The good times that the Hershey Bliss are experiencing now was born out of a moment of deep sadness. Last season, the Bliss battled the Washington Galaxy for the Eastern title. The teams faced each other on the last day of the season, identical records, winner take all. Hershey took a 3-1 lead in the third period, only to see Washington scored four unanswered goals, including three in the final 7:30, to take the game and the division.
“It’s the most crushing moment I’ve ever experienced,” said RW Christopher Hart. Hart is a member of Hershey’s “Love Line,” which failed to record a point in the game.
As the Bliss sat stunned and heartbroken in their locker room, trying to process the unthinkable, coach “Chocolate Chip” Barber had a message for his players. “I want each and every one of you to take a moment and remember how you’re feeling right now,” the coach said. “Take a snapshot and keep it in your mind. Then next season, think about the way you feel now, and then use that feeling to fuel you all the way to the title. You can let this game destroy you, or you can let it inspire you so you never feel like this again.”
Halfway into the 2017 season, it appears that the team has taken Barber’s words to heart. The Bliss have had a small but steady lead throughout virtually the entire first half. They are seven points ahead of the Galaxy, eight points ahead of the promising but raw Hamilton Pistols, and 12 points clear of the New York Night.
“Our slogan this season is ‘Commit to it,'” said Bliss C Justin Valentine. “We’re driven to work hard and make the kind of commitment that gets you a championship. What we say to each other is, ‘Just one more.’ Just one more skate, one more practice, one more shift, one more defensive stop, one more goal. Every day and every game, we’re trying to push ourselves a little bit farther.”
What’s the secret to Hershey’s success? They’ve gotten stronger in all areas of their game.
Their offense has gone from being average to being a strength of the team. They’ve scored 105 goals, third most in the league. Valentine (23 goals, 16 assists) leads the attack; he’s publicly stated that he is shooting for a 50-goal, 100-point season. But what’s undone the Bliss in previous years was the lack of secondary scoring behind the Love Line of Valentine, Hart, and LW Lance Sweet. This year, the top line is getting considerably more help. LW Russell Nahorniak is having a strong bounce-back season (11 goals, 22 points). C Spencer Kirkpatrick (8 goals, 24 points) has taken a major step forward in his sophomore season. And they’re getting solid seasons with RW Noah Daniels (7 goals, 19 points), C Henry Constantine (10 goals), and LW Lee Fleming (9 goals).
Hershey’s defense has also gotten stronger. The Bliss blueliners have gotten more adept at blocking shots and creating congestion in front of the crease. They’ve allowed only 987 shots to be directed at their netminders, a step below elite units like Michigan and Quebec but right on par with Washington and Anchorage in the next tier. “We’re figuring out how to be strong on defense without slowing our pace down too much,” said team captain D Reese Milton.
Last season, the team acquired goalie Jesse Clarkson at the trade deadline, and he helped the team take off down the stretch. Clarkson went to New York in free agency, but Hershey signed Brandon Colt from Hamilton to replace him. Colt has done a credible job in net, going 13-8-3 with a 3.04 GAA. And 35-year-old backup Milo Stafford continues to defy his age, going 3-1-2 with a 3.08 GAA.
“I think adversity has really strengthened us,” said Barber. “Two years ago, we lost Sweets and it tanked our season. Last year, we got our heart ripped out on the last day of the season. But just like a good dark chocolate, a little bitter in the background makes it sweeter and richer.”
Certainly, nothing is guaranteed for the Bliss in the second half. The Galaxy seem likely to get hot and challenge Hershey, and Hamilton or New York could move up as well. Still, as Valentine says, “we’re in the position we want to be in. Our fate is in our hands.”