Nelson is setting the standard at Hershey

📝 by Jesse Liebman AHL on the beat


Being a head coach in professional hockey is challenging enough. To get to 500 wins as a head coach, that means you have to be something special.

And when your players rally around you to celebrate that hard-earned achievement, it’s even sweeter.

For the head coach of the Hershey Bears Todd NelsonFor those who reached the 500-win mark with a 6–2 victory over the Springfield Thunderbirds on January 14, the journey was a whirlwind.

His first pro head coaching win came as bench boss of the Muskegon Fury of the now-defunct United Hockey League on October 24, 2003, in a season that ended with a league championship. He has since served as a head coach in the American Hockey League with Oklahoma City, Grand Rapids and now Hershey, and he also coached the National Hockey League’s Edmonton Oilers in the 2014–15 season.

As head coach, Nelson produced two UHL Colonial Cups and guided Grand Rapids to the 2017 Calder Cup. He earned a Colonial Cup as a player-assistant in 2002 and a Calder Cup ring as an assistant coach with the Chicago Wolves in 2008, and was a member of the Dallas Stars coaching staff that reached the Stanley Cup Final in 2020.

Now in his first year in Hershey, where he spent the 1995-96 season as a player with the Chocolate and White, Nelson is atop the AHL standings in points halfway through the 2022-23 campaign. And after reaching 500 career wins last week (including 334 in the AHL), Nelson is set to work his 600th game as a head coach in the AHL this weekend, when the Bears visit the Belleville Senators on Saturday. He will also serve as the Atlantic Division coach at next month’s AHL All-Star Classic in Laval, his third career nod as an All-Star Classic coach.

For its players, it really sees no secret reason. Of course, the parent Washington Capitals’ brain trust has provided Hershey with a good balance of veteran experience combined with young, promising talent. But in the end, “Nelly,” as she’s affectionately known, helped set the standard.

“One thing about this team is that they’re never out of it. I give a lot of credit to the coaching staff and players under Nellie,” said Hershey’s vice president of hockey operations. Brian HelmerAn AHL Hall of Famer and the league’s all-time leading scorer among defensemen.

Nearing the twilight of his playing career in 2010, Helmer joined Nelson in Oklahoma City from 2010-12 after captaining Hershey to the 2010 Calder Cup.

“He’s a genuine, nice guy who finds a way to get the best out of his players. He’s demanding, but he’s found ways to get his point across without yelling or other tricks. Guys like him and they want to go through a wall for him.”

Forward Beck MalensteinHe, who has played for the past three Bears coaches, including Nelson, echoed Helmer’s sentiments, explaining how the players are thriving at Hershey this season thanks to Nelson’s even-keeled approach.

“I think the biggest thing with Nellie is she really allows each player the freedom to play the way they need to play, understands our roles and makes it very clear to us what our roles are,” Malensteen said. “You know when you step on the board you can play your game and have that mental freedom, which is huge.

“You’re not gripping the stick too tightly, you’re not worried about anything and you have the ability to make mistakes. If you’re going out there and your objective is to make the right play, he knows we’re trying to make the right play and that’s not always going to happen. So to get back on the bench, to be able to put it behind you, go back there and have another good transfer is something he really preaches. Mistakes are going to happen; Make them the right path and learn from them.

“He’s the perfect player’s coach — where you know you can loosen up around him and talk to him about anything, and when it comes down to business, you know he’s got your back and he’s going to challenge you to be the best you can be. .”

For Nelson, who wants to acknowledge for the first time the coaches and players he’s worked with over the years, his vision is one he’s continued to form and develop in the more than two decades since he joined the coaching ranks as a player-assistant with Muskegon. 2001–02 season.

“What I’ve learned is that players want to be treated directly. They don’t want to beat you around the bush if there’s a problem,” Nelson said. “They can see directly and they want to hear directly. They want to better themselves, and they invite some criticism when they don’t play well, because they just want to be good, and I’ve learned to handle those situations better.”

This season with Hershey, amid several early call-ups and challenges to the team’s depth during a slow start, Nelson and his club have emerged as one of the top teams on the circuit.

One of Nelson’s annual traditions as head coach is to hold a pig roast, inviting the entire team along with their families. Away from the confines of the hockey rink, it’s a chance for Nelson to get to know his players and the people who matter to them.

“They know me too,” Nelson explained. “I’m not talking about hockey, but I’m talking about everyday life with them. And I think that helped; Once we get to November, we really start to hit our stride.”

Adjustments have been made along the way. After a late October loss to Hartford, Nelson and his staff decided that the system used by the team, while reflective of the original Capitals, needed slight changes to better fit the strengths and limitations of the Bears roster.

“I had an honest conversation with our players and asked them, ‘What do you think about making this change?’ We were giving up a lot of odd-man rushes and we were playing into it. It doesn’t work well if you play in it – you can’t dip your toe in the water. You have to dive in.”

The immediate result after this loss was a seven-game point streak that saw Hershey go 6-0-1-0 and the club put together four separate point streaks of four or more games, moving the Bears closer to the top.

And during the game experienced players eg Mike Sagarbosa And Mike Vecchione Pacing the Bears, it was the play of the Rockies’ youngest crop that also drew praise from their coach.

“I think young people, [Hendrix] Lapierre, [Vincent] Iorio, [Ethen] Frank, [Henrik] Rybinsky — really, all the young men — impressed me because of how much they are students of the game,” Nelson said. “For example, Lapierre comes to the rink every morning looking for video, asking for shifts and how he can get better. Earlier in the year, he had a hard time playing away from the puck, and he’s gotten a lot better with it now, and that’s an element he’ll need going into the National Hockey League.

“I think the balance of winning and development goes hand in hand. This program is run very well. They provide a winning product on the ice, and I think winning is a form of development. If we have players here, hopefully things will go well for us, but if we have players who are playing in those important situations and getting that experience, it’s unbelievable that those things translate to them playing in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. And if you’re lucky enough to win a Calder Cup, few people can say that and no one can take that away from you – you’re a champion for life.”

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