For those of you who are new to the American Hockey League due to the Laval Rocket being more accessible than previous iterations of the Montreal Canadiens farm team, whether it’s because the team is local or because there is a sudden significant rise in coverage of Montreal’s prospects, you might not be fully aware of the significance of Friday’s game.
The Hershey Bears are in town for the first time in Laval Rocket history, and the significance of the event is not just that the newest team in the league, the Rocket, are hosting the oldest team in the league. The Bears are the only original International-American Hockey League franchise running without interruption or relocation to this day, from the eight teams that formed the league in 1938.
It is also the franchise that has won the most Calder Cups in League history, with 11 championships in total, and no more than 10 seasons between conquests since their inception.
The Bears are as synonymous with the American Hockey League as the Montreal Canadiens are synonymous with the National Hockey League.
For the first 30 years of their existence they were mainly a Boston Bruins affiliate, with the Detroit Red Wings (1957-62), Pittsburgh Penguins (1971-77), Buffalo Sabres (1974-79), Quebec Nordiques (1980-81), Philadelphia Flyers (1984-96), Colorado Avalanche (1996-2005), and Tampa Bay Lightning (2003-04) all taking turns developing their prospects in Hershey. But if Boston was the first long-term partnership for the team, the Washington Capitals are the latest, and possibly greatest.
Numerous Capital players got their start in Hershey, including Braden Holtby, Mike Green, Tomas Fleischmann, Karl Alzner, Mathieu Perreault, Jay Beagle, and Eric Fehr.
Just a cursory glance at the all-time roster reveals that Don Cherry got his professional hockey start with Hershey in 1954. Former NHL player and current TV commentator Nick Kypreos got his start with the Bears. Bryan Murray’s first head coaching job in pro hockey was for the team in 1980-81. Peter Budaj, David Aebischer, Radim Vrbata, Craig Berube. The list of Alumni just seems to go on forever when you look at the extensive list of careers that were started in Hershey. These players are all products of an elite development system in Hershey that seemingly produces NHL-calibre talent at will.
Current Olympian Chris Bourque, playing for Team USA in PyeongChang, has been a member of the Bears on and off since 2005, unable to establish himself in the NHL, but among the very best players in the AHL, winning the scoring title in 2012 and 2016. He was once again among the best in the league this season when the Olympic team came calling.
On Friday when the Bears hit the Place Bell ice, it will be a rite of passage for the Laval Rocket as they find their footing in the second-best professional hockey league in North America. Hopefully the organization will be able to look at Hershey’s longevity as a successful franchise, but perhaps more importantly as a model franchise for developing future mainstays in the National Hockey League.