living in Toronto for 14 months, and I discovered Eric Smith and Paul Jones on the Fan 590 radio station. They are the radio voices for the Raptors’ broadcasts and their passion for the sport is contagious. Listening to their broadcasts, as well as Eric’s show “The Game Plan” (which he co-hosted with TSN basketball analyst Jack Armstrong until recently), my passion for basketball was renewed. While I would not call myself the biggest Raptors fan, thanks to these three men, I can call myself a basketball fan once again. Which brings me back to my main point - it is time for Canadians to support our national basketball program.

I read a comment recently from a sports fan, regarding the NHL’s involvement in the 2014 Olympics. I cannot remember where I saw it, but it went something like this - “I hope the NHL players are in the next Olympics, I don’t want to watch a bunch of ECHL or AHL guys playing there”. While that is just one comment, it reflects an underlying theme when it comes to the national basketball team in Canada - will Steve Nash be on the team, if he is not, then I don’t care...

Is that how far our national pride extends? If the flash and dazzle of the millionaire players are not included, then sports fans stop waving the Canadian flag? Until the NBA is filled with Canadian players, the national program should be left to die on the vine? That is a shame - if we love basketball and our country, we must show our support to the young men wearing our national colours with pride in Turkey.

You can follow Eric Smith and Paul Jones on Twitter - and Eric has a great basketball blog on the Fan 590 website. If you are looking for great insight and in-depth analysis, I highly recommend checking these guys out! Drop by the national team’s website, or follow their progress in the World Championships at the FIBA site.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

The Fan 590's Bryan Calhoun has Got Game - Do You?

This article was first published in the August 20th edition of Main Street Week and is reprinted here with permission from the editors. Drop by Main Street Week News to have a look at a great community newspaper or sign up and have Main Street Week delivered right to your inbox every Friday.

From the arcades of the seventies and early eighties, to the high definition, multi-purpose systems of today, the gaming industry has witnessed astounding growth in recent years. As part of the “Atari Generation” of the 1980’s, the first time I played a hockey video game, it involved two stick figures shooting a dot back and forth. When I picked up a controller again on a Sony PlayStation 2 in 2004, I was shocked to see my favourite teams and players in all their glory; it was almost as good as the real thing.

Every week, Bryan Calhoun, along with Zack Cooper, Momin Qureshi, and Ken Rodney host Got Game on Toronto sports station, the Fan 590. On the show, they explore the world of gaming from several angles; game reviews, industry news, and interviews with game designers. It is an extremely entertaining and informative show, even for the casual game player.

“In this technological age, the four of us have always been interested in gadgets and stuff like that,” explained Calhoun on the telephone from Toronto. “When we first started the show, we thought - this is how the industry was, but when you show up at the meetings or press events, you get a better look. You see a level that no one would think to look at, or even imagine is there until you are actually knee deep in that world.”

From its early days, the gaming industry has evolved into a multi-billion dollar industry that reaches around the globe, and sports games are a large part of the overall market. The newer systems allow users to surf the Internet, watch movies, or take their game playing skills online; challenging their friends down the street or friends on the other side of the world. What has fuelled this ever-expanding industry?

“I think society has always been interested in entertainment,” said Calhoun. “It’s like, why do we like TV or why do we like radio? We want to be entertained and video games are a form of entertainment. In fact, it is more of an interactive form of entertainment but the premises are the same, and that makes video games unique in my mind. I see video games as another way to tell a story.”

The companies producing sports games feature professional athletes in their marketing and they change the “cover” athlete on a yearly basis (EA Sports Hockey or Madden Football for example), while some games will rely on the name-brand recognition of one specific athlete, which is the case with EA’s Tiger Woods Golf. The recent difficulties of Tiger Woods are well known, and John Madden, a former NFL coach and announcer, recently retired from the broadcast booth; will this slow the sales of their games? Is there a risk involved in relying on one specific athlete to promote a game?

“I had always been of the opinion that the athlete on the cover does not matter, but that was before we started Got Game. Many people idolize John Madden and we tie or relationship with the game to that person. I do think that if you are really that into Tiger Woods, John Madden, Drew Brees, or whoever it is, and those guys do something monumentally unfound; then yeah, I think a portion of society will no longer wish to be associated with them. There are also parents as well, that might not want their kids associated with that person. Does it affect it, yes - does it affect the entire market, no.”

Whether you are a casual or fanatical game player, you will not want to miss Got Game every Saturday on the Fan 590. If you are not in the Toronto area, you can also listen online or check out the show’s podcast and blog at Fan590.com. A special thanks to Bryan for sharing some time with Main Street and shedding some light on this expanding industry. Have a great sports day everyone.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Bryan Helmer, The Voice of Sport, and the Calder Cup!

Through my work as a sports columnist, I have been very blessed to speak with some wonderful folks in the sports world. The first time I interviewed AHL veteran Bryan Helmer, I was immediately struck by his passion for the game of hockey and his dedication to his family and friends. As I have gotten to know him through our telephone conversations and emails, I have realized that there are still role models in the world of sports - and Bryan is certainly at the top of the list!

When he mentioned he would be bringing the Calder Cup to his favourite pizza restaurant in Chesterville, Ontario, which is close to my home in Ottawa, I asked if it would be ok to drop by and take some pictures for TVOS. Bryan displayed his generosity yet again and off we went... Along with my wife and ED, my good friend and Editor at The Voice of Sport, we hit the road for Chesterville.

Expecting a large public event, I was in full “reporter mode” - but to my surprise, the party with the Calder Cup had occurred the night before and Bryan had invited us to a special dinner with the Helmer family. Sitting down to enjoy a meal with Bryan and his family is an evening that I will never forget. As we shared stories and enjoyed some great food at Louis’ Restaurant, part of hockey history sat next to us - the Calder Cup!!

Bryan arrives with the Calder Cup!
Photo by Dianne Rodger (Mrs. TVOS)
A huge THANK YOU to Bryan, his wife Pam, and the Helmer family, for allowing us to join them on such a special evening. It was a once in a lifetime experience for me, and to be able to share in Bryan’s special day with the Calder Cup is a memory I will cherish forever!!
Bryan with the Calder Cup
Photo by ED
The Calder Cup
Photo by ED

The Voice of Sport with Bryan and the Cup!
Photo by ED
The Voice of Sport and ED explore the history on the Calder Cup
Photo by Dianne Rodger

The Voice of Sport and ED with the Calder Cup
Photo by Dianne Rodger

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Concussions in Hockey: AHL Veteran Bryan Helmer shares his thoughts

This article first appeared in the August 2010 edition of Main Street and is reprinted here with permission of the editors. Drop by http://www.mainstreetweeknews.com/ to have a look at a great community newspaper.

Photo by Kathryn Hedrick
In an effort to raise awareness of a serious injury at the professional and amateur level, I have discussed the growing crisis of concussions in sport in my recent Main Street Week columns. To help shed some light on the topic, I have reached out to several of my contacts to talk about the issue in their sport. This month, American Hockey League veteran Bryan Helmer shares some of his thoughts about concussions in hockey with The Voice of Sport. Bryan started his AHL career with the Albany River Rats in 1994 and this season he will play his 1,000th AHL game. He spent the last two years with the Hershey Bears, winning back-to-back Calder Cup championships.

“I remember at the start of my career, getting your ‘bell rung’ pretty good, you would just keep playing,” recalled Helmer. “Nowadays, if anyone even says they have a headache after a game, they get at least a week off. There is definitely more awareness now then when I first started.”

Besides a newfound awareness amongst the players, equipment manufacturers are working to find solutions to this problem too, with new helmet technology and changes to the existing equipment. The professional leagues are attempting to establish guidelines for dealing with head injuries, and many players are becoming proactive when it comes to their own health.

“A lot of guys in Hershey are wearing a mouth guard,” said Helmer. “They make these mouth guards now that are supposed to prevent concussions. A lot of guys live by it; they have said they’ve been hit hard and if not for these mouth guards, they would probably have gotten a concussion. A guy on our team has had a couple of serious concussions, he wears one and he also wears a protective helmet. He’d tell me that there were days when he would have to go sit in his bedroom and it would have to be pitch-black during the day, that’s a tough life.”

“Most guys I think, if they could get a good hit, they would probably hit a guy. There are a few that might get the elbow up but I think most of the guys are not trying to end someone’s career. They are just trying to get that big hit. The leagues are trying to bring different equipment in to see if that will help, and I think a big thing is going to be these mouth guards. I tell any of the young guys coming in that maybe they should wear one.”

Like most athletes, hockey players are competitive by nature and they hate to be on the sidelines when they could be on the ice helping their teammates. I asked Bryan if players worry that they are letting the team down by admitting that they cannot play because of a concussion.

“You know, in probably 90% of the hockey players, it is exactly that way; they would play through it. That’s just our mentality. You feel guilty, you want to be on the ice and you want to help your team out. No one wants to watch their team play.”

“It is hard for the trainers sometimes to see how you are feeling, you know your own body,” Helmer explained. “For a guy like me, if I see one of my teammates get hurt with a concussion I tell them to take their time to come back. It’s your career; it’s your life, come back when you are ready. Most teams now are aware of it (concussions), and let you take your time to get back.”

While it is difficult to eliminate head injuries in a high-impact sport like hockey, a new awareness has everyone involved working towards a solution, which ultimately, will help professional and amateur hockey players stay healthy. Have a great sports day everyone - and remember to have fun, but play safe.

Thanks again to Bryan for sharing his time with Main Street and The Voice of Sport - If you missed it, take a look at our recent conversation from earlier this month: TVOS and Bryan Helmer

Photo by Kathryn Hedrick - Check out her other great pictures on Flickr.com: http://www.flickr.com/photos/khedrick301/ Thanks Kathryn!

Monday, August 9, 2010

Arencibia, Morrow, and Bautista grab National Headlines this Weekend

The Toronto Blue Jays captured the top spot on sports updates throughout North America several times this weekend, as the Jays swept past the Tampa Bay Rays in a three game series. In a self-proclaimed rebuilding season, where very little is expected of them, capturing the attention of baseball fans across the continent is no small feat. With a win/loss record that now stands at 59-52, the Jays can already call this season a success; the breakout performances by several players this weekend is icing on the cake.

Blue Jays fans that listen to the radio broadcasts of Toronto's games on the Fan 590 are familiar with Jerry Howarth's call when the Jays get on the board, proclaiming that the Jays are in flight. On Saturday, fans in the stands, listening on the radio, or watching on Sportsnet saw the entire team take flight, as the Blue Jays scored 17 runs on 20 hits, both season highs; hitting eight home runs was the second most in one game in the franchise's history. Another aspect of the game that caught every baseball fan’s attention, was witnessing the career of J.P. Arencibia begin its flight; what heights it reaches is anyone's guess.

Selected by the Jays in the first round of the 2007 amateur draft, Arencibia made his MLB debut on Saturday behind the plate at the Rogers Centre. While great things are expected of the Jays’ top catching prospect, no one predicted his 4 for 5 performance; accomplished with Jose Bautista’s bat in his hand. A home run on the first pitch he faced at the MLB level, along with a single, double and another home run (Arencibia is projected to hit 104 home runs if he continued this pace for a full season). He also scored three runs and drove in three RBI’s in his debut. Two other Jays hit home runs in their first at-bat - Alvis Woods hit one on April 7, 1977 and Junior Felix did the same on May 4, 1989. The Elias Sports Bureau reported after the game that Arencibia is the first player since 1900 to have four hits and two home runs in his MLB debut.

Blue Jay fans clamoured for Arencibia to make an unscheduled start on Sunday after his strong showing on Saturday, and Cito Gaston was the target of criticism for leaving him on the bench in favour of veteran catcher Jose Molina. One of the worst mistakes a manager can make in baseball is reactionary coaching; it is a 162-game schedule and while fans often see the season as a game-to-game process, managers must look at the overall picture. Gaston made the right decision starting Molina. It is difficult to make the jump from Triple-A to the Majors; not only is the talent better, there is more media responsibilities as well.

Gaston’s decision to let Arencibia sit on Sunday and take it all in will better serve the young man in the end. His first game was one to remember, let him get acquainted with life in the majors. Had he played and gone hitless on Sunday, everyone would be blaming Gaston for not giving him the day off... There is no doubt Arencibia is talented - just do not expect this kind of performance every day. The plate appearances he accumulates from now until the end of the season will better prepare him for his new life as the everyday catcher next season.

...And - the decision by Gaston to keep Brandon Morrow with his favourite catcher (Molina) on Sunday, proved to be a wise choice on several fronts. I am sure that at this point, everyone is aware of Morrow’s 17 strikeout, one hitter against the Rays in the first complete game shutout of his career. A base hit with two outs in the ninth inning by Evan Longoria spoiled the no-hitter, but Morrow’s 17 K’s was second-best in the history of the franchise; one behind Roger Clemens’ record of 18 (August 25, 1998). With his 137-pitch effort on Sunday, Morrow pitched the 19th one-hitter in Jays’ history - Dave Stieb remains the only Blue Jay to pitch a no-hitter.

For those that wondered if Longoria’s hit off the glove of Aaron Hill should have been scored an error, the answer is no... Hill made a valiant effort to get anywhere near the ball in an attempt to preserve the no-hit bid, which gave fans hope the play might be called an error. As heartbreaking as it was, there is no doubt Longoria had a hit. Regardless, it was a tremendous effort by Morrow that had fans on the edge of their seats all afternoon.

One other Blue Jays’ record was reached on the weekend as well - Jose Bautista has hit a home run in 10 consecutive series, reaching a mark set by Carlos Delgado in 2001. Bautista can set the new franchise mark with a home run against the Boston Red Sox...

Friday, August 6, 2010

August 12th, 1994 - The Worst Day in Montreal Expos History?

This article was first published in the August 6th edition of Main Street Week and is reprinted here with permission from the editors. Drop by http://www.mainstreetweeknews.com/ to have a look at a great community newspaper or sign up and have Main Street Week delivered right to your inbox every Friday.

Fans of the Montreal Expos spent many years riding the highs and lows of their beloved franchise. The glory days of Andre Dawson, Tim Raines and Gary Carter, the perfect game thrown by Dennis Martinez in 1991, or the pain of a 1981 playoff loss known as “Blue Monday”. We witnessed the emergence of a new generation of stars in the early nineties, as well as the financial struggles that ultimately led to the franchise’s departure to Washington at the end of the 2004 season. One day in particular stands out in my mind as the worst day in Expos history - August 12th, 1994.

There were no heartbreaking losses that day, no home runs to win the game, or stellar pitching performances silencing the Montreal bats. In fact, nothing happened at all that day; it was the first day of a 232-day work stoppage in the MLB. It was a bitter and lengthy labour battle, which in my opinion, eventually cost the city of Montreal their baseball team.

The strike forced the cancellation of the World Series for the first time since 1904 and there was talk of using replacement players in 1995 if the strike had not been resolved in time for that season to begin as planned. Teams returned to action for a shortened, 144-game season in 1995, but baseball fans voiced their displeasure by staying away from the ballpark. The Mark McGwire/Sammy Sosa home run race in 1998 brought some fans back to the game, but they did not know at the time that performance-enhancing drugs fuelled the chase to break the single-season home run record. The Montreal Expos franchise never fully recovered from the World Series that did not happen, and neither did their fans.

After rebuilding their team in the late eighties and early nineties, the Montreal Expos assembled one of their greatest teams in 1994, under the guidance of one of the best managers in baseball, Felipe Alou. Think back for a moment on who was on that team... Larry Walker, Marquis Grissom, and Moises Alou patrolled the outfield at the Olympic Stadium. Mike Lansing, Cliff Floyd, Sean Berry, and Will Cordero guarded the infield. Ken Hill and Pedro Martinez anchored a young pitching staff; John Wetteland and Mel Rojas silenced the opposition bats when they came out of the bullpen. A remarkable group of talent, and the day the strike began, the Expos were first in their division and possessed the best win/loss record in all of baseball.

The Toronto Blue Jays had won the World Series in 1992 and 1993, and the Expos were heavily favoured to win the title in 1994, which would have been the third year in a row that a Canadian team ruled America’s sport; but it never happened. Perhaps the greatest team in Expos history, the 1994 squad never got their chance to call themselves World Champions. So, on August 12th, raise a glass in memory of the Montreal Expos; they may have become the Washington Nationals in 2005, but it is on this day that the moving vans started warming up their engines. Have a great sports day everyone.

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/