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All-Star Selection Caps First Half for Nelson, Bears

#AHL | @TheHersheyBears’ Head Coach Todd Nelson has been chosen to lead the Atlantic Division during the AHL’s 2023 All-Star competition in February. @FPHBears highlights Nelson’s career and gives us a peak into what to expect in February.

Todd Nelson's first season in Hershey has been a brilliant one. Photo courtesy of Carl Minieri.

All-Star Selection Caps First Half for Nelson, Bears

HERSHEY, Pa. – It’s safe to say that the first half of the 2022-23 season has been a sweet success so far for the Hershey Bears and head coach Todd Nelson, who clinched a spot in the 2023 American Hockey League’s All-Star Game as the Atlantic Division’s bench boss courtesy of his team’s top spot in the division at the start of the new year. Nelson is the first Bears head coach to earn the honors since Mark French accomplished the feat back in 2011, when the Giant Center played host to the event. Nelson is one of four coaches from each of the league’s four divisions to take part in the event, which will be held February 5-6 in Laval, Quebec. The selection puts a bow on Hershey’s excellent start to Nelson’s time behind the bench after being hired to the position this past summer.

Nelson was hired alongside Nick Bootland to fill Hershey’s coaching vacancy, as the two combined with current Bears assistant coach Patrick Wellar to create a trifecta of coaches who previously donned the Chocolate and White colors during their playing careers and set out to guide the Bears back to the top of the mountain. Just under halfway through the season and at the beginning of the new calendar year, it’s safe to say they’ve had a strong start. The Bears lead the Atlantic Division and the AHL with a 22-7-2-1 record over 32 games played, setting a record for the fastest group of chocolate-clad skaters to earn 20 wins in a regular season.

“I think winning is a form of development,” Nelson said at the start of Hershey’s training camp. “There’s a winning culture here. I think we owe it to the people in Hershey who support the Hershey Bears to have a winning club.”

It’s not Nelson’s first go-around as a member of the Chocolate and White, as Nelson spent a season of his playing years in Hershey in 1995-96. Nelson, a defenseman, enjoyed his most productive season in a Bears sweater with 50 points (ten goals, 40 assists), but the Bears fell short in the first round of the Calder Cup Playoffs. Nelson boasts a Calder Cup Championship as a player, assistant coach, and as a head coach, and with his previous success during a stint with Hershey, it’s easy to see that halfway through his first behind the bench that he and the Bears are a match made in chocolate and white. Nelson’s ties to the organization include captain Dylan McIlrath, who was an important piece of Nelson’s Calder Cup winning Grand Rapids Griffins in the 2016-17 season.

How has Nelson’s squad made this happen? It’s been a steady diet of strong defense and a steadily improving offense. The Bears have thrived in close, low-scoring games that have become the team’s strong suit with a record of 13-2-2-1 in one-goal games. This goes double for games played at Giant Center, where the Bears have the league’s best record of 13-3-1-1, getting dinged for just their third regulation loss on New Year’s Eve. Hershey’s defense has one of the league’s lowest goals-against numbers at 75 in the most games played, with an average of 2.34 goals against per game and 25.72 shots against, with both stats the league’s best.

Bears Vice President of Hockey Operations Bryan Helmer is uniquely qualified as one person to both play for and now work with Nelson, playing for him during his time with the Oklahoma City Barons during the 2010-11 and 2011-12 seasons, and their bond during that time ultimately helped lead Nelson back to Hershey. The Bears had a coaching void much later than usual over the summer after Scott Allen’s promotion to join the Washington Capitals as an assistant coach, but things fell into place quickly to bring Nelson into the fold after his time with the Dallas Stars came to an end. Nelson has built a well-rounded team that plays responsible defense and capitalizes on their chances offensively, and it’s gelled well over the first half of 2022-23 as the Bears lead the Atlantic Division and the league as a whole. Helmer credits Nelson’s push for unity as a team that helps build a bond with the team.

“He was one of my favorite coaches to play for,” Helmer said. “I love how he approaches the game, he gets his point across but wants to make sure everyone buys in and when everyone buys in, there’s success. He told me that it usually takes until about Christmas to get everyone to buy-in, but this group has bought in right away. He gets everyone together for a pork roast to start the season to bring everyone together along with their wives and families. Everyone has fun out there on the ice, he’s always in the locker room chatting with everyone and being one of the guys, but he also has the ability to get his point across at the right times.”

The rosters for the All-Star Challenge are still forthcoming, but the format is a familiar one to the last time the event was held in 2020 in Ontario, California. The game itself will be held on Monday, February 6 and will be a three-versus-three, tournament style competition between the four divisions, with regular rivals turned teammates for one night only. The night prior, the players will be divided up by conference in seven different skills events in a showcase of the next National Hockey League stars. Last time around, players wearing Bears sweaters stole the show as both Matt Moulson and Vitek Vanecek represented the Atlantic Division and won the entire competition, with Vanecek named the event’s most valuable player. French represented the Bears at the apex of their success following back-to-back Calder Cup championships in 2011 as Hershey had another season with over 100 points in 2010-11.

The nod to have Nelson represent the Bears on such a major stage is the latest honor that should raise eyebrows in the Sweetest Place on Earth. The seasons in which the Chocolate and White last captured the Calder Cup are among the best teams to ever win the title in the AHL, and replicating those records is a tall order in today’s league. The fact that Nelson has matched and even surpassed some of those marks is a testament not only to Nelson, but his staff and the players that execute his game play. Nelson’s drive to have the Bears continue to improve and hone their craft despite their success resonates with the fanbase in Hershey, and no doubt will continue to power the team as the second half begins.

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