When Spencer Carbery was named the head coach of the Hershey Bears on June 26, 2018, the franchise was coming off its worst season in a quarter of a century. The club was struggling and Carbery was charged with restoring the Bears to their customary spot near the top of the American Hockey League (AHL) standings.
Washington Capitals general manager Brian McClellan and Hershey Bears vice president of hockey operations Bryan Helmer made the right choice in hiring Carbery. He immediately turned the team’s fortunes around, as the Bears have tasted plenty of success since his hiring. In the midst of his third season at the helm, Carbery recently secured his 100th AHL victory and has positioned himself as a prime candidate for a future head -coaching job in the National Hockey League (NHL).
Carbery literally inherited a mess when he took over as head coach. Hershey was a disaster in the 2017-18 AHL season. The Bears ended with 69 points, the lowest point total since the 1992-93 season, and finished in last place in the Atlantic Division. They were 26 points out of the final playoff spot and 39 points out first place. Their 30 wins were the fewest since 1992-93. The Bears scored 201 goals, the fewest since 2001-02 and surrendered 249 goals, the most since the 1999-00 season. The team lacked an identity and had young players who struggled. Obviously, Carbery had work to do.
The new bench boss started by giving Hershey an identity. His charges would play hard and fast at all times. The Bears would be a hard team to play against. The players bought into the identity but the results did not come right away. Hershey was winless in their first five games, with many of the same issues from the previous season remaining in place.
There was still a lack of offense, with only Riley Barber and Mike Sgarbossa scoring on a consistent basis. The youth on defense continued to make poor decisions in their own zone. Goalie Vitek Vanecek played well, keeping the Bears in the hunt with his solid play, but injuries and recalls decimated the defense. Also, forwards Sergei Shumakov and Axel Jonsson-Fjallby left the team and returned to Europe.
However, Carbery kept the team together and held his players accountable by limiting their ice time if they were not doing the little things correctly. 2018 turned into 2019 and things started to improve. Carbery put Aaron Ness and Tyler Lewington back together on the back-end, giving the Bears a solid top defensive pairing. Also, the rest of the defense got healthy and started to gel and other forwards started to help Barber and Sgarbossa, offensively.
The young players showed signs of growth. As their games improved, they gained Carbery’s trust and saw an increase in playing time. Goalie prospect Ilya Samsonov went from a goalie who looked like he needed time in the ECHL to playing at a level where it showed why he was a first round pick.
Hershey was becoming a quality team and it showed with a big run that vaulted the chocolate and white into the playoff race. The Bears recorded points in a franchise record 17 straight games, including an 11-game winning streak during that run. The Bears compiled 33 points during the point streak, three more points than they recorded during the first 34 games of the season.
By the time the streak ended, Hershey had gone from last place in the Atlantic Division to third place. When the regular season concluded, the Bears had compiled 94 points and finished in third place, a single point behind Bridgeport in second. It was a 25-point improvement from the previous season and the team won 43 games, 13 more victories than in 2017-18. Carbery had transformed Hershey from cellar dwellers to a playoff team in very short order.
The Bears dispatched Bridgeport on Brian Pinho’s overtime winner in the fifth and decisive game of the opening round, but fell to eventual Calder Cup champion Charlotte in the second round. Still, Carbery accomplished what he was brought in to do, reestablish Hershey’s winning culture.
After a successful first campaign, Carbery had the organization poised for another step forward in 2019-20. His expectations and culture were now a known commodity, yet the Bears got off to another slow start. Two months into the season, Hershey sat in sixth place in the Atlantic Division. However, Carbery’s team responded to dominate the month of December. Hershey won 10 of their 11 games and moved up to third place. The Bears were tied for the division lead after January and were in the mix for the top spot all the way through February and early March.
Hershey dropped a 3-2 decision in a shootout on the road to the Providence Bruins on Sunday, March 8. The win moved the Bruins a point ahead of the Bears in the standings. The race for the division title looked like it would come down to the end of the season. Little did anyone know at the time, that the game with Providence would be the last game of the season for Hershey.
The COVID-19 pandemic would end the AHL season prematurely and end any hopes the Bears had for a Calder Cup championship. In the end, Hershey finish with 81 points, a point out of first place and won 37 games in the shortened 62-game season. In two seasons, Carbery had steered the Bears to 80 wins and restored the chocolate and white to their place as one of the AHL’s elite teams.
Winning In Difficult Times
With the pandemic still raging, uncertainty surrounded the 2020-21 AHL season. The usual start date in October was originally pushed back to December. Eventually, a February 5 start date was decided upon, however, it would not be anything near a “normal” season.
Hershey’s schedule was set for 36 games. The Bears would only play three teams: Lehigh Valley, Wilkes-Barre-Scranton and Binghamton (playing the season in Newark, New Jersey). Those three teams were all in close proximity to Hershey in order to limit travel. Rosters would be affected by NHL taxi squads. The biggest difference, the teams in the AHL would not be playing for anything. AHL president Scott Howson stated in the offseason that there were no plans to award the Calder Cup this season.
Motivation could have been a problem with the big prize not available to the players. Carbery didn’t let that happen. From the start of training camp, Carbery talked about taking advantage of the time that they had as a team.
“100 and the number 100 signifies essentially, depending on what happens with playoffs, we have 100 days to take advantage of,” Carbery said during his training camp media availability. “Take advantage of a 100 days where we can get better and closer to our individual goals. We can enjoy our time together. We can work and compete and improve as a team. We can win games. All this stuff. We have 100 days. Why just let it go by the wayside when we’ve been off so long?”
The skaters from Chocolate Town heeded their coach’s words. Hershey competes hard in just about every game and continues to fight throughout games. Yes, there have been times where their game has been off, but rarely have the Bears not been in a game. They have done a good job avoiding losing streaks, dropping two games in a row only once. This has allowed Hershey to consistently accumulate points and accumulate them they have. The chocolate and white have amassed a division high 42 points in 29 games. That point total has provided the Bears with a .724 point-percentage and that has them in first place.
Reaching The Century Mark
The most recent two of those 42 points came last Sunday in a 2-0 shutout victory that had special meaning for Carbery. The triumph marked the 100th AHL win of Carbery’s coaching career. He accomplished the feat in 166 games and is the 12th coach in franchise history to reach the milestone.
After the game Carbery gave credit to one of his players for the win, rookie goalie Hunter Shepard. Holding a game puck marking the occasion during his postgame media availability, Carbery said “I can thank Hunter for that right there. I don’t remember at this level, at least in the three years that I’ve been here, and I’m not just talking about a goaltender, for a player in his first AHL game to have that type of impact and play that well. He was lights out.” He continued, “That’s as good of a first game in the American Hockey League that I’ve seen.”
When asked about what the 100 AHL wins means to him, Carbery again deflected the credit away from himself and onto his players. “I’m just very, very fortunate that I’ve had three great groups to coach here in three years in Hershey. The wins are a byproduct of that.”
This personality and attitude is why Carbery’s players respect and respond to him. He may get on a player for mistakes and sit them for a game, but he will also praise them when they do well. Carbery has his players backs and gets the most out of his players.
On The Rise
Carbery’s success has caught the attention of the Capitals (he recently inked a three-year extension) and those at the NHL level. In a recent article on NHL.com, Patrick Williams listed the Hershey bench boss as one of five potential NHL coaching candidates currently currently coaching in the AHL. This is not a surprise based on what Carbery has accomplished in just three seasons in Chocolate Town. He has taken a last place team and morphed them into a contender.
Carbery has played a major role in this success, even if he prefers to give the credit to his players. The two go hand-in-hand. Carbery would not have achieved what he has without the players buying in to what his vision. On the flip side, the players would not be at the level they are if not for Carbery’s guidance. The marriage between Spencer Carbery and Hershey has been a perfect fit.
By Eric Lord