HERSHEY, Penn. — The tears arrived fast, a handful of seconds after he stepped behind the podium, and soon Troy Mann was leaning away from the microphone with red eyes and a sheepish smile, like his body couldn’t decide what emotions this homecoming had earned. “Told my wife I wouldn’t do this,” the new Hershey Bears coach said, with a cough to clear his throat.
Mann had always envisioned someday returning to the AHL, but here he stood just 12 months after leaving, old colleagues by his side, a full-circle moment for his coaching career after spending four seasons as an assistant with Hershey from 2009-13. Last offseason, Mann left for the ECHL, a head coach for the Bakersfield Condors. Moved into a new home. Started a new life. Found a new challenge.
“What a difference a year makes,” Mann said.
Mann was here, flanked by general manager Doug Yingst and new assistant coach Bryan Helmer, another former Hershey figure, because Mike Haviland bolted after one season, bound for Colorado College. The Bears had missed the Calder Cup playoffs for the first time since 2004-05, fourth in the East for the second straight season, but the storied franchise found no shortage of interest for the job.
“The decision on Troy was based on since he’s been here previously, he already had our sweatsuits and golf shirts, so it saved us a lot of money,” Yingst said, eyes locked ahead in a deadpan expression.
Actually, Mann had arrived to an interview at the NHL draft armed with video, practice plans and the Bears depth chart before him. He had paid attention to the Bears from afar, even while flipping Bakersfield from 1-10-1 into a Western Conference finalist. He knew the personnel and the personalities, the facilities and the community. After all, how much of a difference could a year make?
In Philadelphia, Mann ran into Helmer at a coaching seminar. The AHL’s all-time points leader for a blue-liner was working for the Peterborough Petes in the OHL as an assistant coach. During the first break, Mann pulled Helmer aside and told him he was interviewing for Hershey, meeting with Yingst and Capitals brass the following day.
“If things work out,” Mann asked, “would you me interested in coming to Hershey?”
Mann understood Helmer’s clout in Hershey and the AHL. He had witnessed it. Twenty seasons at this level, 1,117 games, 564 points and three AHL championships — including two with the Bears — said enough. So on Sunday, when Yingst called Mann and offered a deal, Mann grew anxious to call Helmer, who had also interviewed with another AHL team and an NHL team for other positions.
“It took a couple days, but he was pretty thrilled to know he was the guy who was going to come here and ride this ship with me,” Helmer said.
“Thought we would lose him,” Yingst said.
But Helmer was here too and, by the time he took the podium inside Giant Center, where the video screen proclaimed in bold font, “The Hershey Bears welcome back Troy Mann & Bryan Helmer,” the emotions had simmered down. Left sitting nearby were a general manager who prioritized familiarity in his search, a head coach who in 12 months had learned to run an organization and an assistant coach still one of the more respected hockey figures in league history.
“Thanks Troy,” Helmer said into the microphone. “I’m not going to cry.”
>> Mann and Helmer planned to travel to Washington D.C. on Saturday to meet with Capitals Coach Barry Trotz and the new Capitals staff before developmental camp launches Monday.
“In terms of the role, I’m not really sure what our participation will be the whole week,” Mann said.
>> Yingst was hopeful the Bears and Capitals could finalize contracts with restricted free agents Cam Schilling, Nate Schmidt and Edward Pasquale. All three were given qualifying offers before Sunday’s deadline alongside Michael Latta, who signed on Tuesday to a two-year, one-way deal worth $575,000 per season.
“In the process,” Yingst said. “I hope today. I hope soon. I think it’ll get done.”
Former Hershey defenseman Tyson Strachan, an unrestricted free agent, signed a two-way deal with the Buffalo Sabres and Rochester Americans.
>> Helmer and new Capitals assistant Todd Reirden, both of whom are expected to work with the defensemen on their respective clubs, were teammates in 1999-2000 with the St. Louis Blues. Reirden played 56 games for the Blues that season; Helmer appeared in 15.