Retired defenseman Bryan Helmer is the first former Griffins player to be inducted into the AHL Hall of Fame.
Story and photo by Mark Newman
No player may be more closely associated with the AHL during the past 25 years than Bryan Helmer, the now-retired defenseman who played two seasons for the Grand Rapids Griffins back in 2004-06.
Although he spent portions of seven seasons in the NHL, it was his time in the AHL where Helmer truly distinguished himself. Of the 1,312 pro games he played, 1,164 were in the AHL, the most ever by a defenseman. His 20-year resume also includes more assists and points than any defenseman in the league’s 81-year history.
So it is fitting that Helmer, an unheralded and undrafted overachiever who was the member of three Calder Cup championship teams, found himself inducted into the AHL Hall of Fame in a ceremony held in conjunction with the 2017 AHL All-Star Classic in Allentown, PA, on Jan. 30.
It capped an amazing six months for Helmer, who became vice president of hockey operations for the Hershey Bears last July after serving as an assistant coach during the 2015-16 season for the team he had once captained.
Helmer said he was in Washington, watching the Capitals’ training camp, when AHL President Dave Andrews called him with the good news about his selection for the AHL's Hall of Fame.
“It was one of those phone calls that you’re really happy when it comes your way,” Helmer said. “I wasn’t expecting it, but it brought back a lot of good memories. Over the years, I was fortunate to play for a lot of good teams and organizations, as well as with a lot of great teammates.”
A native of Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, Helmer said the process of writing an induction speech provided an opportunity to reflect on his career and all of the people who helped him along the way. Of course, his parents, Bryan and Jo Ann Helmer, played the biggest part, transporting him from arena to arena as he played his way up the ranks.
“My dad coached me one year in bantam and he taught me how to be a leader,” Helmer said. “He taught me that it was important to play hard every shift and to respect the game and your teammates and help make the people around you better players.”
He recalled countless names and faces, from his junior hockey billets, the Lavenders, who became like his second family in Wellington, Ontario, to people like Larry Robinson and Robbie Ftorek, who gave him his first break in the pro ranks.
“I was lucky,” he said. “Larry was an assistant coach in New Jersey and my mom worked with his brother and I think he pushed for me. I got a tryout with Jersey and ended up in Albany where Robbie Ftorek liked me, too.”
Helmer signed a pro contract straight out of Tier II junior, not the usual route to pro hockey, but his success is a testament to his drive, work ethic and passion for the sport. In his second season in Albany, the River Rats won the Calder Cup, an accomplishment that set the tone for a Hall of Fame career filled with many great teams.
“We had a lot of great veterans on that Albany team,” Helmer recalled. “There were guys lIke Reid Simpson and Kevin Dean and a whole bunch of guys like Matt Ruchty who taught me how to approach the game and how to be a good teammate.”
Helmer spent his first five seasons with the River Rats, then bounced back and forth between teams in the minors and the NHL, playing for eight in the AHL (Albany, Worcester, Manitoba, Springfield, Grand Rapids, San Antonio, Hershey, Oklahoma City) and four in the NHL (Phoenix, St Louis, Vancouver, Washington) as well as two in the IHL (Las Vegas, Kansas City).
“I’ve got to give a lot of credit to my wife (Pam),” he said. “I leaned on her a lot of nights after some games. When my kids (son Cade, daughter Rylan) came along, they were a huge part as well, because as much as I moved around, they didn’t complain very much.”
Helmer poured himself into writing his Hall of Fame acceptance speech, making sure he thanked everyone he could. As it turned out, he didn’t need his prepared text.
“When I got up on stage, I didn’t even read my speech,” he said. “I went with my feelings and just spoke from my heart. I was very humbled by the honor and it was definitely a day to remember. I thought it came off pretty well.”
Helmer said he tried to echo the words taught by his father, underscoring the balance between work and play.
“One thing he always preached to me besides working hard every shift was that you also have to have fun. It’s a game and people sometimes forget that. I preach the same thing to my son now. Work hard and just have fun.
“Twenty years goes by quickly, so it’s one of the things that I wanted to make sure the players heard at the all-star game. You need to appreciate everything about your hockey career. Enjoy every minute and live in the moment. It doesn’t last forever.”
Helmer believes winning back-to-back cups in Hershey as a captain helped prolong his career. He looks back fondly on all three of his cup teams, noting that there was a special bond among the players that propelled them to greatness.
“All three cup winners were the closest teams I ever played on,” he said. “We did everything as a team, both on and off the ice. When I talk to any of those former teammates, it’s like we’ve never been apart. It’s a great feeling when you have that bond and all those great memories.”
Helmer also looks back fondly on his two years in Grand Rapids, especially the second season (2005-06) when the Griffins posted an AHL-best record of 55-20-1-4. “I enjoyed my time in Grand Rapids,” he said. “We had our daughter there my second year and the players, coaches and front office staff all were great. I played a lot and had two incredible years there.”
He played all 80 games both seasons with the Griffins, the only times he never missed a game in his career. He gives a nod to long-time equipment manager Brad “Dogg” Thompson and now-retired trainer Rob Snitzer for keeping him on the ice.
“Dogg did a good job making sure my skates were always nice and sharp while Snitzy always made sure I was healthy,” he said. “It must have been the work of those two guys and maybe something in the water that allowed me to play all 80 games both years.”
Helmer was 32 years old by the time he came to Grand Rapids, pegging him as one of the oldest on the team and allowing him to be not only a team leader but also also a father figure of sorts to the Red Wings’ young prospects.
“As I got older, I enjoyed mentoring the young guys and teaching them how to be good pros, how to take care of themselves and how to prepare for games. When you see them make the jump to the NHL, it’s almost like being a proud dad. You get that proud smile when you see them get their first NHL game and then go on to have good careers.”
He points to Niklas Kronwall, with whom he played during his first year in Grand Rapids, as a good example. “I got the chance to be his partner for a bunch of games and he was probably one of the best young defensemen I ever played with. To see what he has been able to accomplish over the course of his career has been very impressive.”
After Grand Rapids, Helmer played two seasons for the San Antonio Rampage, then moved to Hershey, where he finally earned another chance at the NHL, getting to play 12 games with the Washington Capitals during the 2008-09 season.
“As my son got older, he kept asking, ‘Dad, when are you going to play in the NHL?’ because he didn’t remember me playing in the league. I think he kept me going. He became a reason that kept me going in order to get another chance to play in the NHL.”
He also credits his brother-in-law Matt Carkner, a 15-year pro who became an assistant coach in Bridgeport this season, with helping him stay physically fit.
“I worked out with him the last seven or eight years of my career,” he said. “Matt works out hard, so I had to try to keep up with him and I think it kept me in great shape. I seriously think it prolonged my career.”
Helmer also had to learn how to redefine his style of play as he got older.
“I was losing a step towards the end of my career, so I had to start using my brain a little more and keep the game as simple as I could,” he said. “If you’re going to have longevity, you learn to do things like moving the puck quicker, using angles and having a good stick.”
Helmer finished his career in Springfield in 2012-13 after two seasons in Oklahoma City, where he played under current Griffins head coach Todd Nelson. “I loved playing for Nellie,” he said. “He’s not afraid to try things. If he saw something different that might work, he always let us try it, which is something you like as a player.”
He admits that he never imagined playing the game for as long as he did, especially playing so many years in the minors.
“Some people think I must have been crazy to have played that many games in the AHL and to ride that many buses, but I enjoyed every second that I played,” he said. “I wouldn’t give away any of my years for anything.”
Helmer said his move from the bench to the front office has gone smoothly.
“The transition has been really good,” he said. “I know my family couldn’t be happier. They don’t have to worry about moving and we love it in Hershey. We’re in the process of building a house and I love the organization and learning about the company and all of its components.”
He is excited that the Bears announced a four-year extension of their NHL affiliation with Washington, and he is thrilled that his organization will host the 2018 Outdoor Classic as the marquee event for Hershey’s 80th anniversary season.
He admits a part of him still longs for the opportunity to be on the ice.
“Obviously I miss being around the guys all the time, but I still get on the ice every once in a while with the guys who are hurt when the rest of the team goes on the road,” he said. “I still feel part of it, and the best thing is I get to see my son play a lot more now, which I never got to do when I was playing or working as a coach.”
He is doing his best to teach his son the way. If Cade follows in half of his father’s footsteps, he will be doing alright.
“I never had anything given to me during my career,” Helmer said. “I had to work hard for everything I got. As a result, I think it makes me appreciate everything that much more.”