Alexandre Giroux’s overtime goal has put the Hershey Bears ahead (3-2) of the Stars for the first time in the Calder Cup Finals series. From his seat on the Bears charter jet, right wing Andrew Gordon sets the stage for the series’ completion in Hershey. He discusses the vibe in the dressing room, disparities in travel between the NHL and AHL, and predicts some excellent hockey to come.
We finally arrive to the point in the season that we have been waiting for all along. After taking tonight’s game in Texas, we return home with a 3-2 series lead, and more importantly, a chance at the championship. They say the fourth win in a series is always the hardest one to get, but considering the battles we have just fought in games four and five, I don’t see how it could get much tougher. Both teams seem evenly matched through five games. One favorable bounce here or a tough call there has made all the difference, but a win is a win, and we have found a way to win three games in their building. Our confidence is high.
Sometimes you can feel the vibe in the dressing room. When things are going poorly, a bad goal or a big save against your players can make the team’s attitude spiral down. Frustration sets in, and it spreads around so fast that– before you know it– everybody is squeezing their sticks. Every play that doesn’t result in a goal seems to make things worse.
Today we experienced the complete opposite effect. After allowing the first goal of the game (another unfortunate bounce off of poor Karl Alzner’s face), we remained calm and composed. It was as if the goal had never even happened. To me, this is a sign that we were ready for battle. Playoff games are often won in the third period or later, so allowing a goal in the first didn’t intimidate us. We have come from behind in every game we’ve won in this series, as well as many times in prior series, so it did not seem insurmountable. Getting a lead and losing it can sometimes be worse than never having a lead at all. Knowing your opponent has the ability to come back on you deflates a team and makes a future one- or two-goal lead feel a little more nerve-racking. You never feel safe or in control even when ahead. This is the psychological warfare waged between teams over a seven-game span. You remember things from previous games, and that’s why we now have the mental edge.
As I write this entry, I’m about a half hour into our flight back to Harrisburg, and I’m thinking about how much better this charter flight is compared to the long day of travel the fellas from Texas have to go through tomorrow. I was told that due to the limited availability of flights, the Stars players have to split up into three groups and travel separately arriving tomorrow anytime between 10pm and 3am. By the time they land, I will have had an 8-hour rest in my own bed, eaten three home-cooked meals, put the finishing touches on packing up my apartment, and will be getting ready to have yet another 8+ hour sleep. This is one of the luxuries of playing in Hershey. During the regular season we spend a lot of time on the bus (most of our games are between 3-6 hours away), but in the playoffs, the team spares no expense to put us in a position to win. This series has felt like being an NHL player. Flying on a private plane, staying in a beautiful hotel, and eating great food are part of the experience in the finals. It really gives you something to look forward to while coming down the stretch of the regular season. Being treated like an NHL player is the carrot the organization dangles in front of us, and it works. Four trips to the finals in the last five years isn’t too bad, eh?
Minor-league travel is a funny thing. None of it is glamorous, but the team cannot splurge to take care of the players because of the schedule. For the majority of the season, we practice Tuesday-Thursday, and then play three games in three nights over the weekend. When we have time off, it’s not an extra day in the bright lights of New York City. Instead we get 12 hours between bus rides from Springfield to Lowell, Mass., with a game in between. That’s life in the minors though. It’s the price we all pay to follow our dream. We ride that bus because we aspire to make it in the NHL full-time one day, where the only bus we will see is to and from the tarmac. I remember after my brief recall to Washington this year, I played a game in Toronto, then Ottawa, Ontario, before returning to Washington to pack my bags and drive to Hershey. On the flight home after the game in Ottawa, I remember thinking, “36 hours ago I was eating stale pizza on a bus from Binghamton, now I’m being served steak and fresh sushi on a flight to the nation’s capital?” What a difference a day makes! Even though in Hershey we have an incredible bus (big cushy seats, wireless internet, and satellite TV), nothing tops the flights we have taken these last couple days. No matter what you do for a living, it’s nice to be rewarded for your hard work.
Looking forward to game six, I predict we play our best game of the series. Despite losing the first two games at home, I feel like we are playing like a different team now. We are more patient, but we have lost none of our tenacity. This game has to be played like an elimination game. We have learned from our mistakes in the first two games and with our crowd behind us it’s going to be an unbelievable atmosphere. I heard the Giant Center sold out in only five hours, and I’m sure it would have happened even sooner if the people in box office could pump tickets out faster! We are all looking forward to the opportunity to win the AHL Championship in front of our family and friends.
I spoke earlier about how these chances to hoist a trophy don’t come around very often, so winning one on the road, and possibly one at home in my first three years of pro hockey would really be a great start to my career. I almost feel bad for guys like Bouchard and Perrault who have known nothing but winning since they arrived on the pro scene. From here on out any season that doesn’t end in a championship will feel like a complete failure. But when I think about it, any season that doesn’t end in a championship is a complete failure. Either way, we have one win left before the season is completed the way we set out to do it all those months ago. We are a Championship team; we just have to finish the job.
“We rate ability in men by what they finish, not by what they attempt” – Unknown
Thank you for your time. See you back in Hershey!
Yours in hockey,