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Centers of Attention

by Staff Writer / Washington Capitals
Teams don’t win championships without a lot of key ingredients and a lot of factors in their favor. Such was the case with the 2006 Calder Cup champion Hershey Bears. From coaching to special teams to goaltending to defense to clutch offensive performances, the Bears seemed to almost always get what they needed when they needed it.

One of the most notable advantages the Bears had over all four of their different playoff opponents last season was strength up the middle. Regardless of the opponent, the Bears always seemed to have a decided advantage at center ice in size and skill. This often translated into prolonged periods of offensive zone dominance that resulted in goals being scored, penalties being drawn and/or opposing defenses being worn down.

alt “Center was the reason we won last year,” said Bears’ bench boss Bruce Boudreau earlier this season. “Our depth at center was so much better than every other team’s that they just couldn’t handle us. They were big and strong, and they could play both ends of the ice. I’d like to have five centers in the lineup every game, with one playing the wing and four down the middle. Centers can play the wing an awful lot easier than wingers can play center.”

Kris Beech and Brooks Laich centered the Bears’ top two lines last spring. Boudreau had the rare luxury of having two accomplished pivots (Boyd Gordon and Dave Steckel) on his checking line, and he even had 20-goal scorer Joey Tenute centering his fourth line.

Things were different in Hershey early in the 2006-07 season. Beech, Laich and Gordon all graduated to Washington. Steckel and Tenute were both still with the Bears, but both were ailing a bit physically in the early going of the campaign. Hershey’s dominance up the middle had dissipated, and it worried Boudreau.

That’s right about when Kyle Wilson arrived on the scene.

Having graduated from Colgate with a major in physics in 2006, Wilson took a circuitous route to the center slot in Hershey. Drafted with Minnesota’s ninth-round choice (272nd overall) in the 2004 NHL Entry Draft, Wilson’s name was called some 271 picks after Washington grabbed Alex Ovechkin with the first overall choice in that draft. Only 19 players were chosen after Wilson, and the draft was shortened to a more manageable seven rounds the following summer.

The Wild chose Wilson after he posted 31 points (14 goals, 17 assists) as a sophomore with the Red Raiders. As a senior, the Oakville, Ontario native totaled 23 goals and 41 points in 39 games, but it wasn’t enough to convince Minnesota to sign him to a pro contract. Oddly, the Wild spent little time scouting Wilson and trying to determine his eventual worth as a pro.

“I think that was the biggest problem,” says Wilson. “The new CBA had it that Minnesota had to sign me by August 15 or something. I had a pretty good year my senior year, but I hadn’t had much exposure. I think they came and saw me one or two times the whole year. By August 15, they told me that they hadn’t seen me play enough to be in the position to offer me a contract. I shopped around, and ended up in Phoenix and now I’m here.”

Wilson got a look-see with the Coyotes at training camp last spring, and that resulted in a brief trial with Phoenix’s San Antonio affiliate in the AHL. But Wilson didn’t open any eyes in West Texas. He had one goal in his seven games with the Rampage.

“I was on a [professional tryout contract] with San Antonio and I played seven of the 14 games there,” he remembers. “I was released from the PTO. I had been talking to Hershey over the summer anyway. I knew it was a good organization. I thought my best opportunity was to go to [ECHL] South Carolina and try to earn my spot here in Hershey. So I went there, and played five games in South Carolina and I got called up. I worked my way onto the team, so it worked out well for me.”

After netting three goals and totaling five points in his five games with Jason Fitzsimmons’ Stingrays, the Bears turned to Wilson in early December. On Dec. 2, he netted two goals in his first game in a Bears sweater. Wilson hasn’t looked back since; he hasn’t needed to. He has totaled better than a point per game with the Bears and is one of the team’s seven 20-goal scorers. With 45 points in 44 games, he ranks sixth on the club in scoring. He has also compiled an impressive plus-20 defensive rating with the Bears.

“Good story, good player,” said Boudreau earlier in the season. “He shows great poise. He sees the ice with the puck. In his own zone, he knows what he is doing. He is six-foot, he competes. There is a lot to like about him.”

Wilson’s hockey sense and on-ice vision are assets he takes pride in. They’re assets he shares with his favorite NHL player.

“My favorite player was always Joe Sakic,” says Wilson. “He wasn’t a big guy, but he had a lot of skill and he has great hockey sense and a great head on his shoulders for the game. I just loved watching some of the things he can do with the puck. He’s the guy I’ve tried to model my game after.”

It’s not easy to score 20 goals as a first-year pro in the American Hockey League. Despite his successes, Wilson has both feet firmly planted on the ice.

“I’m sure every player goes through it,” he says, when asked about his ups and downs since leaving Colgate. “You have to go through your tough times. In San Antonio, I wasn’t playing much. I wasn’t getting in many games, and the games I did get in, I was getting four or five shifts maximum and I was playing on the wing. It wasn’t really a great situation for me. You start to question whether you can really play in the league when the coach doesn’t have any confidence in you, and you start to lose confidence in yourself. But I wanted to give it a legitimate shot and keep working hard. I’ve found that if you keep working hard, things tend to work out for you and in the long run it did.”

It has worked out pretty good for the Bears, too. A physics degree from Colgate is a good thing to have, but Wilson is in no hurry to put the sheepskin to good use.

“I haven’t gotten that far yet,” he says. “I went to school and the idea was to play hockey. When I got to my senior year, I was having a good year and I decided I was going to give it a shot to play pro. You don’t really send out your résumé, you don’t really look into what your options are yet. Most people with physics majors go back to school for something, whether it’s a year or two to specialize in something, or to go into engineering. But I am trying to put that off as long as possible. I want to stay on the hockey track and deal with it when it comes.”

Wilson isn’t the only newcomer who has bolstered the Bears up the middle. Hershey signed third-year pro Matt Hendricks last summer, and he has also gone a long way toward helping to fill that void up the middle. Hendricks went right from the campus of St. Cloud St. to the pro game three years ago at this time.

“I was drafted by the Nashville Predators (fifth round, 131st overall in 2000),” Hendricks says, “and right after my senior season was over, I went right to the Milwaukee Admirals. I ended up winning the Calder Cup there, so it was a pretty good deal. I didn’t play a lot, but it was good to be a part of it.”

alt Hendricks spent his first full pro season with the ECHL’s Florida Everblades in 2004-05, totaling 24 goals and 50 points in 54 games. He finished out that campaign with Lowell of the AHL. Hendricks spent last season with Rochester before inking a deal with the Bears last summer. He has 17 goals and 37 points in 55 games with Hershey this season. All of those totals represent career bests for him at the AHL level.

“It’s been great to be brought into such a great organization,” says Hendricks. “From the top all the way down to the trainers here, they’ve been nothing but welcoming. The whole town has been great. They’re probably the best fans in the league, as I am sure anyone would tell you.”

Hendricks is just three goals shy of becoming the eighth Bear to score 20 this season, so the team is at least as happy to have him as he is to be there.

“We’ve also got Matt Hendricks, who I think is a great player,” said Boudreau earlier in the season. “Not a puck-handling great player, but he has desire, is tenacious, can skate and he does all the things that you need to do to win.”

As the Bears prepare to embark upon the defense of their 2006 Calder Cup title, the team’s pivots will again find themselves the centers of attention in Hershey.

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