Bryan Helmer and the Hershey-to-DC Commute
The last time Bryan Helmer got sent down to Hershey, his son happened to be playing in a youth hockey tournament in Columbia. So as he drove back from the NHL to the minor leagues, the veteran defenseman took a detour through Howard County. A costly detour, as it turned out.
"Along that way, somehow a photo radar caught me," Helmer told me this morning. "The other day I was opening up mail and I'm like, 'You've got to be kidding me.' A freaking speeding ticket."
"He's on his own," Caps Coach Bruce Boudreau said, when informed of the speeding ticket. The perils of minor-league life.
At least the latest drive, in the opposite direction, was somewhat more cheerful. A Chevy Suburban, with driver, showed up in Hershey at 7 a.m. Wednesday morning to bring Helmer back to the bigs, in this case via a three-and-a-half-hour drive to Pittsburgh where he met the Caps after his third call-up of the season.
"I napped on the way," Helmer noted. "Put the seat back and sprawled out, so it wasn't very stressful."
The driver, incidentally, had previously ferried just one hockey player in his career. That would be Mario Lemieux, during a charity golf weekend in Pittsburgh.
"It was a little downfall, from Lemieux to Bryan Helmer," said the latter.
Transportation aside, the 36-year-old logged his ninth game of the season Wednesday night, giving him 143 career NHL appearances with four teams, in addition to his minor-league stints with the Albany River Rats, the San Antonio Rampage, the Manitoba Moose and several other entertainingly named franchises. His latest bout of to-and-from NHL shuttling, was--as you might have heard--inspired by his 7-year-old son Cade, who was too young to remember Helmer's pre-lockout NHL days. Cade wanted to see daddy in the League.
"So he'd always be like, 'Daddy, when are you going to get called up?' "Helmer told me. "And I'd be like, 'I'm trying, son.' "
In November, of course, Helmer accomplished that goal, and described Cade as "pretty pumped," telling his youth teammates that "my daddy's in the NHL." With that goal checked off, Helmer said he's no longer sweating his trips to and from Hershey as he would have earlier in his career, and is instead just enjoying the ride. Figuratively.
"I just go with the flow," he said. "That's something I learned over the years, you can't worry about stuff like that. Other years when I was up and I was on that bubble, you'd sit there and worry every single day, and it doesn't make it fun. So I'm just enjoying it. I can't do anything about it. I just relax and enjoy myself. Obviously this is where I want to be, in the NHL, but if it happens it happens. I said at the start when I first got called up that I wasn't gonna worry about stuff like that, and so far I haven't."
I wanted to talk to Helmer because I was curious how the whole moving-to-another-city-for-an-unknown-length-of-time thing works. He said he brought three changes of clothes this time around, and that Hershey is close enough for him to go back for more supplies if he needs.
"I always say, as long as you have your wallet and your cell phone, you can pretty much buy whatever, if you forget something," he said. "And your passport. You've got to make sure you have your passport too, just in case."
This, though, is apparently a different philosophy than the old-timers used to employ. Like, say, Bruce Boudreau.
"They can afford to buy [new outfits] now," Boudreau said. "What did I do? I went with the same pair of underwear. No, but believe me, when you get called up, you don't forget anything. You over-pack all the time, because you hope to stay longer. You know, you're over-packing and you're coming into town, it might be for a weekend, and you've got three suitcases. And the other guys are going, 'Whoa, hold on, you're not moving in. 'But it's wishful thinking on the players' part as well."
For Wednesday's game, at least, Helmer cashed in on his wish, leading to another NHL stint. His wife sneaks little notes into his suitcase during these call-ups; he might find good-luck wishes packed inside his toothbrush case. His new teammates rib him about his age; "Oh, you made it through the night, eh?" they might say when he appears for a morning practice. He's still the captain of the Hershey Bears, so when he's with the Caps, he calls and texts his AHL teammates after games to keep tabs. He said the furnished apartment used by Caps call-ups "makes you feel a little bit at home," and that he "can cook a mean Kraft dinner" in the apartment's kitchen.
His latest promotion came at around 10:30 on Tuesday night, and as he scrambled to get ready for his 7 a.m. ride, he still got the same old thrill of joining the NHL.
"Always, every time, for sure," he said. "It's almost like the first time you ever got called up: You get the little goose bumps, and you're excited."
Of course, he also knows that at some point he'll likely get another call with a different message, sending him back to Hershey yet again, which may or may not lead to another speeding ticket. I asked whether it crosses his mind each time he leaves that he might never be back.
"Yeah, it does, it really does," he said. "Especially...the last time I got sent down, guys were coming back [to health]. But you know, I made it back up to the NHL. I feel I can still play here. And my family got to see me play, and I think they'll remember it now. That was my goal. Now, everything else is just icing on the cake. And I'm just taking it one day [at a time] and enjoying it.
"And if it happens, if I get sent back down and I don't come back up, you know, I'm still gonna be happy. I'm playing hockey for a living. How awesome is that? I love my job and I love coming to the rink. And if it has to be in the minors, it's gonna be in the minors. If it's up here, it's a bonus."
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