Hershey Bliss D Reese Milton remembers the thought that flashed through his mind.
He remembers feeling good during last Saturday’s game against the Saskatchewan Shockers, with the Bliss comfortably ahead in a key game against a tough opponent. He remembers Bliss LW Lance Sweet skating toward the corner to pick up a loose puck. He remembers Shockers D Wyatt Barnes going after the same puck. He remembers Sweet skidding on a bad patch of ice and getting tangled up with the burly Barnes. He remembers both players slamming into the boards. He remembers Barnes getting up, claiming the puck, and skating away. And he remembers Sweet staying down, writhing in pain. He remembers the stretcher coming out onto the ice to carry the winger away.
And he remembers the awful, sinking thought: “Oh no, there goes our season.”
You can’t blame Milton for his feeling of doom. Sweet is one of Hershey’s leading scorers, and a member of their famous “Love Line.” And perhaps no SHL team is more familiar with heartbreak than the Bliss. In 2015, Sweet suffered a serious lower-body injury that caused him to miss a third of the season and tanked the team’s shot at a division title. In 2016, the Bliss blew a division title on the last day of the season by allowing four unanswered goals to Washington in the third period, turning a 3-1 victory into a 5-3 defeat. Last season, on the heels of a stunning Finals win over Anchorage, Hershey got off to an abysmal 3-16-1 start that left them in too deep a hole to climb back to contention.
This season, the Bliss have been at or near the top of the East for much of the season. But they’re in a tight battle for the playoffs, with the Hamilton Pistols and New York Night neck-and-neck with them and the Quebec Tigres lurking just behind. So losing a key contributor – and just after the trading deadline, too late to acquire a replacement – had the potential to derail a promising campaign.
Post-game examination confirmed Hershey’s worst fears: Sweet would require surgery and will almost certainly miss the rest of the season.
“This one’s tough on us, real tough,” said C Justin Valentine. “As a friend and a teammate, you just feel awful for him.”
But a funny thing seems to have happened: the Bliss haven’t fallen apart. Facing a week on the road against some tough opponents, Hershey has kept winning and kept up in the playoff chase.
“We’re determined that we’re going to win this [title] for Sweets,” said Valentine. “What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.”
On Sunday, in the first game after Sweet’s injury, the Bliss faced the Seattle Sailors at Century 21 Arena. The Sailors have been having a terrific season, and they’ve been nearly unbeatable on home ice. But Hershey blitzed the Sailors with a four-goal first period and held on for a 6-4 win.
Things didn’t get any easier on Tuesday, as the Bliss headed north of Alaska to face the Anchorage Igloos. The trip to Anchorage is always tough on visiting teams, and the Igloos are in the middle of their annual second-half surge. But that didn’t stop Hershey from coming from behind with a four-goal third to hand the Igloos a stunning 4-3 defeat.
After the jet-lagged Bliss dropped a 4-3 decision in Dakota on Thursday, they went to Kansas City and thumped the Smoke 5-2. Valentine scored, completing a seven-goal week as he picked up the slack for his fallen teammate.
“I think we’ve faced enough adversity over the years that we’re ready to handle this,” said Bliss coach Chip Barber. “We’re like a well-tempered chocolate: we’ve been forged by the heat and we’re nice and firm and smooth. We’re not going to crumble the minute something happens to us.
“Would we rather have Sweets out there? Of course we would. But are we going to hang our heads and give up just because he’s out? No way. We believe we can win this, and we will.”