HERSHEY, PA — The Hershey Bears celebrated the franchise’s twelfth Calder Cup championship at Giant Center on Saturday afternoon. The event marked the first public event fans could attend since the Bears lifted the AHL’s championship trophy in Southern California early Thursday morning. Alternate captain and inventor of the ROAR, Mike Vecchione, scored on a rebound to in overtime of Game 7 to eliminate the first-year Coachella Valley Firebirds in thrilling fashion.
The championship ceremony began at 3 pm and was open to the public. There were so many Bears fans in attendance, many of the players, who had barely slept since winning the championship days before, stayed hours after they were scheduled to leave so no one left empty-handed.
Nothing about the celebration or the fan support felt minor league.
The Bears began the show by playing a video on the jumbotron showing highlights from the team’s electrifying playoff run that saw them defeat the Charlotte Checkers in four games in the Atlantic Division Semifinals; sweep the Hartford Wolf Pack in three games in the Atlantic Division Final; and eliminate the Rochester Americans in six games during the Eastern Conference Finals. The team then won three separate games in overtime to beat the Firebirds in the Calder Cup Finals.
One-by-one, the voice of the Bears, Zack Fisch, then introduced every player out from the locker room where they soaked in loud cheers from the crowd and took their place on stage either to the left or right. Nearly every player came out holding a souvenir cup full of, as one player jokingly told me, lemonade.
The loudest cheers were reserved for head coach Todd Nelson, the Game Seven hero Vecchione, captain Dylan McIlrath who brought out the Calder Cup, and playoff MVP Hunter Shepard.
“When I was playing (with the) Lehigh (Valley Phantoms), I heard the roar (sound over the loud speakers), I’d be like, ‘Oh no, we’re in trouble,'” Vecchione said laughing while speaking to the media. “I don’t think I ever had a good game here. I don’t think we ever won here. Finally being part of the Bears organization — you see the banners, you see the retired numbers, everything. It’s such a special place to play. The fans are unbelievable. You play around the league, they don’t have the same support that we do. Every night here it feels like a pro game.”
The first person to make a short speech was Hershey’s vice president of hockey operations, Bryan Helmer. The former Bears defenseman was a member of the Bears’ championship teams in 2009 and 2010. He brought back his handlebar mustache and his cowboy hat from those special seasons.
“I want to thank the Washington Capitals, Chris Patrick, Brian MacLellan, and Jason Fitzsimmons, together we put this team together and we did a great job,” Helmer said before pointing to the players. “Again, I can’t thank these guys enough behind me. Not only it just felt like a family — I know last time we won was 13 years ago it’s been a while — but that team in 2010 reminded me a lot of this team: they’re close, they believed in each other, they loved each other, they loved coming to the rink. Nelly did a good job and the coaching staff to bring them together and we got it done Game 7 in overtime. Holy man! I was sweating!”
Todd Nelson began his speech with a special shoutout to the crowd.
“Last series, playing against Coachella Valley, we didn’t know what to expect when they went into their building,” Nelson said. “I spoke with the previous two coaches who played against Coachella Valley — they obviously lost — and they said ‘the building is really tough for visitors to come in and play.’ It was. It was really tough on our guys. The guys finally found a way with the last game. What they didn’t realize when they came here for three games, how loud you guys were.”
Nelson and the entire team then stood up and gave fans a standing ovation.
“Thank you very much,” he said. “The thing is, this is a very difficult building to play in Games Three through Five and we got all three wins. We thank you very much for that.”
Fisch made a short speech recapping all four series the Bears won. During his reminiscing of the Calder Cup Finals, he revealed some behind-the-scenes behavior by the Firebirds that may have helped fuel Hershey’s epic comeback.
To Coachella Valley, the new kids on the block. All the kudos in the world to them on the great crowds, great season, great series. There’s no doubt they’re a heck of a team with a ton of skill. We all saw it. They took it took a 2-0 series lead and outscored us 9-0. It wasn’t looking good. But you know what, I believe in karma. A lot of people said it was over after Games One and Two. No joke, including their public address announcer. After Game Two, he told the fans, ‘Have a good summer! See you next season!!’ That. Happened.
As the team walked out after Game Two, you can ask these guys too, the security said to the players ‘Good try, guys. Tough night for you.’ Not good karma.
When they came here to Giant Center for Games Three through Five, guess what they brought? Beer and champagne. A lot of it. They were ready for a party. Not so.
And last but not least, you want to talk about something that’s pretty special, we made shirts for this. In our locker room hallway outside, we have a wall of champions. Great players in Bears history. I’m not going to name names but an unnamed Coachella Valley staff member must not like the Bears very much. He went over by our locker room with a picture drawn of one of his players. With his team up 2-0 thinking it’s in the bag, he hung that picture on the wall, thinking maybe they were going to win the Calder Cup easily. We have the security camera footage of him doing it. We saw it. He did it. You know what they say? We made shirts of it. I see people over there wearing them ‘Don’t Poke The Bear.’ Yeah. Guess what? They poked the bear? What happened next?
McIlrath was next introduced to the podium. He, of course, lifted the Calder Cup up over his head again because there’s never really a bad time to do that.
“You’ll have to bear with my voice here,” McIlrath said in a soft voice. “Had a couple adult beverages the last few days. I don’t think I’ve stopped screaming ever since Veccs scored. Wow.
“One word comes to mind: grateful. I feel very grateful to be part of this organization. Playing in front of the best fans in the league, by far. I told the guys this after one of those adult beverages, I told them how much I love them. This group of guys is the best group of guys I’ve ever been a part of.”
To complete the ceremony, Vecchione was given the honor of putting the final Bears’ win sticker on the team’s poster board because he scored the Cup-clinching goal. Vecchione did his signature ROAR one last time on stage.
— Ed Albert (@ealbert410) June 24, 2023
Players were then dispersed to their tables for the autograph session – an autograph session that was supposed to end around 5:30 pm, but instead went until about 8.
At one point, Aliaksei Protas, worried about how long the wait was for some still upstairs, picked up the Calder Cup, walked it up the stairs, and took it to fans on the concourse so they could see it.
— Debbie Jo (@DebbieJo) June 25, 2023
Later into the session, McIlrath brought the Cup back up and took pictures with fans toward the end of the line. One fan told me that the line was so long at first that it wrapped around the concourse multiple times.
— Debbie Jo (@DebbieJo) June 25, 2023
Other players, like Connor McMichael, got up from his table after the scheduled two hours ended and began wandering into the crowd, signing anything and everything. He even later had a teammate sign his leg. I noticed there were Sharpie scribbles over the palm of his right hand.
BEARS IN 7 BABYYYY pic.twitter.com/e2EodQrW05
— Ian Oland (@ianoland) June 25, 2023
McIlrath, Vecchione, and Sam Anas — a native of Potomac, MD — all spoke to the press before the day was completed.
“I grew up a die-hard Caps fan,” Anas said. “My parents were at the ’98 Finals, Game Four when the Caps lost. I grew up idolizing all those players. It’s truly special to be in this organization and to win it with Snively, too, I think. We grew up, we trained together, we went to high school together, we played together for a year. We won a state championship together as Landon Bears, so it’s only fitting that we got the job done together now.”
I asked him if it was a dream come true.
“It’s amazing,” Anas said. “These last few days I can’t even put into words. I feel like I’ve had chills and smiling, and maybe a couple drinks here and there. It’s just been awesome.”
While the limelight of the victory was still fresh, some players were already thinking about next year.
“Hopefully, we can do what they did in ’09 and ’10 and bring another one back,” Vecchione said.
Mike Vecchione’s ROAR is a lil worn out pic.twitter.com/xGVUxgUXuZ
— Ian Oland (@ianoland) June 25, 2023
Below are my photos from the day.
Photos: Ian Oland/RMNB
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