HERSHEY, PA — History awaits the Hershey Bears if they can secure a victory in Game Six of the Calder Cup Finals at Southern California’s Acrisure Arena. A win over the Coachella Valley Firebirds would give the Bears their 12th Calder Cup in franchise history – the most of any AHL team. It would also prove to be a cathartic moment for several of the Capitals’ top prospects who were turned away from full-time opportunity at the NHL level.
But before the Bears throw on their gear and pick up their sticks for what could be the final time this season, there is something else that awaits them that sometimes gives them more heartburn than a hot goalie: crossword puzzles.
Yep, you read that right.
Hershey subtly paid tribute to this fact in the design of their 2023 playoff shirts worn exclusively by players. The front reads CHOICES while the back shows meaningful phrases and words designed as a crossword puzzle.
Earlier in the postseason, Sam Anas estimated in an interview that at least half the roster regularly does crossword puzzles to fight fatigue and sharpen their faculties. Hockey demands fast decision-making and reaction time, but that doesn’t just happen. For a bardown slap shot or a crisp tape-to-tape pass to happen, the mind has to be warmed up.
“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 [head coach Todd Nelson] was surprised at how many guys like to do it here.”
Unlike a typical 9-to-5 job, there is a lot of down time for minor league hockey players as they prepare or wait for the next practice or game to happen.
“Some guys like to do them alone, sometimes there’s a couple groups,” Anas said. “I’d say the college guys do them alone and maybe the major junior guys do them as a group. Most teams I’ve been on, there’s guys that do them. They’re fun. They’re just like brain-busters, wakes you up.”
One of players Anas mentioned to be an especially big crossword puzzle participant was Capitals’ top defense prospect Vincent Iorio, a rookie on this year’s Eastern Conference champion team.
Then he reconsidered.
“Yeah, well Vinny tries to do them,” Anas said laughing.
Iorio, a 20-year-old out of Coquitlam, British Columbia, is close friends with his Bears’ roommates, Hendrix Lapierre and Henrik Rybinski, but the routine has given him an in with the team’s veteran players.
“The guys, like Snives (Joe Snively) and Sammy, Stromer (Matt Strome), a couple of them have been doing it for a bit,” Iorio said. “Beck (Malenstyn) does it, (Garrett) Pilon, they all do it. When I walk in the trainers’ room and they’re all sitting there doing them, I was like, I might as well give it a go and try it out.”
Iorio said it’s one of the rare things that he does without his roommates.
“Ryb’s not a big fan of them,” Iorio said smiling. “Just because, I don’t know. He just doesn’t want to do it. He doesn’t really like hearing about it. Lappy will join in every once in a while, but he’s usually busy during the mornings.”
The Bears utilize crossword puzzles from USA Today, and it’s part of their daily routine. And like you can probably imagine with professional athletes, it becomes needlessly competitive.
“They’ve got one every day and we printed them out,” Iorio said. “And then [we] kind of have a little competition, me and Snives. I’m a rookie, Snives is a vet with it, so whenever I have any questions about anything, Snives will tell me, and the other guys will chirp me about it because I’m cheating. I’m learning and hopefully I get better with them.”
What is cheating in crossword puzzles, I asked.
“Just asking for help basically, for an answer,” Iorio said. “So if I don’t know an answer, then I’ll be like, ‘Hey Snives, what’s 23 across?’ And he’ll tell me the answer and then the guys will give me heck for it.”
Iorio will also sometimes join fellow former junior hockey players Matt Strome, Beck Malenstyn, and Garrett Pilon as a group to do them, but this is generally frowned upon by The College Guys.
“Sammy (Quinnipiac Univ.) and Snives (Yale Univ.) loves to be on their own doing them,” Iorio said. “Snives hates whenever somebody else is around him. If I’m looking over his shoulder, trying to look at a couple answers, he’ll flip it over and tell me to f off.”
The crossword puzzle mania begins when the Bears have their breakfast. Assistant athletic trainer Max Finley prints them out every morning.
“Five or six of them,” Iorio said, “and Pro actually has a Russian one.”
Wait. Aliaksei Protas is doing this, too?
“We’re just on our own with Bogdan (Trineyev) basically,” Protas said. “I ask couple guys to help me answer but they’re not that good at Russian crosswords. My team is pretty terrible at Russian crosswords.”
“The Russian ones are a lot different,” Iorio added. “They just look a lot different.”
Protas gave me permission to share a photo of one of his recent puzzles.
The crosswords are from the Russian site, ABSite.ru, and Protas got help finding them from a familiar friend down in DC.
“I asked (video coordinator) Emily (Engel-Natzke) in Washington to do that and she found it,” Protas said. “So, I texted her to ask about this site and that’s what she gave me, this site. Now we just print it from there.”
Protas added that this is a relatively new part of his daily routine and not something he did often at previous stops in the KHL and junior hockey.
The puzzles help in unexpected ways beyond waking up the brain. The routine brings Trineyev, a talented forward out of the KHL’s Dynamo Moscow, closer together with Protas — a likely full-time player in the NHL next season — and helps him interact with his other English-speaking teammates.
“Him just being around an English environment and having Pro help him, helps a ton,” Iorio said.
“It’s a lot of fun,” Anas said.
RMNB is not associated with the Washington Capitals; Monumental Sports, the NHL, or its properties. Not even a little bit.
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