HERSHEY, PA — After the Hershey Bears defeated the Hartford Wolf Pack 3-2 in overtime during Game One of the Atlantic Division Final, Connor McMichael — the author of that night’s game-tying goal and the team’s sometimes alternate captain — walked into the media room at Giant Center wearing a cocoa-colored shirt.
On the front, the Bears’ 2023 postseason shield adorned the pocket area of the chest along with the word “Choices” arced above it in yellow.
As a journalist with a lifelong passion for covering t-shirts and the more irreverent and personality-driven parts of hockey, I was curious what it meant to the players and how it first started.
Not only did I get answers on the shirt, but as I continued to probe, I stumbled upon more elements of what has made this year’s iteration of the Bears so extremely close-knit and fun — similar to the Capitals’ 2018 Stanley Cup championship team.
“Choices is just kind of our saying for playoffs,” McMichael, whose dirty goal in front of the net sparked the team’s overtime win, said. “Just ‘make good choices,’ you know? Always think about the team.”
The originator of the t-shirt was Bears bench boss Todd Nelson. He came up with the “Choices” mantra with about a month left in the regular season. Finishing the year with the AHL’s fourth-best record and as the Eastern Conference’s second seed, the Bears are a talented, versatile, and deep team, but sometimes Nelson felt his players weren’t doing all the little things necessary to win as the postseason approached.
“I was thinking one night, we weren’t paying the price at a certain time, you know?” Nelson said. “So I had a meeting with the guys and I said, ‘Everything’s a choice.’ It’s a choice for you to block the shot. It’s a choice for you to get pucks in deep. To play the right way, you have to make the right choices. That stuck and it’s our motto.”
Nelson would know. He has a championship pedigree, winning six titles during his illustrious career: one as a player, one as a player/assistant coach, one as an assistant coach, and three as a head coach. Nelson most recently won a ‘ship as head coach with the AHL’s Grand Rapids Griffins in 2017.
When I spoke to the players, Choices had a different meaning to each and every one one of them, but their answers held a similar theme.
“I think just buying in, every guy,” fourth-line forward Mason Morelli said. “It takes a full team. Twenty-five to thirty guys, everyone in that locker room pitches in.”
“You have so many choices throughout the game, you’re not going to always make the right ones, but just continue to play and move forward,” first-line forward Mike Vecchione said. “You have a choice to be a complete player out there. We went through a whole regular season but the postseason’s a different animal. [Todd Nelson] says you’ve got to make that choice to make that step and be an impact player. It has tons of meaning and I think everyone’s kind of embraced that.”
“It sounds a little cliche, but it’s buying in, it’s making the right play at the blue line, it’s something as little as that,” second-line winger Garrett Pilon said. “I think for us it’s just a word that resets us and gets us in the right mindset.”
Pilon added, “We have a lot of stuff on the back of our shirts that mean a lot to us, too.”
Wait, what? There’s a back?
After I did some begging and nagging, I was sent an image by a Hershey team representative.
The back of the shirt has a headline of WINNING IS NOT A PUZZLE. It then spells out BEARSCALDERCUP vertically using one letter from each of the following words: BOWBA BOW, ENERGY, ATTITUDE, HEART, FOCUS, SACRIFICE, FAMILY, HOLDMAXXXX, DETAILS, BELIEVE, RAWWR, CHOICES, UNITY, and CHAMPIONSHIP.
Most of these words are self-explanatory even to the cursory hockey fan like heart, focus, sacrifice, and family. But there are some where I had obvious questions. For instance, what is a BOWBA BOW?
To find out the answer, I was told to reach out to one of the greatest Maryland-born hockey players of all time, Sam Anas.
Growing up in Potomac, MD, Anas was a Capitals fan growing up and played for the Washington Little Capitals in midget. Years later, Anas, as a member of the Minnesota Wild organization, led the AHL in points with the Iowa Wild in 2019-20 before signing a one-year AHL contract with the Bears for the 2022-23 season. For this article, though, I needed to lean on Sam to explain a talent I didn’t know he had: deejaying.
“I’ve always enjoyed music,” Anas replied. “Whether it’s around my place or whatever, I feel like I’m always listening to music, whether it’s country or some remixes or house music.”
After filling the role for the Springfield Thunderbirds during the 2021-22 season, Anas was given the figurative (or literal) aux cord from Mike Sgarbossa who handled the responsibilities for Hershey the year before. When I asked other Bears’ players to give an evaluation of Sam’s Hockey Tiesto’ing of the room, they got that twinkle in their eye.
“He’s a great DJ,” Mason Morelli said with one of those big smiles that made me think the team found him to be a godsend.
“He’s phenomenal,” Beck Malenstyn said. “Top tier. Sam has the right music going all the time. You can get into a good headspace, feeling good going out on the ice. I’m a big fan of those remixes like longer mashups of songs. I don’t know if there’s any like given one song that pops out to me because they all just kinda blend together.”
“That’s what makes him so good,” Morelli interjected. “He’s got a lot of variety.”
When Anas missed part of the regular season due to injury, McMichael took the reigns as Team DJ. I asked Morelli how he’d rank the Capitals’ top prospect.
“Uh, he’s a close second,” Morelli said laughing. “I don’t think anyone is going to take the cake from Sam.”
“There were a couple comments about guys saying that they missed my game but they missed the music more,” Anas said. “I think Mikey just kind of took over to maybe a little different style, he’s a younger kid but he’s awesome.”
Through this experience, I learned that the key to being a good DJ is both timing and understanding what everyone enjoys.
“I just try and get a feel for the room, sometimes guys are a little more energetic in the morning and you can throw a little more at them and see how it goes,” Anas said. “Before the game, I definitely have more of a, kind of EDM-ish type music. Guys seem to like it.”
But there’s something else that Sam helped give the Bears that the team likes even more than his music selection: the sacred and incredible BOWBA BOW.
“The speaker that we have has a button that you push that makes this air horn noise,” Anas said. “Anyone can push it when they walk by and a couple guys do it. The first time that [head coach Todd Nelson] did it, it was dead quiet in the room and he did it, it fired the guys up so much. And now he likes doing it. I don’t know, it’s just something kind of silly but it gets a good laugh and a goad roar every time.”
A recent example came after Henrik Borgstrom’s overtime goal in Game One of the Atlantic Division Final on May 11. Inside the locker room, the very professional and extremely serious Nelson personally requested the noise.
When Nelly asks for a BOWBA BOW,
You give him a BOWBA BOW.#BOWBABOW pic.twitter.com/zCtxzpbXlm
— Hershey Bears (@TheHersheyBears) May 12, 2023
The sound is produced by a giant, three-foot tall Bluetooth speaker that sits in Hershey’s locker room. It can travel with the club wherever they go because it has a handle and wheels.
— Hershey Bears (@TheHersheyBears) March 19, 2023
“We’re a tight-knit group to begin with, but the guys have a lot of fun,” Nelson said. “Anytime you win it’s fun, right? So, the guys work hard out there, they sacrifice their bodies, and so for them to enjoy a win, I think it’s special because winning is special. It kind of evolved with the bear head and now that sound from the speaker that we press. It evolves over the course of the year and the guys have fun with it and it’s good to see it. Keeps the guys tight.”
Hershey media gave Nelson a BOWBA BOW after a recent playoff win at home.
“That’s the big thing!” Nelson said smiling.
Gimme! Gimme! Gimme!
The Bears have won six of their first seven games in the 2023 Calder Cup Playoffs and will play Game One of the Eastern Conference Finals against the Rochester Americans at Giant Center on Tuesday night. After one recent home win and as I made my way down from media row to the basement of Giant Center, the training room doors were left open, allowing music and voices of excited Bears players to echo out of the locker room.
“Is that… ABBA??” I asked myself, scratching my head.
Indeed, it was. The Bears’ victory song for the 2022-23 season is Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! by the legendary Swedish supergroup. The song was originally released in 1979. (Listen to Hershey’s entire locker room playlist here.)
The choice was admittedly strange to me at first. The team does not have a large contingent of Swedish players. Defenseman Gabriel Carlsson, who spent time up with the Capitals this season, is the only regular Swede in the lineup. Borgstrom is Finnish.
The lyrics beyond the gimme, gimme, gimme in the chorus doesn’t appear to have any special significance or meaning.
Gimme, gimme, gimme a man after midnight
Won’t somebody help me chase the shadows away?
Gimme, gimme, gimme a man after midnight
Take me through the darkness to the break of the day
So, why this?
“I don’t think there was any specific reason we went with this song,” Anas said. “I think it was night one (of the regular season) and we won and all of a sudden someone’s like, ‘What are we playing for the win song?’ It was kind of a moment of panic.”
To further explain what Anas is saying here, anxiety mixed with an unthought and unplanned out decision led them to this place.
“I don’t know if someone shouted it out or what,” Anas said. “It just kind of went and it stuck and it’s been our song all year.”
To the Bears’ credit, the song is over-the-top and epic if you crank it up. It makes me nod my head, (maybe) make a power-walking motion with my arms, and smile every time I hear it.
There was still another word I was confused about on the back of Hershey’s shirts that I needed clarification on: HOLDMAXXXX. But it led me to another fun discovery that ended up explaining the design of the tees.
“It’s like holding ourselves to maximum accountability, maximum effort all the time,” a Bears representative explained during my interview with Anas. “We probably would have run more ‘Xs’ on it but there’s only so many ways you can center the crossword. That’s the other big thing, too. I know a lot of the guys are big crossword nuts which is kind of how the design on the back itself kind of came to be.”
Anas admitted that he was one of the players that leads the crossword puzzle-playing on the team.
“It’s like you and Vincent Iorio, right?” the Bears’ rep asked Anas.
“Yeah, well Vinny tries to do them,” cracked Anas.
Anas estimated that at least half the team regularly does crossword puzzles to fight fatigue. Hockey is a sport that demands fast decision-making and reaction time as players are skating 10-20 MPH on the ice with a small piece of vulcanized rubber cradled on the blade of their stick. Not only are those qualities important to win, but it’s also important in staying safe.
“Whether it’s doing it with a buddy or just with a coffee and just waking the mind up before the body,” Anas said. “I think [Todd Nelson] was surprised at how many guys like to do it here.”
There’s also a lot of down time for minor league hockey players as they sit around or travel, waiting for the next practice or game.
“Some guys like to do them alone, sometimes there’s a couple groups. I’d say the college guys do them alone and maybe the major junior guys do them as a group,” Anas said. “I don’t know how or why it’s kind of so big in the hockey world. Most teams I’ve been on, there’s guys that do them. They’re fun. They’re just like brain-busters, wakes you up.”
Combined with the ROAR goal celebration, where Hershey players do their best bear imitations as they approach the bench for fist bumps, the Capitals’ AHL affiliate is having a lot of fun 100 miles north of DC. But that fun is earned through hard work and comes through a tremendous amount of sacrifice on the ice to deliver winning hockey.
“It just doesn’t get old. It really doesn’t,” Vecchione said. “The airhorns, the ROARs, the fun. We’ve been saying all year we have a special group.”
There are also other competing personal motivations. Some Capitals prospects, spurned from opportunity in the NHL, are trying to show their worth and there’s no better way than delivering a Calder Cup like Branden Holtby, Jay Beagle, John Carlson, and Karl Alzner once did for the franchise over a decade ago. There are veteran players that have never won a championship and want to experience that ultimate joy. Anas is motivated by playing in the Capitals organization — the same NHL team which his family has season tickets for.
Even in the coaching ranks there is opportunity if the team keeps pushing. The Capitals are without a head coach after parting ways with Peter Laviolette and Nelson seems likely to emerge as a candidate. What better way to put an exclamation point on your first season as coach than another Calder Cup?
As several prospects and veteran players seem destined for opportunities in Washington next season, this Hershey team will surely look different next year and that’s not lost on the group.
“Obviously you can’t bring back everybody next year so we’re trying to savor a moment together,” Vecchione said. “We want to keep winning and obviously go all the way. We just really love each other; it’s that close of a group. We’ll do anything for each other, anything to win. You just want to keep this thing rolling and play until June.”
Headline photo: Ian Oland/RMNB
Russian Machine Never Breaks is not associated with the Washington Capitals; Monumental Sports, the NHL, or its properties. Not even a little bit.
All original content on russianmachineneverbreaks.com is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported (CC BY-NC-SA 3.0)– unless otherwise stated or superseded by another license. You are free to share, copy, and remix this content so long as it is attributed, done for noncommercial purposes, and done so under a license similar to this one.