For the Hershey Bliss, 2018 has been a strange year. Last year, they won a title nobody expected them to win, upsetting the heavily-favored Anchorage Igloos in 7 games for their first Vandy. But this season’s results have been even more shocking; they plunged into the basement with a terrible start the first month, and were never able to dig themselves out. The Bliss appear to be on track for a fifth-place finish as the season winds down, while upstart young squads in Hamilton and Quebec head on to the postseason.
This week, several of Hershey’s top players reflected on a season gone wrong, and what they’ll need to do to turn things around in 2019.
C Justin Valentine is Hershey’s captain and anchors the much-beloved “Love Line.” He likened the first month of the 2018 season to “a fun-house nightmare. It was like a bad dream that we couldn’t wake up from. We were playing solid, dictating the pace, making our shots, but somehow at the end of the game we’d lose.”
Valentine cited a couple of games in particular that left the Bliss feeling “like we had a hex on us.” In the first week of the season, Hershey outshot the Boston Badgers 37-25, but lost 4-3 when Badgers RW Charlie Brooks banked the game-winning shot off the crossbar, then off the back of goalie Brandon Colt. Two weeks later, they outshot Michigan Gray Wolves 34-22, but managed to lose 3-2 in overtime on another fluky goal by C Hunter Bailes that deflected off a Hershey skate boot.
After games like that, “we’d just sit there and stare at each other and say, ‘How the hell did we lose that one?’” Valentine said. “We couldn’t figure it out.”
Four weeks into the season, Hershey was sporting a 3-16-1 record that left them only one point ahead of Boston for the league’s worst record. At that time, coach Chip Barber sent shockwaves through the clubhouse by offering to resign.
“I was feeling the same shock and frustration as the rest of the team,” said Barber. “Even thoughwe were playing better than our record, I felt like there was no excuse for us having that poor a record, and I wanted to take responsibility.”
The front office quickly rejected Barber’s offer, and the team seemed to rally around their coach, doubling their season win total the following week. But then disaster struck the next week, in the form of an upper-body injury to LW Lance Sweet that put him on the shelf two weeks.
“That was just devastating to me,” said Sweet. “I felt like we were getting ready to turn things around, then I went down.”
It was the second significant injury of Sweet’s career, and it stalled the Bliss’ momentum; they went 5-4-1 in his absence. Since his return, the Bliss have played respectably, but they never caught fire; they haven’t won more than three games in a row all season.
“I feel like if we’d been able to run off once good long winning streak to get some momentum, we could have climbed back into it,” said Valentine. “But it never worked out that way.”
Netminder Colt believes that the team’s failure rests in large part on his shoulders. Last season, Colt went 24-16-4 with a 2.94 GAA and a .909 save percentage, then stood on his head in the Finals to capture MVP honors. During Hershey’s nightmare month to open the season, Colt’s numbers tumbled, as he went 3-12-1 with a 3.57 GAA and an .879 save percentage. He’s rebounded since then, but he remains among the worst starters in the league on a statistical basis.
“It’s frustrating, because I feel like I’m dragging the team down,” said Colt. “Our defense is tight, and our offense is solid. If I was on top of my game, I feel like we’d be in the playoffs.”
Colt’s teammates, however, disagree with his harsh self-assessment. “Everyone’s taken a step back from last year, myself definitely included,” said Valentine. “Blaming the whole year on Colter is like blaming the Chicago fire on Mrs. O’Leary’s cow. We all played a part in it.”
Looking toward next season, Sweet is optimistic that the Bliss can return to contention. “We’ve got the talent and the team to do it,” he said. “We just need to avoid that brutal start and have some bounces go our way. After this year, we’re due for some major puck luck.”
But the Bliss have a couple major obstacles to their contention plans: the two teams that will be going to the postseason in their place. The Pistols and Tigres are both talented teams that are widely considered to be on the rise. Even the New York Night are showing signs of respectability. If the Bliss want to go back to the Finals, they’ll have to earn it. And in order to do that, says their coach, they’ll need to rediscover their hunger for winning.
“Flags fly forever and all that,” said Barber. “But winning your first title is like taking your first bite of really good Swiss chocolate. You get that taste, and you can’t stop craving it. It’s all you want. We’ve got to bring that hunger with us next year.”