It was late October and the Hershey Bears were off to the worst start in the hockey franchise’s 81-year history when the team, led by first-year head coach Spencer Carbery, rolled into Charlotte for a two-game series.
Carbery was already feeling the pressure from Hershey’s fanbase as he team prepared to take on the Charlotte Checkers, the top team in the American Hockey League.
Carbery, a former head coach for the South Carolina Stingrays, reached out to Charlotte assistant coach Ryan Warsofsky, another former Stingrays coach, earlier in the week about getting together while he was in town.
The coaches were joined by Stingrays president Rob Concannon and the three shared dinner and a lot of laughs.
“You could tell that Spencer was down a little bit, the guys hates to lose, but you also knew that he was going to turn things around,” said Warsofsky, who was Carbery’s assistant coach for three seasons with the Stingrays.
After an 0-5 start, Hershey, which is the Stingrays’ AHL affiliate, would go 1-0-1 against the Checkers that weekend. By the end of January Hershey was in the midst of a 16-0-1 run, setting a franchise record with a point in 17 straight games. Since December, the Bears have been one of the hottest teams in the AHL, thanks in large part to Carbery, who was the Stingrays head coach from 2011-16.
Hershey beat Bridgeport in the opening round of the AHL's Calder Cup playoffs and opens a best-of-seven series against Charlotte, which finished with the best record in the league during the regular-season, beginning Friday night at Bojangles Coliseum in Charlotte.
This time, or at least for the next week or so, there won’t be any dinners or pregame fun between the two friends and former Stingray coaches.
“Not until the series is over,” Carbery said with a chuckle. “This is a business trip. Obviously, the games in the regular-season are important, but they mean a little something more in the playoffs. During the regular-season, you call (Warsofsky), you go out to dinner and catch up. In a playoff series, it’s different. There’s a little bit of gamesmanship this time of year.”
And that’s just fine with Warsofsky.
“Our friendship goes to the side now that it’s the playoffs,” Warsofsky said. “We’re both competitors. He wants to win and I want to win. I’ve seen how competitive he is first hand, so for the next week or so we’re not friends. After the series is over, we’ll go back to the way things were. I don’t think I have a closer friend in the business than Spencer.”
Concannon hired both coaches at South Carolina and plans to remain as neutral as possible during the series.
“I’m like a father, proud and happy, for both of them, so I can’t take sides,” Concannon said. “I’m pulling for both of them. It's great to see them both doing so well at the next level."
Carbery and Warsofsky aren’t the only former South Carolina head coaches having success this postseason. Jared Bednar has the Colorado Avalanche in the second round of the NHL of the Stanley Cup playoffs for the first time in nearly a decade. Carbery played for Bednar during the Stingrays run to an ECHL Kelly Cup title in 2009.
The Avalanche upset Calgary, the No. 1 seed in the NHL’s Western Conference, in the opening series of the Stanley Cup playoffs and are taking on San Jose in the second round.
“I was ecstatic to see Colorado beat Calgary,” said Carbery, whose assistant coach in Hershey is Patrick Wellar, who played on the Stingrays' 2009 Kelly Cup championship team. “I know what that series win meant to that organization and to Jared. He’s been through a lot in Denver and to finally see those guys have some success is awesome.”
Playing a major role in the Avalanche’s series win over Calgary was goalie Philipp Grubauer, who played for the Stingrays under Carbery.
“Philip has been a huge part of our team this season and especially in the playoffs,” Bednar said. “When he first got here, I remember talking about Charleston and how much we both loved playing for the Stingrays. The hockey community is such small community.”
Despite being in the midst of an NHL playoff series with San Jose, Bednar still keeps tabs on Carbery, Warsofsky and former Stingrays assistant coach Cail MacLean, who is the head coach of the AHL’s Stockton Thunder.
Bednar, who spends most of the summer on the Isle of Palms, makes a point of getting together with the other former Stingrays coaches for golf, beer and laughs when he's in Charleston.
“I talk to Cail and Spencer to this day,” Bednar said. “I didn’t know Ryan before he became the head coach, but we talk all the time too. To have that support system to help you work through things is invaluable. It’s not a one-way street. I learn from those guys and that’s why I think the organization has been so successful over the years. To have that group of people that you can lean on and mentor each other is really important.”
Carbery recalls a summer night on MacLean’s back porch talking hockey and exchanging ideas about the game.
“I was just getting started in the business and I was like a sponge,” said Carbery, who served as MacLean’s assistant coach during the 2010-11 season. “At that time Cail and Jared were coaches in the American League, but they were genuinely interested in my success in South Carolina and trying to help me be a better head coach.”
The fact that Carbery, Warsofsky, MacLean and Bednar are having success at higher levels is no accident, MacLean said.
“The Stingrays organization has been such a good breeding ground,” MacLean said. “It’s a testament to the way the Stingrays run their organization. They believe in the people they bring in and they believe in developing them and given them the opportunity to move on.”
It’s been almost 20 years since Bednar laced up his skates for the Stingrays and nearly a decade since he stood on the bench at the North Charleston Coliseum. But the bond he has with his successors remains strong to this day. It’s that connection from the past to the present that has taken him and his fellow coaches to the highest level of hockey.
"What we’ve all accomplished there (Charleston) collectively makes it feel like we’re all one big family no matter if we played or coached together," Bednar said. "There’s always going to be that connection between us.”