Photo courtesy the Hershey Bears
Helmer's fantastical hockey journey, from pond to pros to office
BY BEN PORTNOY | AUG. 15, 2018
HERSHEY – On the corner of Main and St. Lawrence Street in the center of Winchester, Ontario, a giant banner engulfs the side of a three-story red brick apartment building.
Fashioned like a mural, the poster depicts a visual history of the nearby Winchester District Memorial Hospital in cartoon-like detail.
Professionally, the hospital is one of the larger entities in North Dundas Township. Just this past year more than 150 volunteers donated over 13,000 hours of work.
For Bryan Helmer and the other children of North Dundas, an equitable time commitment was made about 15 minutes away, down County Road 3, on a rough and ragged sheet of ice in the nearby town of Morewood.
From dawn until dusk, they toiled away on the chicken wire-framed rink. So much so, it became as much Helmer’s home as his family’s house on the outskirts of Winchester.
“You would stay out there till your feet would almost fall off,” Helmer recalled.
That pond served as the outset of a hockey career that sojourned from juniors to the pros to the front office of the American Hockey League’s Hershey Bears, where Helmer is now the the vice president of hockey operations and helps develop the Washington Capitals’ best prospects.
Helmer honed his on-ice skills in 14 cities in the AHL and NHL. Most replicated home with their modest size. Helmer’s stints as a journeyman defenseman passed through towns like Albany, Hershey, Manitoba, Springfield and Grand Rapids. His stays lasted just a few years at a time.
But, in the vein of Morewood or Winchester, there was a feel to those places – one of familiarity and kinship. Local residents came to know you, what you do, where you’re from.
Helmer’s quick to note he was never drafted into any of the three professional leagues he played in during his 20-year hockey career. He jumped from juniors to the AHL, eventually becoming an All-Star with the Albany River Rats in 1998 and later a captain with Hershey, where he won two Calder Cups. He went west to Phoenix, up to Worcester, out to Vancouver, over to Manitoba. An emotional call-up from the Capitals came in 2008. Helmer even stopped to play in San Antonio before finishing with Springfield in 2013.
Overall, Helmer lasted more than 1,000 games in the AHL and holds its record for assists (435) and points (564) by a defenseman. An induction into the AHL Hall of Fame came as a result in 2017.
So many stops, so many towns, so much hockey from a natural rink in small-town Canada onward. The journey there was an arduous one.
“Those are the stories that are really important, too,” Robbie Ftorek, Helmer’s first professional coach, said. “Everybody looks at the guys that are going up all the time. But the guys that are left behind, those are the guys that take those guys who go up and teach them how to get up and how to be a pro, because you don’t stay in the game 17, 18, 20 years by not being a pro.”
Helmer wasn’t schooled in power skating at an early age. Instead, his eventual prowess on hockey skates was developed in a different type of boot.
“So I did [figure skating] until I was 13 years old, until I looked around and none of my buddies did it anymore,” Helmer said, laughing. “I was like ‘Ok, I’m the only guy left, I’d better just focus on hockey.’”
With some self-induced peer pressure, Helmer traded in his figure skates for a stick and helmet. As a junior player he totaled 191 points for the Wellington Dukes of the Metropolitan Junior Hockey League between 1989 and 1992. That production attracted the interest of the New Jersey Devils, who granted Helmer a tryout invitation following the 1992 season.
“It’s a huge jump to go from Junior B to the American Hockey League,” Kevin Dean, Helmer’s former teammate and a current Boston Bruins assistant coach, told The Sports Capitol. “But he was able to do it because he was so intelligent and competitive.”
Coached by Ftorek, a 1972 U.S. Olympian and NHL veteran, the soft-spoken Helmer signed with the Albany River Rats, the Devils’ AHL affiliate.
“You know, Helms was Helms and he just fit in,” Ftorek said. “Sometimes you wouldn’t even know he was there. But when it was needed to be known he was there, he was there.”
In Helmer’s second season in upstate New York, the River Rats totaled 109 regular-season points, granting them the AHL’s North Division crown. In the postseason, they lost just two games en route to a Calder Cup title — including a 4-0 sweep of the Fredericton Canadiens in the Calder Cup Finals.
As Helmer’s winding minor league career would have it, 14 years passed before he’d hoist another championship trophy. But in doing so just once, he fulfilled a promise to his greatest role models, his parents.
“My dad was an Ontario Metro Police officer and the amount hours he put in and still drive me to practices,” Helmer said. “And my mom, she worked as a secretary and they sacrificed so much and I said when I made it pro, if I ever won a championship ring, the first one I’d give to my mom. And I actually did. My ’95, when I won it with Albany, went right to my mom.”
On the northern edge of downtown Hershey, off main street – suitably named Chocolate Avenue – the Hershey Chocolate Factory emerges. A light aroma of chocolate fills the air when driving toward it.
“To me it feels like a small-town feeling,” Helmer said of Hershey. “Everyone knows everybody.” Roughly a mile from downtown, Helmer sits at his desk in the Giant Center, the Bears’ 10,500-seat, 16-year-old home.
“In today’s game sometimes, because so many things are expected, the part of being appreciative is forgotten,” said Craig Heisinger, a Winnipeg Jets’ executive and the general manager of its AHL franchise, the Manitoba Moose. “But that’s not Bryan Helmer and that’s not his family.”
Reminders of Helmer’s 20-year professional hockey career coat the walls of his Giant Center office. To the right of his door, a collage of photos from the Bears’ 2008-09 Calder Cup title — a team Helmer captained — is displayed in a multi-faceted picture frame.
Nestled a few inches below and to the right of those pictures is a collection of shelves filled with a sporadic combination of files, binders and books. On top of the furniture piece, a number of his individual awards are displayed.
Perhaps most striking of all the memorabilia in Helmer’s office are the two posters resting above each other on the wall over his right shoulder. The lower image is a signed black-and-white photo portrait of Milton Hershey – the company founder and someone Helmer highly respects and credits for the franchise’s existence. Yet more compelling are the words hanging above the portrait.
The quote from 19th century congressman Horace Greeley reads, “Fame is a vapor, popularity an accident, riches take wings. Only one thing endures, and that is character.”
Ironically, Greeley’s quote almost perfectly encapsulates Helmer in the eyes of his peers.
“The thing I love about Helms is how authentic he is,” former Hershey head coach Troy Mann explained. “It’s almost one of those situations where what you see is what you get. There’s no hidden agenda. He’s just one of the most caring people I’ve been around.”
Not the most vocal of leaders, Helmer’s voice carried resonance when called upon. Having been run out of their own building by the Texas Stars in the first two games of 2010 Calder Cup Finals, the Bears trailed 3-1 after the first period of Game 3 on the road. In response, Helmer kicked the coaches out of the locker room – a privilege being a 17-year veteran affords.
“This was as we’d come off after the first period and Bryan, and he wasn’t a yeller or a screamer as a captain, but he got up and he lambasted and gave it to our team,” Mann, an assistant coach for the Bears at the time, recalled. “Well you could hear him outside the locker room.”
Helmer remembers his talk being less gruff. Nonetheless, he corroborated Mann’s story.
“After the first period I came into that dressing room and it was like we weren’t even losing,” Helmer said. “Guys were talking about plays and what we could do better. So I just looked around and said we’re going to be fine.”
Whether in a soothing or berating tone, Helmer’s sermon served its purpose. Hershey responded to their captain’s rhetoric with five unanswered goals and a Game 3 win. Subsequently, Helmer’s bunch rattled off three straight wins for the organization’s 11th Calder Cup title and third in five years. A few members of Washington’s recent Stanley Cup champion were on that team, including goalie Braden Holtby, defenseman John Carlson and forward Jay Beagle, who left the organization this summer in free agency.
“So much goes into bringing a team together and [Helmer] had the ability to do that,” Mann said.
Helmer’s home phone in Hershey rang just before Christmas in 2008. He did not recognize the “202” area code. The call went to voicemail.
To that point, Helmer was more than five years removed from his last appearance at the NHL level — a 17-game stint with the Phoenix Coyotes during the 2004-05 season — and playing for the Bears.
Helmer half-expected a marketing call when he listened to the message. Instead, the voice identified itself as Don Fishman. Fishman, the Capitals’ longtime assistant general manager, said they wanted to sign Helmer to an NHL deal ahead of the following night’s game against the Montreal Canadiens at Capital One Arena.
“So I told my wife, because we had a list of all the numbers of all the players, ‘Go get the list I want to see who’s pranking me,’” Helmer said. “I mean, I knew Don Fishman, but I had never heard his voice or anything.”
None of the numbers matched.
Still shocked and disbelieving, Helmer phoned Bob Woods, a former Bears assistant coach then on Bruce Boudreau’s staff in Washington, to further investigate.
“All of a sudden I’m like ‘Bob, Don Fishman just left me a message. Is this true?’ And he’s like, ‘Absolutely Helms. You know, you deserve it. Go on and have some fun,” Helmer recounted with tears in his eyes. “It was like the first time I got called up again.”
At age 36, the pure elation of a call-up wasn’t about ego or the future. For Helmer this was personal. It would be the first real chance for his kids, Cade and Rylan, to see their dad suit up in an NHL uniform.
“He’d always ask me, when he got a little older, ‘Dad when are you going to get called up to the NHL? I want to see you. You never played in the NHL,’” Helmer said of Cade. “So he didn’t realize that I did play in the NHL. He didn’t see me play. He didn’t remember.”
Upon his arrival in Washington, Boudreau started the veteran minor leaguer. Standing on the ice at Capital One Arena for the national anthem, adrenaline raced through Helmer’s veins as wandering thoughts filled his head.
Moments later, his first NHL game in five years commenced. Montreal controlled the opening draw. Right winger Alexei Kovalev, a 430-goal scorer in his 19-year NHL career, bolted toward Helmer.
“Sure enough I start, the puck is dropped and Kovalev grabs the puck,” Helmer said. “And I’m like ‘Oh shit,’ and he’s coming towards me. I’m like, ‘Oh no. What a way to start.’ I made a move, got a good stick on, poked it away from him.”
Though he never quite stuck, Helmer did total 26 points over 146 games with the Phoenix Coyotes, St. Louis Blues, Vancouver Canucks and Capitals. His various spells also included a playoff promotion in the 2002 postseason with the Canucks amid all the years in the AHL.
“It was worth it,” Helmer said of his final promotion. “It’s something you never forget, right?”
Hanging in the Helmer’s spare bedroom in Hershey is a painting of an outdoor rink. A gift from Heisinger and the Manitoba Moose for Helmer’s 1,000th career AHL game, the image, entitled “The Rink,” depicts two outdoor ponds with kids slapping a puck around the ice.
At first glance, the picture simply takes up space on the wall. But in all reality, it’s a subtle reminder of the chicken wire-wrapped pond in Morewood where Helmer’s career began.
“Every time I walk by it it brings back good memories,” Helmer said.
Five years have elapsed since his final game in the AHL. The call-up in Washington is an even further 10 years past. At 46 years old, Helmer has resettled in the front office in Hershey, the franchise he brought two championships.
In October 2016, Helmer was elected to the AHL Hall of Fame. Joined in the class by Doug Yingst, a 34-year executive with the Bears and the man Helmer was hired to replace, his latest accomplishment came by way of another ring of the telephone.
“It’s one of the best phone calls I ever got in my life, was that call from [AHL President and CEO] Dave Andrews,” Helmer said.
Helmer still laces up his skates on occasion to help the Bears’ on-ice staff when necessary, though he’s more likely to be found in a boardroom or behind a desktop.
Despite the shifting scenery, Helmer’s love for the game remains. Whether it’s at the grocery store in Hershey, or meetings with corporate bodies, any mention of hockey brings a glow to a face obscured by a scraggly, slowly greying beard.
“I think the biggest thing for me is I’m very fortunate to do what I do and stay in the game because I love it,” Helmer said. “And I can’t see myself doing anything else.”