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Moulson’s retirement leaves an impressive legacy behind

Moulson’s retirement leaves an impressive legacy behind

HERSHEY, Pa. – Back in 2019, the Hershey Bears were going through a major transition phase when the team brought on soon-to-be captain Matt Moulson. Many of the remaining key pieces from the 2016 Calder Cup Finals squad had departed, and the Bears were tasked with shaping a new core group to lead some incoming young players to supplement what remained from the year prior. Hershey made its biggest splash of the summer by adding Moulson on an AHL contract, moving him across the country from the Ontario Reign along with his line mate Phil Maillet to instantly give the Chocolate and White a massive scoring threat. It was recently announced that Moulson joined former Bear Chris Bourque with the Toronto Maple Leafs as a pro scout, ending his professional playing career after back surgery sidelined him in 2021-22.

Maillet and Moulson would go on to lead the Bears in scoring as two of three players to reach 40 points with the team before the season ended early due to the COVID-19 pandemic (a subject we’ll touch on in a bit) with Moulson leading the team with 22 goals. The duo combined for some memorable moments during that time, and helped to minimize the losses of scoring forwards such as Riley Barber and Nathan Walker in free agency the year prior. When the season ended, Hershey was one point out of first place in the Atlantic Division only because of a shootout loss to the Providence Bruins in what became the last game of the year. The early shutdown put an end to championship aspirations for Moulson and the Bears, a feeling that unfortunately became all too familiar. Moulson hit a milestone in his first year with Hershey, playing in his 1,000th professional game and scoring two goals to lift the Bears to a win on January 24, 2020.

Moulson would return to the Bears for the shortened 2020-21 season and was named the team’s captain, the first time a player wore the “C” since Garrett Mitchell in the 2017-18 campaign. Despite all of the uncertainty of the year, with taxi squads, limited crowds, and a rotating and inconsistent lineup, Moulson’s leadership and veteran presence helped keep the team on track by finishing second in points with 24 in all 33 games alongside highly regarded rookie forward Connor McMichael. Although the Calder Cup wasn’t eligible to be won, the Bears took the highest possible honors that season by clinching the AHL’s regular season championship for best points percentage in the league, an impressive feat.

One thing still eluded the team in Moulson’s tenure, which was a championship, and he signed on for a third season to try and make that happen in 2021-22. After the team lost McMichael to recall for what would prove to be the entire season as well as regulars like Maillet in free agency, injuries and more COVID issues would plague the Bears into November and December where Moulson’s leadership would again prove to be irreplaceable. Moulson tallied 12 points (four goals, eight assists) in his last 11 games he’d ultimately play for the Bears, including a three-point night on December 27 in his final game, before it was revealed he had back surgery that would sideline him indefinitely. Despite the team holding out hope that he’d be able to perhaps suit up in the playoffs, the nature of the surgery made it far from certain and lost players would haunt the Bears for the rest of the season as they’d fall in the opening round of the Calder Cup Playoffs.

“We were together for three years on Long Island (with the New York Islanders),” Bears head coach Scott Allen said when asked about Moulson at Capitals Development Camp. “As far as a coach-player relationship, we spent more time together in his pro game than he did with any other coach. We missed his leadership in a big way (in Hershey) as the season went on, and he’s going to be a very, very difficult guy to replace. He was a consummate pro, he essentially – and I don’t want to say this in a derogatory way – made something out of nothing. When he was younger and coming out of school, they thought he didn’t skate well enough. When I coached him with the New York Islanders and he had a couple of 30 goal seasons, I used to tell people he was one of the toughest guys I’ve ever coached. He never fought, it wasn’t about fighting, he put himself in position and took a beating in front of the net in the National Hockey League, wasn’t afraid to do it in the American Hockey League, to put himself in that position to score and he could score. He had a great career, he’s a great person, great family man, excited about the career he had and excited for the next chapter for him. Make no mistake about it, though, the Hershey Bears are going to miss him in a big way.”

At the end of the season, it was hard to say where Moulson might land. The writing was on the wall with the surgery, but it was impossible to deny that the forward wanted one more crack at it to try and win a championship, much like Hershey as a team has felt. The Bears were incredibly snake bitten with three seasons of exceptional talent and lofty expectations that were disrupted by events no one could have anticipated, whether those were perhaps once-in-a-lifetime events like the pandemic or the rigors of hockey season like 2021-22. Regardless, he retires as a veteran of 650 NHL games and having taken up the mantle as team captain, just the 44th player in the organization’s 85 year history to do so. Moulson’s veteran presence and scoring ability will be sorely missed when the puck drops in the fall, as Hershey will have to try and fill the big shoes left behind.

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