Within the home dressing room at Giant Center in Hershey, PA, the assistant coach's office and the head coach's office are roughly five feet apart.
Troy Mann's journey of five feet took a one-year, 2,700 mile detour, but ultimately he found his way.
An assistant coach in Chocolatetown during perhaps the most glorious run in franchise history, the Capitals and Bears announced Wednesday that Mann, 44, has been named the 25th head coach of the Hershey Bears. Following a one-season ECHL hiatus that landed Mann as a head coach in Bakersfield, California, today he returns to Giant Center as the man in charge.
For several players in Washington's lineup at present, their formative hockey years in the professional ranks came in central Pennsylvania. Braden Holtby, Jay Beagle, John Carlson, Karl Alzner, and Dmitry Orlov, all played in Hershey for a coaching staff with Mann in the mix. Most of the aforementioned saw plenty of action for the Bears in 2009-10, when the team won an AHL record 60 games and a Calder Cup championship. That team completed a five-year run in which Hershey played in the Calder Cup final round four times, claiming three championships. For those who watched the Bears during that time, it seemed like winning ways would continue for a long time to come.
As it turned out, the window was closing faster than anyone would have anticipated, and the Bears fell on hard times.
Three straight first-round exits left followers of the Bears restless. Due to holes in the Washington roster, players were rushed to the NHL faster than previous years, leaving the minor league cupboard less fortified. Veteran AHL snipers Keith Aucoin and Alexandre Giroux moved on. There would also be change in the head coach's office. When Mark French did not have his contract renewed last summer, Mann was among the finalists to succeed French. Respected by players and staff alike, it seemed like a natural transition. However, for the first time since Bruce Boudreau was hired to coach the Bears in 2005, Washington/Hershey decided to go outside the organization for its next bench boss. Mike Haviland, who served as an assistant coach for the Stanley Cup winning Chicago Blackhawks in 2010, edged out Mann for the position, prompting Mann to look elsewhere to continue his coaching career.
That move would involve a lot of miles, and a job a long way from central Pennsylvania.
Looking to improve his resume and his chances of moving up the coaching ladder, Mann made the trek from central Pennsylvania to California, taking the head-coaching job for a beleaguered Bakersfield franchise that failed to make the Kelly Cup playoffs in 2013. Under Mann's leadership, and after a slow start, the ECHL's Condors took flight and turned around its fortunes. Bakersfield not only made the Kelly Cup playoffs this past season, it advanced to the league's Western Conference Finals, ultimately succumbing to eventual champion Alaska in six games. It was a great leap forward for the franchise, and Mann was at the helm when it happened.
Then came the break that Mann likely didn’t expect.
After just one season as the head coach in Hershey, Haviland opted to leave pro hockey to become the head coach at Colorado College last month. The job that Mann coveted was open again. He once again expressed his interest, and this time, the story has a much happier ending. He'll now return to the place he never wanted to leave in the first place.
When Brian MacLellan interviewed to become the team’s general manager this spring, he stressed to owner Ted Leonsis how the team needed to get back to developing from within. Leonsis was frank and honest at the team’s press conference introducing MacLellan and head coach Barry Trotz about getting back to basics on a development level. "One thing that struck me loud and clear (from MacLellan) was that we had drafted very, very well but perhaps some of our development had gone sideways over the last couple of years and we needed to make a big re-commitment to our affiliate in Hershey," Leonsis said at the time. "I think that was news to us, how we needed to re-bond and make a recommitment to Hershey."
"I've always thought when we were at our best as an organization was when the coaching staff and GM of our AHL affiliate and NHL team were in synch. Brian has a real respect for what's going on in Hershey. And from Barry, you'll also see a real appreciation for that. They both said the same things to us in different interviews. They feel this can be a partnership that can really work."
The words from ownership last month can only be music to the ears of Bears fans north of the Mason-Dixon line. In addition to Hershey not moving past the first round of the Calder Cup playoffs since 2010, the Bears also suffered the stinging setback this past spring of missing the tournament altogether. It marked the first time in nine seasons the Chocolate and White missed postseason play.
Troy Mann was there during the best of times. He'll now be tasked with recapturing some of that glory from the big office in the home locker room at Giant Center. With a recommitment from the organization to focus on development, it seems appropriate to turn over the controls to a coach who helped shepherd several players in today’s Washington lineup to the NHL.
Mann’s assistant coach will be former Washington defenseman and Hershey fan favorite Bryan Helmer. Helmer's Caps career was brief, playing in just 12 games during the 2008-09 season. In what turned out to be his last stint in the NHL, Helmer turned back the clock on December 26, 2008, as he assisted on Alex Ovechkin's game-winning goal and was named the game’s number one star in a 3-2 win over Buffalo at Verizon Center. It was a memorable moment, but not as memorable as what he accomplished in a Hershey uniform. 14 years after winning a Calder Cup with the AHL's Albany River Rats in 1995, Helmer captained the Bears to back-to-back championships in Chocolatetown in 2009 and 2010. Helmer's appointment as an assistant coach mark his first foray into coaching, but for those who have spent any significant time around the former blueliner, Helmer seems more than equipped for the challenge. Both Helmer and Mann will be introduced, or in this case, re-introduced publicly in a Thursday afternoon press conference.
It was a longer journey than expected for Troy Mann. Now, he and those loyal to the Hershey Bears hope the journey is just beginning. From the radio booth in Washington, best of luck to Troy and Bryan, and here's to the restoration of Chocolatetown to its proper hockey glory.