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Depth a Focus as Bears Open 2023 Training Camp

October 2, 2023

An oft-repeated axiom of the 2022-23 Hershey Bears was how deep the team was on its way to a 12th Calder Cup.

If depth is the lone metric by which a team measures its postseason chances, then things are looking pretty good in Chocolatetown this fall.

The 2023-24 Bears are loaded from top to bottom, as evidenced by the club’s Training Camp Roster, which still is missing a handful of names of players who are still up in camp with the Washington Capitals.

Among the returning players from last season’s Opening Night Roster on the ice Monday morning at GIANT Center for the first practice of camp were forwards Mike Vecchione, Ethen Frank, Matt Strome, Henrik Rybinski, and Julian Napravnik; along with defensemen Aaron Ness, Jake Massie, Logan Day. 

Throw in additional experienced skaters such as Garrett Roe, Jimmy Huntington, Dmitry Osipov, and hungry young rookies like Capitals prospects Ryan Hofer, Pierrick Dube, and Mitchell Gibson - the framework for a team capable of competing with the AHL’s best is present.

Nevermind the fact that players like captain Dylan McIlrath or playoff MVP goaltender Hunter Shepard are still on the Washington roster.

The team present at GIANT Center on Monday skated through several high-tempo drills, before conducting a split-squad scrimmage observed by Bears vice president of hockey operations Bryan Helmer and head coach Todd Nelson from the stands.

Nelson addressed the media following the first practice of camp, and was complimentary of what he saw on the ice.

"Usually when you go through the first day, there's usually some players that stick out that probably shouldn't be here. It wasn't the case,” Nelson said. “Everybody looked great."

How will such a sizable core of last season’s championship roster mesh with the newcomers?

“It works both ways,” Nelson explained. “The guys that won the championship last year, they have an obligation to these new guys coming in to give them a chance to win the championship, and the new guys coming in the locker room, they have an obligation to make sure that we reach that goal again. So it works both ways, but the new guys coming in are excited.

“Let's face it, [Hershey’s] a great place to play. Great fans. We get treated well here and they put together a team that always gives us a chance to win every night. It doesn't matter who we have in the lineup. And it's made some really tough decisions about who's playing and who's not, because from what I saw out there today, there's still a lot of people that are gonna be sent down from Washington, but what I saw today was, there was no really weak link out there.”

Raising the Bar

Hershey will by no means be sitting on its laurels - the expectations for this season have been established by Nelson and the coaching staff. And while there will be plenty to celebrate on Oct. 14 when the Bears raise their championship banner to the rafters, everything has reset to zeroes.

One of the players who flourished under Nelson last season was Ethen Frank, who led the Bears with 30 goals during the regular season and was named to the AHL’s All-Rookie Team. That in part played a part in the forward receiving his first NHL contract from the Capitals last spring. Now, the forward will be competing every night not just to help the Bears win games, but also to be ready to receive his first NHL call-up.

“Nelly’s been kind of preaching already, you know, turn the page, we like what we did last year, but it's a new season,” Frank said. “Everybody starts off 0-0 and you build from that and so we just have to raise the bar that much higher for ourselves.”

End of a Great Summer

Monday was defender Aaron Ness’ first time addressing the local media since the Calder Cup win in June, but the veteran defenseman had a legitimate excuse, as Ness and his wife Samantha were celebrating the arrival of their second child. Immediately after the team returned to Hershey from California, Ness caught the first available flight to his home state of Minnesota. Fortunately, the Bears alternate captain made it back in time for the birth of his son, Henrik Jay Ness.

“We had a few close calls during the playoffs and kind of trying to decide what to do,” Ness said. “But it all worked out and I'm very thankful, very lucky, and without my wife it wouldn’t have been possible.

“Obviously I love her very much and, and without her, I'm not able to be here and do what I do every day. And I got another son out of it. So it's a lot of fun. Two kids now. It's keeping me on my toes.”

Sutter, Priskie Clear Waivers

Last season, the Bears were dealt an initial blow early in training camp when Axel-Jonsson Fjallby and Brett Leason were both claimed by other NHL clubs after being placed on waivers by the Capitals for the purpose of being designated to Hershey.

Fans may have been entitled to have flashbacks on Sunday when forward Riley Sutter (a valuable contributor in a fourth-line centerman role during last spring’s title run) and defenseman Chase Priskie (an experienced blueliner who has twice hit the 30-point mark in his AHL career) were placed on waivers by Washington. Thankfully, while several other players around the NHL were claimed by other teams before Monday’s 2 p.m. deadline came and went, both Sutter and Priskie emerged unscathed.

That means Sutter and Priskie will be available to Hershey for Tuesday’s practice.

Written by Jesse Liebman, Bears media specialist.

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