There is no doubt that the Hershey Bears, currently in the midst of their 75th anniversary season, and about to embark on their adventure for another Calder Cup title, are considered the model franchise in the American Hockey League. During the course of their 75 campaigns, the club has not only been a perennial success at the box office, but they have also captured the Calder Cup 11 times, nurtured hundreds of players on their way to the National Hockey League, and also served as a stepping stone for numerous coaches and executives on their way to the NHL.
Through all of those years, there has only been one goalie who led the club to the league title in “perfect” fashion, Wendell Young, who went 12-0 in the Bears’ sweep in the 1988 Calder Cup Playoffs and now serves as the General Manager of the AHL’s Chicago Wolves. Although the Wolves failed to qualify for this year’s post-season festivities, this season, Young reached into Hershey’s rich history, both recent and long ago, in his quest to bring the Calder Cup to the Windy City.
Young, a fourth round pick by the Vancouver Canucks in the 1981 NHL Entry Draft, a draft that saw the Philadelphia Flyers, then the Bears’ NHL affiliate select defensemen Steve Smith, a teammate on the ‘88 championship club with their first round choice. After spending his first four pro seasons with the Canucks organization patrolling the pipes in 113 contests for various Canucks’ farm clubs, in addition to thirty outings with the big club, Young was traded to the Philadelphia Flyers’ organization in the summer of 1987. In that deal, the Flyers dealt former Bears’ defenseman Daryl Stanley and goaltender Darren Jensen to the Canucks in exchange for Young and a 3rd round draft pick in 1990 which turned out to be Kimbi Daniels who also spent some time in Chocolatetown during his career.
“Actually, I was quite surprised to get traded out of the organization. I guess after four years they had enough of me,” chuckled Young. “The situation with Philly was that Hextall got suspended in the playoffs the year before and they needed a goalie, actually two goalies, and Mark “Trees” Laforest and I ended up coming in because of that.”
Young’s tenure in the Flyers’ organization lasted only one season during which he spent six games with the “Boys from Broad Street”, but he spent the majority of his time that season with the Bears and appeared in 51 games, notching 33 wins in the regular season.
“As that season went on you could tell things were starting to look good, and we were turning the corner. We had a solid team talent-wise, but I think more importantly we were a very tight team who hung out a lot together. We had a great dressing room with a lot of good leaders in it. That’s when you start realizing that you might be on to something special, when you end up winning the big games, because in those types of games, character really plays out.”
In the playoffs that season, the Bears and Young displayed their mettle and finished off their perfect 12-0 post season with a four-game sweep in the Calder Cup Finals at the expense of the Canucks’ top farm club, the Fredericton Express, in Fredericton no less, providing Young with a sense of vindication.
“Absolutely”, said Young without hesitation when asked if that championship meant more to him since it came immediately against the organization that gave up on him. “When players say it doesn’t mean anything to them, I don’t think they are being totally honest. When you leave an organization, you feel that they don’t want you, but the organization that you go to does. In so many words, I think people defend their honor by coming back to haunt people (in the old organization)” he laughed. “Also, I’m from the East Coast of Canada, and I had a lot of family and friends at the games in Fredericton, too, so it was great that a lot of people that I knew got a chance to see us achieve what we did live.”
During this season, Young’s Wolves had a distinct Hershey flavor as evidenced by the fact that three ex-Bears-Steve Pinizzotto, Zach Miskovic, and Andrew Gordon-all spent part of the season with his club.
“I should have Doug Yingst on retainer,” said Young responding to the sprinkling of Hershey players employed by his club this season. “It’s funny because before now I really didn’t realize we have had three guys on our team from Hershey this season. When we got out and look for guys, we obviously look for guys from winning organizations, and that’s just what these guys are. Andrew Gordon, you’ve got the great character that he brings; Zach, you had his talent level, but I think he was also kind of under the radar as far as a defenseman and Pinizzotto, every time I saw a game he played in, he’d be the guy I’d walk away noticing because of the way he plays the game. He’s so intense. All three of them have been such pleasant guys to have on the team, especially from a GM standpoint of character off the ice, but they also they bring a lot to the team on the ice as well.”
“We don’t really rebuild here; we just try to win. That’s what happens in Hershey. Our organizations are a lot alike. We have a lot of parallels with the older, quality guys. We try to win every year. Some teams are just trying to survive, and some teams are just trying to develop, but I think we try to develop and win at the same time.”
On the management side, the Wolves also have a strong Chocolate and White flavor. Former Bears’ coach Mike Foligno is the assistant coach and former Bear Gene Ubriaco is the Wolves’ Senior Advisor/Director of Hockey Operations, and Young’s right hand man.
“I think we’ve been a big help to each other,” Young said of Ubriaco. “He’s the one who really pushed for me to be the GM here. I call him my godfather. When he was coaching in
Pittsburgh, he brought me in there, and then when was in the organization, he brought me in there in the expansion draft. I also played for him in Tampa and during the 1994-95 NHL lockout, he was here as the coach and assistant GM and they needed a goalie, so he called up Tony Esposito and brought me in here. We’ve had a long relationship and we’ve always gotten along really well. He’s my senior consultant and has been a massive help to me because of his outstanding knowledge of the game, the players and the way that the game runs from a business perspective. I’ve leaned on him a lot, and that’s the reason he’s a senior and I’m a junior.” Atlanta
“When Scott Arniel was hired as the head coach and we were going over candidates for the assistant’s job, we were shocked that Mike was available,” said Young of Foligno. “Mike wasn’t so sure (he wanted the job) because he was looking for an NHL job. But when Scott approached him, he said that he would be absolutely interested in coming here. He understands the game so well, both from his extensive experience in the game from a player’s standpoint as well as from a coaching standpoint. He’s also a great guy to have around. He’s what we call a guy’s guy. He’s and upbeat guy who is really good with the players, and wants what’s best for them and I think that’s what impressed us most about Mike. He does it in such a great way.”
Although he has yet to win a championship as the Wolves’ GM, Young is the only player in the history of professional to hockey to win the Memorial Cup (junior hockey), Calder Cup, Turner Cup (twice) and Stanley Cup (twice), and some may wonder what he envisions his reaction to be should his club ever capture the Calder Cup under his management.
“I think it would be a different perspective for me. People go into the Hockey Hall of Fame as builders and some as players, and I think I’m seen as being a builder. Gene and I in our organization, we put a team together and we pick and choose our players to an extent. We give everybody a chance to win. There are no excuses. Anything they need, they get to help us win. If we don’t win, then we always know we tried the best we could.”
With the championships that he accumulated as a player, it’s not very surprising that Young has absolutely no regrets when looking back on his playing days, and that also applies to his current position, despite the lack of a championship under his management.
“I don’t look back on my career and wonder about anything that I didn’t do, or anything that didn’t happen. I look at my career and see how fortunate I am and how lucky I’ve been to be a part of those championship teams. I was in the right spot at the right time. A lot of great players haven’t been on one championship team. I’ve had the privilege of being on many of them. There’s nothing I would change. Hockey has been great to me. I’ve been in the right place at the right time so many times that I should have bought lottery tickets. It’s long days and stressful and time away from your family, and I still say I’ve never had a true day of work. In reality, I’ve loved every minute of it.”