Offseason Update: Bliss Bond At Chocolate-Making Class

It’s no surprise that the Hershey Bliss have always been fascinated with chocolate.  They play in America’s chocolate-making capital, in an arena called the Chocolate Center.  Their coach is famously obsessed with the stuff and frequently works chocolate-related metaphors into his interview.  Their top line has even had their likenesses rendered in chocolate.

So when the Bliss decided to participate in a chocolate-making workshop as a team bonding experience, it was very much on-brand.  But the team found it a surprisingly meaningful experience, and they believe it taught them valuable lessons that will help them next season.

Chip Barber

The idea of attending the workshop came from coach Chip Barber.  After the team lost in the first round of the playoffs for the second straight year, Barber wanted his players to have a positive experience that they could remember fondly during the offseason.  “Things kind of ended on a sour note for us,” said the coach.  “And I figured, the best way to get the sour taste out of our mouths was with something sweet.  And then it hit me: let’s make chocolate!”

Barber contacted the Hershey Story Museum, which invited the team to a special combination of their usual chocolate-making class and the truffle-making workshop they typically offer around Valentine’s Day.  The evening began with a tasting of a variety of single-source warm drinking chocolates from around the world.  The players were encouraged to make notes about the tastes they encountered and to discuss them with each other.  “That part was a lot of fun,” said C Justin Valentine.  “I was expecting them all to taste like, you know, regular hot chocolate.  But they didn’t; they were complex and really interesting.  Some of them weren’t sweet at all; they were fruity or spicy or bitter.  Sometimes all of them at once.  Definitely a cool thing to try!”

After they finished the tasting, the players were escorted into the Chocolate Lab.  D Reese Milton was slightly disappointed; “I was expected all my Willy Wonka dreams come true,” he said, “but it was more like a science classroom full of chocolate.  No Oompa Loompas, thank God; I always thought they were creepy.”

Inside the lab, the players learned about how chocolate goes from the bean to the finished product.  They then got to try making their own candy bar creations using both white and milk chocolate, along with some additional items for decoration.  LW Lance Sweet tried to make a bar that resembles Hershey’s jerseys.  “It didn’t totally come out,” he said, “but I had fun trying it.”

After that, the players learned about truffle making and tried their hand at it.  Some were surprised to learn that the chocolate treats don’t actually contain truffles, but were so named for their resemblance to the prized fungi.  “I always thought it was weird that they had pigs digging chocolates out of the ground,” said Milton.  “This makes much more sense.”

The players then learned how to hand-roll truffles, using both dark chocolate and ruby chocolate ganache.  The latter, a naturally pink chocolate that has the flavor of berries, was a novelty for most players.  “I’d never seen this crazy pink chocolate before,” said LW Russ Nahorniak.  “At first I thought it was a prank or something.  But it tasted pretty good, and different than any other chocolate I’d had before.  Kind of like raspberries.  The hand-rolling process was slow and messy, but fun.

After they finally finished rolling the ganache, they dipped their truffles in white or milk chocolate and finished them with a variety of toppings, from cocoa powder to crushed nuts to coconut.

The players raved about the experience afterward.  “I definitely feel like I understand chocolate on a whole new level now,” said Milton.

They also said that they’d learned valuable experiences that would benefit them on the ice.

“I learned that in order to temper chocolate, you have to be patient and keep it within a close band of temperature in order for it to work right,” said C Spencer Kirkpatrick.  “The same thing is true in hockey: to be successful, you have to be patient during the season, and not get too high or too low.”

Valentine, meanwhile, volunteered that “they taught us that truffles don’t have to be perfect circles to be right.  In fact, they look better if they’re a little off.  I’m going to remember that next season; instead of always looking for the perfect pass or the perfect shot, I’ll go ahead even if it’s a little off.  It’ll probably still work out.”

First-Time Winners Dominate SHL Annual Awards

At the SHL’s fifth annual awards banquet, Commissioner Perry Mitchell continued his annual tradition of handing out trophies honoring the league’s best players and coaches.  As usual, the awards were chosen based on votes from SHL players, coaches, and media. As was the case last year, many of this year’s award winners were first-timers.

During his opening remarks, Commissioner Mitchell cited the recently-completed Finals between the Hamilton Pistols and the Anchorage Igloos as an example of the best the league has to offer.  “It was a series that featured some of the league’s best veterans – players like Steven Alexander, Jake Frost, Raymond Smyth, and Ty Worthington – right alongside emerging stars like Lasse Koskinen and Tom Hoffman.  The present and the future, playing together on the same ice.  It showed me once again that our league is in good hands, now and for years to come.”

The 2020 award winners are as follows:

Most Valuable Player: C Calvin Frye, Hamilton Pistols

Last season, Frye’s teammate Steven Alexander has a monster second half, led the Pistols to their first-ever SHL title, and was the overwhelming choice as the league’s MVP.  This year, it was Frye who took over the role as the team’s premier offensive option.  It was Frye who led the team to its second straight title and earned Finals MVP honors in the process.  And it is Frye who is the runaway winner of the league MVP award.  Frye finished ahead of Alexander (as well as the rest of the Pistols) in goals (42) and points (77).

“There’s no way that we would have won these titles without Alex; he’s our heart and soul, and his drive sets the tone for the whole team” said Pistols coach Keith Shields.  “But there’s also no way we would have gotten over the hump without Cal, and without him flourishing and blossoming into the superstar he is now.  He’s the puzzle piece that clicked everything into place.”

Others receiving MVP votes included Hershey’s Justin Valentine, Portland’s Eddie Costello, and Anchorage’s Tom Hoffman

Rookie of the Year: RW Bengt Frederiksson, Kansas City Smoke

This award comes as little surprise; when Frederiksson was chosen with the first overall pick in the draft, he was considered one of the league’s best-ever scoring prospects.  The Swedish-born winger didn’t disappoint, finishing in the top 10 in the league in points with 71 (two points shy of the SHL rookie record set last year by Boston’s Alain Beauchesne).  In a down year for scoring around the league, Frederiksson still finished with 28 goals, and displayed a surprisingly deft passing touch with 43 assists.  It’s the second year in a row that a Smoke player claimed the Rookie of the Year honors; last season, the award went to D Bastien Chouinard.  Thanks in no small part to Frederiksson’s offensive spark, Kansas City jumped 21 points and moved from last place to fourth in the standings.

“Bengt gave our top line a whole new spark,” said Smoke coach Randy Bergner.  “Just look at his speed, his incredible shot, and his creativity.  He just transformed our offense.  He’s still figuring some things out, but watching him gives me hope.  We’re starting to resemble a real, functioning hockey team, and that’s pretty cool.”

Frederiksson received a stiff challenge for the award from Dakota D Brady Prussian, who raised eyebrows by recording 11 goals and 25 points in just half a season.  Other vote-getters included Hamilton’s Elvis Bodett, Boston’s Levi Rudyard, and Hershey’s Nash Gould.

Coach of the Year: Kyle Barrow, Boston Badgers

2020 was Barrow’s first season as a head coach, after many years as an assistant in Anchorage.  he made an auspicious debut in a number of ways.  The Badgers saw a dramatic improvement in their on-ice fortunes, jumping from 45 points to 64 and finishing with a .500 record for the first time in franchise history.  Barrow also turned around what had been a toxic and hard-partying clubhouse, getting the team to focus on playing hard and winning games.  On a personal level, the coach was a trailblazer; he is the first openly gay figure in the league.

Barrow dedicated his win to his husband, Jim, and to the LGBTQ community.  “Even though the world is changing, there’s still a lot of prejudice out there and a lot of barriers for us, especially in sports,” said Barrow.  “But I’m here to say that there are no limits to what you can achieve.  And I hope that if there are young queer kids out there who dream of being a player or a coach someday, they can see me and know that it can happen.”

Other finalists included Hamilton’s Keith Shields, Portland’s Harold Engellund, and Anchorage’s Sam Castor.

Sharp Shooter Award: C Calvin Frye, Hamilton Pistols

The Sharp Shooter Award is one of two awards that is not given out base on the outcome of a vote.  Instead, the honor is awarded to the player who finishes the season with the highest goal total. This year’s winner was Frye, whose 42 goals in the 2020 season allowed him to finish three goals ahead of his nearest competitors, Alexander and New York’s Brock Manning.

Frye is the first player to win the MVP and the Sharp Shooter Award in the same season.  (Last year, Alexander won the MVP and the Commissioner’s Trophy.)  With the Pistols taking home the Vandy as well, it’s a highly decorated year for the 25-year-old center.

“This year has been an amazing ride for me and for the whole team,” said Frye.  “I can’t wait to see what we get done together next year!  Maybe we can make it three in a row.”

Alexander paid tribute to his younger teammate, saying, “It can be hard sometimes when you have two alphas on a team, but it’s not like that with us.  We complement each other’s game, and we’re both focused on creating the best opportunities for the team.”

Commissioner’s Trophy: LW Lance Sweet, Hershey Bliss and LW Chase Winchester, New York Night

Similar to the Sharp Shooter Award, the Commissioner’s Trophy is not awarded based on the result of a vote.  Instead, the award goes to the player who finishes with the highest point total.  For the second season in a row, this award was split between two players.

Sweet is a first-time award winner.  Skating on Hershey’s high-powered “Love Line”, Sweet racked up plenty of assists facilitating for Justin Valentine and Christopher Hart, in addition to scoring plenty of goals in his own right.  He finished the season with 84 points, including 57 assists (the third-highest total in the league) and 27 goals (second on the Bliss, behind Valentine).

“It’s great that Lance won this award, because he doesn’t get enough recognition,” said Valentine.  “He’s the ultimate team player.  When we need someone to create and set us up, he’s there with a perfect pass right on the tape.  When we need someone to generate offense, he can create his own shot and drive it home with the best of them.  If we need somebody to get along the wall and dig pucks out, he’s there for that too.  He’s a super-utility player.”

Winchester claims the award for the second year in a row and the third time overall.  He has long been one the SHL’s top assist men, regularly feeding high-scoring linemates Manning and Rick Nelson.  He once again led the league in assists with 68, seven ahead of the second-place finisher, Hamilton’s Claude Lafayette.  Thanks to his league league-leading assist haul, the 33-year-old Winchester was able to tie Sweet atop the points leaderboard.

“I’m getting to the backside of my career,” said Winchester.  “And what I want more than anything is to win a Vandy.  But until that happens, I’m glad that I can at least get some props for my passing prowess.”

Goalie of the Year: Ty Worthington, Anchorage Igloos

Historically, this award has belonged to Dirk Lundquist.  The Michigan goaltender had won this award three of the previous four seasons.  However, Lundquist (and the Wolves) had a down year in 2020, opening the field to other contenders.  This time around, the award went to Worthington, Lundquist’s close friend and netminder for the Wolves’ longtime rival in Anchorage.  Worthington had a typically terrific season, going 27-15-4 with a 2.40 GAA and a .926 save percentage.  Those marks are good enough to rank him first in the SHL in save percentage, second in GAA, and third in wins.

“Ty has always been one of the league’s top goalies,” said Igloos coach Sam Castor.  “But he’s always had to stand in The Bear’s shadow.  Finally, this season, Ty is able to get some of the recognition that he deserves.”

Other finalists for the award included Portland’s Jesse Clarkson, Quebec’s Riki Tiktuunen, and Lundquist.

Defenseman of the Year: Reese Milton, Hershey Bliss

This honor has been a long time in coming.  Milton has long been recognized as one of the SHL’s elite blueliners, but year after year, he would come up frustratingly short in the voting for the award.  He has been a finalist for the award every year in which it has been awarded, and he has come in second in the voting three times.  But this year is the first time Milton has actually won the award, getting the nod over Saskatchewan’s Wyatt Barnes in a close vote.  Milton’s two-way brilliance was just too much for the voters to ignore this time around: his 48 assists and 64 points were tops among blueliners, and his 16 goals tied him for second at the position, while his 150 blocks were second-most in the league.

“Wait, I actually won?!” said Milton, upon learning of his award.  “I didn’t think that was allowed!  I thought maybe the voters were biased against squirrels.  I thought I was always going to be the bridesmaid, never the bride.  Not literally, because I’ve never been an actual bridesmaid.  But you know what I mean.”

In addition to Barnes, other award finalists included Boston’s Matt Cherner, Portland’s Benny Lambert, and Milton’s teammate Jean-Luc Aubin.

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 the top blueliner on the SHL’s latest playoff team, Reese Milton.  Welcome, Reese. Congratulations on making it to the playoffs!

Reese Milton

Reese Milton: Thanks! We’re all really excited.

SHLD: How does it feel to make it to the playoffs once again?

RM: It’s cool, for sure! It seemed like everyone thought Quebec was going to beat us, but I guess we’re tougher than everyone thought.

SHLD: What do you think was able to push you over the top?

RM: I think it’s our great team chemistry. We’ve been through a lot, and it’s brought us closer together. And the Love Line was awesome again!

SHLD: Last year you were at the top of the standings, but you didn’t win. Do you think you’ll be able to go farther this year?

RM: Last year, the crowds in Hamilton were so loud, and we let them get in our heads. We won’t let that happen this year.

SHLD: Glad to hear it. Now onto some more fun questions. As your fans surely know, you are a lover of squirrels.

RM: Yes! Finally some squirrel questions.

SHLD: Haha! How are the squirrels doing?

RM: Doing great! I’ve got a whole family of them in my house now. They’re so cute!

SHLD: It sounds adorable. How does your family feel about your furry friends?

RM: Well, my wife thinks it might not be a great idea to keep wild animals in the house. But look into their adorable little eyes… how could they hurt you?

SHLD: Surely they can’t be perfect all of the time. Have there been any mishaps lately?

RM: Well, last time I was home, I was snuggling one by the fireplace, and he bit me and ran up the chimney. Little rascal!

SHLD: Goodness. It must have been difficult to get him back down!

RM: It was! Especially because I forgot to put the fire out before I went after him.

SHLD: Oh dear. Well, good to see that you are all right after that.

RM: Just a few first-degree burns. No big deal!

SHLD: As a hockey player, you’re quite resilient when to comes to injuries. Do you think your experience as a hockey player has helped you raise so many wild animals?

RM: Actually, I think it’s the opposite. As a hockey player, you have to be tough. But when I go home and play with my squirrels, I get to let my softer side out.

SHLD: We’re impressed at your level of balance! Thank you for providing so much insight on your raising of squirrels.

RM: Thanks! It’s my passion.

SHLD: It’s always a pleasure to interview you, you keep it interesting. Best of luck in the playoffs!

RM:Thanks! This is our year.

Bliss Claim Final Playoff Spot

Coming into the final week of the 2020 SHL season, three of the four playoff spots were spoken for.  The Portland Bluebacks, Anchorage Igloos, and Hamilton Pistols had all secured their tickets.  But the Hershey Bliss and Quebec Tigres were locked in a battle for the final berth in the East.  In the end, it was the Bliss, powered by a red-hot offensive attack, who earned the spot and a rematch with the defending champion Pistols.

“When this team needed to come up big, they did it,” said Hershey coach Chip Barber.  “They have the heart of a champion, and they played like champions this week.”

The Bliss opened the week one point up on the Tigres.  Facing a home-and-home with last-place Washington, Hershey rolled to a pair of routs, outscoring the hapless Galaxy by a combined score of 13-5.

Justin Valentine

“That was a pair of trap games right there, but we didn’t get caught in the trap,” said C Justin Valentine, who scored four goals in the Bliss’ 8-3 Sunday win at Constellation Center in DC.  “We didn’t let ourselves take those games for granted; we kept our foot on the gas and kept piling it on.”

Meanwhile, Quebec faced a home-and-home against the Pistols.  They won the front half at Centre Citadelle 5-4, but in the return engagement, Lasse Koskinen stopped all 38 Tigres shots en route to a 2-0 shutout.  The loss pushed Quebec to the brink of elimination.

On Thursday, the Bliss went to Boston seeking a closeout win against the scrappy Badgers.  Boston took an early lead, holding a 2-1 edge after the first period.  But Hershey hung tough, essentially grinding the home team’s offense to a halt for much of the rest of the game.  D Reese Milton tied it up on a shot from the faceoff circle in the first minute of the second.  In the third, Hershey broke the game open by scoring four times on their way to a 6-3 win.

As the Bliss celebrated their third postseason trip in the last four years, team captain Valentine paused the thumping music and celebrated his teammates’ resilience.  “Everybody outside this room was ready to write us off,” he shouted as he wiped the champagne from his eyes.  “Everybody thought Quebec was going to chase us down, but we held on and sent them packing.  Now everybody’s expecting Hamilton to wipe us out.  Let’s go shock the world one more time… wait, make that two more times!”

Meanwhile, Quebec sat in silence and pondered their near miss.  “It is a great disappointment, yes,” said RW Stephane Mirac.  “To come this close and not succeed, it is an arrow to the heart.  But we cannot feel ashamed; we gave a great effort.  Still, I wish we had won.”

Tigres coach Martin Delorme praised his team’s competitiveness.  “Although we fell short of our goal,” Delorme said, “we can hold our head high.  We gave every ounce of our devotion and our effort.  We have the components of greatness here.  And next season, I believe we will achieve it.”

The Bliss open their series in Hamilton on Friday.