Bliss Run Wild At Sheetz as Season Ends

The Hershey Bliss saw their disappointing season wind to an end this week.  The players have long since resigned themselves to the fact that they won’t have a chance to defend their title.  As a result, they weren’t consumed by sadness or anger as the regular season drew to a close; rather, they were possessed by a feeling that C Justin Valentine described as “a really deep, deep weirdness.”  That weirdness boiled over on Saturday in a most unusual rest stop.

All of Hershey’s games this week were on the road, so the team spent the week flying from one Eastern city to another, including two separate trips across the border and back.  “We were all pretty punchy this week,” admitted Bliss C Spencer Kirkpatrick.  On Thursday night, they flew back in from Quebec.  Rather than heading to Washington, site of Saturday’s finale, the Bliss went home to Hershey to participate in an autograph session scheduled at a local mall on Friday.

Then on Saturday morning, the team boarded a bus down to DC.  “Somehow, it felt like our season in a nutshell,” said Valentine.  “Instead of getting ready for the playoffs, here we are rolling through the countryside in a bus, on our way to a meaningless game against our supposed rivals, who aren’t making the playoffs either.  I think something kind of snapped for us on that ride.”

When the bus got to Thurmont, Maryland, the team insisted on stopping.  The bus pulled into the Sheetz just off of US Route 15, and the team descended on the convenience store.  “We get a lot of buses through here,” said Sheetz clerk Alvin Clark, “but something about the way these guys came in told me they were going to be trouble.”

As the Bliss wandered the aisles, they began behaving (in Valentine’s words) like “a bunch of four-year-olds on a sugar high.”  Valentine and his fellow “Love Line” mates Lance Sweet and Christopher Hart grabbed sodas out of the case, snuck up on their teammates, and poured the sodas over their heads.  The team’s defensemen grabbed a 24-pack of beer and engaged in a drinking contest.  Kirkpatrick and RW Noah Daniels monopolized the Made-to-Order food screens, trying to top each other with increasingly elaborate custom orders.

LW Trevor Green cleaned out the store’s entire supply of jerky, reasoning that “maybe we’ll get in a crash, and this will buy us a day or two before we have to resort to cannibalism.”  Meanwhile, RW Sven Danielsen (known as the team’s “den mother”) bought one of every medicine on the shelf, saying that “you can’t be too careful on the road.”

Goalie Brandon Colt took things to another level when he grabbed a couple of donuts out of the pastry case and used them to play Frisbee with his backup, Milo Stafford.  The pair knocked over display racks left and right as they dove for donuts.

Chip Barber

After about 15 minutes of this madness, coach “Chocolate Chip” Barber (wondering where his team had gone) came into the store.  As he took in the chaos around him, the coach’s eyes bulged and the veins on his forehead throbbed.  “What the hell is going on here?!” Barber shouted, as his players froze.  After a couple of them mumbled attempts at an explanation, the coach held help his hand.  “Never mind, I don’t want to know.  You’ve got two minutes to clean this up and get out of here.”

The players sighed and obeyed the coach’s orders.  Just as the bus was about to pull away, however, Stafford came running out of the store, hollering after his colleagues.  As he got on the bus, Stafford explained that he’d found something he had to buy.  He reached into his pocket and pulled out an inflatable water toy in the shape of a rubber duck.  “I love rubber ducks!” Stafford said by way of explanation.

“I don’t know if I’m a coach or a zookeeper,” sighed Barber.  “Those guys were basically looting that poor store.  And they didn’t even grab any chocolate bars!”

Somehow, in spite of all the craziness of the morning, Hershey managed to win the game that night, defeating rival Washington 4-3 in overtime.  For the Bliss, it was a day to remember at the end of a season to forget.  “It was a cathartic experience, and I’m glad we did it,” said Sweet.  “Even though they’ll probably never let us in that Sheetz again.”

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Bliss Reflect on “Nightmare” Season

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.

Justin Valentine

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.”

Chip Barber

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.”

Kulkarov Finds Bliss in SHL

Nikolai Kulkarov

When Nikolai Kulkarov joined the SHL in 2016 as a draft pick of the Hershey Bliss, he was regarded as a promising prospect, a heavy hitter who also had the speed and agility to move the puck and contribute on offense.  He was also regarded as something of a mystery, a painfully shy young man who barely spoke English and spent most of his time either on the ice or in his apartment.

Now in his third season with the Bliss, Kulkarov hasn’t yet blossomed into the two-way star that some observers projected.  But he has blossomed considerably as a person.  His English is far from perfect, but he can now hold his own in conversations and interviews.  He’s also considerably more outgoing and free with his teammates.  According to the young blueliner, he owes his personal growth to a couple of men: teammate Ruslan Gromov… and Pat Sajak.

“I learn my English from ‘Wheel of Fortune,’” said Kulkarov.

In his first season with Hershey, the culture shock was nearly unbearable for Kulkarov.  “Everything is different in America,” said the young blueliner.  “Especially the big cities, like New York and Washington.  Hershey was smaller and more comfortable, but still difficult.  I was missing home very much.”  He hid in the shower after games to avoid questions from reporters.  His Bliss teammates tried to help by inviting him out to dinners and team gatherings, but Kulkarov almost always declined, afraid that he would be embarrassed by his limited English proficiency.  “I was scared I would say something dumb or mean by accident, and then they would hate me or not want me around,” he explained.

Instead, whenever he was not at practice or a game, Kulkarov stayed in his apartment or hotel room, reading Russian books and websites and listening to familiar songs from home, and calling his family for long and sad conversations.  “I thought very much about going home, maybe to the KHL,” the defenseman said.

Kulkarov might have given up and gone home if not for Gromov.  The veteran blueliner noticed the rookie’s reticence and began speaking to him in the clubhouse.  “He spoke to me in Russian and said, ‘Nik, I think maybe you are a shadow, because I only see you for games.’  He gave me the chance to talk to someone who understands.”  Kulkarov opened up about his homesickness, his anxiety about speaking English, and his difficulties adjusting to life in America.

“Ruslan said he would be my protector,” the defenseman said.  And Gromov proceeded to take Kulkarov under his wing.  He served as the young man’s unofficial translator, invited him out with small groups of teammates to get more comfortable, and gave him a suggestion to work on his English.

“He told me to watch television,” Kulkarov explained.  “Then I could hear English and learn to understand in private.”

So in addition to his twice-weekly English classes, the rookie started watching American TV shows for hours a day.  He quickly became a fan of “Wheel of Fortune.”  He was first drawn to the show by the bright and colorful set, but he soon became captivated by the show’s host, Sajak, and his easy banter with contestants.  “Pat looked very relaxed and comfortable,” said Kulkarov.  “He was cool.  I wanted to be cool too.”

So whenever Kulkarov found himself in an awkward situation or was struggling for a word, he tried to emulate Sajak’s cool.  “If I can be like Pat,” the defenseman said, “then I will not feel so uncomfortable.”

With Sajak’s example in mind, Kulkarov worked with Gromov to improve his speaking skills.  He practiced conversations and interviews with his teammate, and asked about things that he saw or heard that he didn’t understand.  “Ruslan was very patient with me,” said Kulkarov.  “Even if my question was dumb or I made silly mistake, he did not laugh or make fun.”

Today, Kulkarov is comfortable handling post-game interviews on his own, and he enjoys spending time with his teammates off the ice.  He still watches “Wheel of Fortune” when he can.  And he tries to pay forward the help that Gromov gave him.  When the Bliss drafted a Russian, C Yegor Nestorov, this season, Kulkarov took the young player under his wing.

“I want all players to know: life in America is not so scary,” said Kulkarov.  “There are many people here who will help you.  You do not have to be alone.”

East Full of Surprises Early

Through roughly one-quarter of the SHL season, the race in the Eastern Division has defied expectations.  As Washington Galaxy RW Jefferson McNeely put it, “If anybody correctly predicted the standings so far, you ought to get to Vegas and start playing the tables, because you must have ESP or something.”

The most shocking storyline by far has been the collapse of the defending champion Hershey Bliss.  Widely favored to capture a second straight division title, the Bliss instead fell toward the division basement and have remained there since.  Their incredibly slow start hasn’t been the result of injuries (they haven’t suffered any) or key departures from last season (their roster returned largely intact).  In fact, the exact cause of their struggles has been a mystery.

After Hershey lost 3-0 in Saskatchewan on Friday to run their losing streak to five, coach “Chocolate Chip” Barber called out his club, saying that the championship had gone to their heads.  “When you win a title, that’s a real sugar high,” Barber said.  “But after the high comes the crash.  We made the mistake of believing our own press.  We’ve gone as soft as a bag of Kisses in a hot car on a summer day.”  C Justin Valentine, on the other hand, thinks the problem is “mostly bad puck luck, honestly.  You look at the underlying numbers, they’re pretty similar to last year.  We’re getting the looks and the shots, doing our work on the defensive end, but we’re not getting the breaks.”

One obvious trouble spot for the Bliss is a perennial problem in Chocolate City: goaltending.  After Brandon Colt came out of nowhere to win the Finals MVP last season, the hockey world was eager to see if he could repeat the feat.  So far, he hasn’t.  Colt’s GAA has ballooned nearly a full goal since last season (from 2.77 to 3.68), while his save percentage has plummeted from .909 to .872.  Meanwhile Milo Stafford, the ageless backup who defied the skeptics by producing strong numbers year after year, suddenly looks as though he might be washed up at age 36.  “It’s a hard time for Milo and me,” said Colt.  “We feel like we’re letting the whole team down.”

With Hershey down and out, a couple of surprising teams have jumped up to grab the spotlight.  The Hamilton Pistols looked to be a young team on the rise, finishing just below the .500 mark last season.  But now it appears they’ve arrived ahead of schedule.  After going 3-1-1 on a tough run through the West this week, culminating in a 3-3 tie with mighty Michigan at Cadillac Place, the Pistols ran their record to 11-3-1 and are five points clear in the division.

Last season, Hamilton’s strong top line was dragged down by a lack of depth and experience.  GM Marcel LaClaire made some modest but shrewd moves this offseason. He acquired a pair of seasoned veteran leaders in C Henry Constantine and D Craig Werner, and called up a bunch of prospects (wingers Jamie Campbell and Michael Jennings and defensemen Albie Glasco and Buster Kratz) to fix their dismal bottom line.  The result has been a high-octane offense that’s scored 62 goals and compiled a +27 rating so far, along with a solid defense in front of Lasse Koskinen, who appears to be the league’s next great netminder.

“Everyone talked about how this wasn’t our year, but we were really going to be something a couple seasons down the road,” said coach Keith Shields.  “I told our guys, why the heck shouldn’t it be our year?  Don’t let anyone tell you you’re too young or too green to compete.  And they sure haven’t!  What we’re doing night in and night out is an inspiration.”

Slotted in behind high-flying Hamilton is the Quebec Tigres.  Ever since the Tigres joined the league in 2016, they’ve been built on a hard-nosed defense and a great goalie in Riki Tiktuunen.  The question was whether they could ever develop a functional offense that would allow them to compete.  In their third season, they’ve finally done it.  Quebec made a splash in free agency, signing ex-Washington winger Walt Camernitz to a 4-year, $20 million deal.  Skeptics wondered whether Camernitz was really worth that much money.  The early returns have been extremely encouraging; not only is Camernitz producing at a point-a-game pace so far (7 goals, 9 assists), he’s also sparked his linemates, C Mikhail Ilyushin (6 goals, 13 assists) and RW Stephane Mirac (6 goals, 7 assists).  They’ve also added a new top pairing of strong two-way defenders, top draft pick Laurie Workman (4 goals, 6 assists) and minor-league callup Richard McKinley (3 goals, 5 assists).  They’ve almost doubled their goal output from the same point last season (from 26 to 44).  Their newfound offensive prowess has allowed them to post a 9-6-0 record despite Tiktuunen looking a notch less dominant than usual.

“Before, everyone said the only way we could win was to make the game a bloodbath and win a 1-0 rock fight,” said coach Martin Delorme.  “But now we show that you can be a tough, hard-working team and also score the goalies.  Perhaps our new uniforms have made us more stylish.”

Lurking close behind Hamilton and Quebec are a pair of familiar foes.  The Washington Galaxy were expected to take a step back this season after losing Camernitz and D Patrick Banks.  But they’ve shown unexpected resilience, surviving an early injury to C J.C. Marais and posting a solid 8-7-0 record.  Their success has been fueled by a resurgence of their top line, led by McNeely.  The D.C. star leads the league in points (28) and is tied for the lead in goals (13) with Hamilton’s Steven Alexander.  “People rushed to bury us, but we’ve got the experience and the bloodline.”

Meanwhile, the New York Night may be best known for coach Nick Foster‘s attempt to start a feud with Hamilton, but they’ve looked decent so far with a 7-7-1 record.  They’ve rediscovered the firepower that went missing last season; after hanging a 10-spot on Seattle Friday, they now lead the league with 63 goals.  While their defense remains a mess, much-maligned goalie Jesse Clarkson has quietly provided a steady performance (5-4-0, 3.11 GAA, .913 sv%) that has kept them in games.

“There’s a lot of hockey still to be played,” said Foster.  “This division’s still wide open.  Stay tuned, ’cause anything can happen.”

Interview of the Week: Reese Milton

This week’s interview is with Hershey Bliss D Reese Milton.

SHL Digest: We’re here this week with one of the league’s best defensemen, Reese Milton of the Hershey Bliss.  Reese, thanks for taking the time to speak with us.

Reese Milton

Reese Milton: Well, sure thing!

SHLD: Congratulations on being the defending champs!  How did that unexpected victory feel?

RM: Really good!  It may have been unexpected to the rest of the world, but not to us.  We knew what a talented group we had, and we felt like we could go all the way.  But when we actually did, it was a pretty overwhelming experience.  And bringing the Vandy back to central PA and getting the love from the fans… that was pretty special.

SHLD: You guys wore those gold-trimmed uniforms on opening night to celebrate your championship.  What did you think of them?

RM: I thought they looked sharp!  Very classy, and a special way to honor the season we had.

SHLD: You’re off to a surprisingly slow start this season.  Any cause for concern?

RM: We’re not too worried.  We’ve been playing the game right; we just haven’t had any puck luck.  We’ve had games when we’ve thrown a barrage at the net, and the other goalie just stands on his head.  And we’ve had some tough goals in our end too.  It’s early.  But it’s a competitive division, and we don’t want to fall too far behind.

SHLD: You’re arguably one of the best two-way defensemen in the league, yet you don’t get as much attention as some of the other big names.  Why do you think that is?

RM: I think part of it is that my game isn’t too flashy.  I don’t fight, I don’t go in for big devastating hits, and I’m not playing for headlines.  I just focus on playing a solid, clean game and helping my team win.  I’m not trying to be the center of attention.  Also, I don’t tend to talk to the media that often.  So it’s probably good that I’m doing this.

SHLD: Let’s give the people a chance to know you better, then.  Tell us something about you that most fans don’t know.

RM: One thing that most people don’t know is how much I love squirrels!

SHLD: Squirrels, huh?

RM: Absolutely!  At my home in upstate New York, there are a bunch of squirrels who live in the trees in my yard, and I love to feed them and play with them.

SHLD: Pretty cool!

RM: And sometimes, if one of them gets hurt, I’ll bring them into my house and nurse them back to health. I have an old cat tower in my house for the squirrels to play on.

SHLD: Wow, that’s unusual!  Must be neat for them.

RM: They really seem to like it.  I guess you could say I’m nuts about squirrels!  Get it, “nuts”?  Because squirrels like to eat nuts.

SHLD: Yeah, we get it.

RM: There’s a lot of things that people don’t know about squirrels.  They don’t even realize how many kinds of squirrels there are!  Eastern grey squirrels, Western grey squirrels, fox squirrels, California ground squirrels, red squirrels.  And that’s not even getting into flying squirrels, or other members of the squirrel family like chipmunks and marmots.

SHLD: Wow, you sure know a lot about squirrels.

RM: Want to hear my squirrel impression?

SHLD: Aaaaand it looks like we’re out of time!  That interview definitely went in an unexpected direction.  Thanks for your time, Reese.

RM: You’re welcome.  Love to the Hershey fans and my fellow squirrel nerds!

 

Bliss Don Gold-Trimmed Uniforms on Opening Night

Last season, the Hershey Bliss won a championship that no one expected them to win, shocking the Anchorage Igloos in 7 games to capture the Vandy.  And on Opening Night this season, the Bliss celebrated their championship in a way that no SHL team ever has before, debuting a special gold-trimmed uniform for the occasion.

According to coach “Chocolate Chip” Barber, the plan had been in the works for virtually the entire offseason.  “Once the shock wore off [on the win] and the parade was over, we started thinking about what else we could do to celebrate,” said Barber.  “It was a special win – even better than a Special Dark bar – and we wanted to do something special for the fans.”

Inspiration struck when the Hershey chocolate company debuted the new Hershey’s Gold bar, a “caramelized creme” bar with peanuts and pretzel bits inside, and offered to let the team give away free samples on Opening Night.  “One of the guys in our marketing department is from Chicago, and he remembered that the Cubs wore gold on their jerseys to celebrate winning the World Series,” Barber explained.  “So he thought: why not have us do the same thing?”

Hershey Bliss “championship” uniforms

The team decided to create a modified version of their regular uniforms, substituting gold for silver in their standard color scheme. The new threads were popular with the players.  “It’s like a gold medal for your whole body,” said LW Lance Sweet.

Impressively, they managed to keep the secret under wraps all the way until the opener on Saturday night against the Washington Galaxy.  As fans entered the Chocolate Center, they each received a Hershey’s Gold bar, with a special sleeve referencing the Bliss  championship.

Prior to the puck drop, Barber and owner Dean Sheridan hoisted the championship banner to the rafters as the crowd gave a standing ovation.  Sheridan then brought out the championship rings to hand out to the players.  One by one, starting with captain Justin Valentine and going down, the players skated out in their gold-trimmed uniforms as the crowd roared.

“Don’t worry,” Valentine quipped, “this is just a one-day thing to celebrate the championship.  You don’t need to go get new merch.”  After receiving a glare from Sheridan, the captain quickly added, “But the jerseys are in the team store, so you can buy them!  Everyone should get one!”

D Reese Milton held up his ring and saluted the crowd.  “This ring, these jerseys, and this whole celebration is for the fans of Central PA!” Milton shouted.  “We have the greatest fans and the best energy in the league.  No one thought we would win this, but we did.  Now we need to go out there and repeat, and really shock ’em!”

Unfortunately for the fans, Hershey came up short, falling 4-2 to the Galaxy.  Reportedly, the team was planning to wear the gold-trimmed jerseys again once or twice this season; after the loss and after getting off to a shockingly poor 0-4-1 start to the season, those plans have been shelved, at least for the time being.

“I’m glad we had a chance to remember last season and say thanks to the fans,” said Valentine.  “But we’re done looking back now.  From now on, we’re looking forward and thinking about what we need to do to win another title.  We’re not going to be able to sneak up on anyone this one.  We’ll have to fight for it.”