I promised you a few things Saturday night, and I still owe you a bunch of them. The official wrap story will be in Wednesday’s paper and surely online sooner, and a handful of wrap stuff will follow sometime in the next couple of days. For now, here’s the Aaron Ness story I wrote before the series, to use in case Game 1 went triple overtime or Game 2 went even moderately into overtime, or if not, to run on the off day… until things happened in the third period of Game 1, and this didn’t feel right in print anymore…
BRIDGEPORT — There are some lingering feelings for Aaron Ness walking back into Webster Bank Arena, even if it has been four years since this was home.
“You always get a little bit of a special feeling coming back here,” the Hershey Bears defenseman said before Game 1 of their playoff series against the Bridgeport Sound Tigers.
“It’s exciting. When you’ve played here that long, some old memories come back. There are still some guys hanging around you hadn’t seen in a while.”
Only three men have played more games for the Sound Tigers than Ness, who played 280 here over parts of five seasons. He served as captain in 2014-15, his last season in the New York Islanders’ organization. His photo hangs in the hallway outside the Bridgeport dressing room, part of a row of captains.
“(It) was a privilege to be able to coach such a quality kid,” said Bridgeport coach Brent Thompson, Ness’ coach here for two seasons, “and obviously we made him captain for a reason, because he’s a kid that was a leader, a young leader, who had the quality to play in the NHL.
“I couldn’t say enough good things about the kid. He works extremely hard. He continues to improve on his game, on his strength.”
Nearly all of the players have changed since Ness last played here. Kyle Burroughs had been here in 2013-14 as an 18-year-old, but only briefly in the spring. The coaches remain, though, Thompson and assistant Eric Boguniecki.
“To me it’s mainly just seeing Bogy and Tommer behind the bench,” said Ness, who’ll turn 29 next month. “A lot of memories come back. It’s a couple of great guys and good coaches. It’s good to see them have some success.”
Bridgeport came into this year with high expectations, signing Chris Bourque away from the Bears, adding a few other veterans. The Bears were coming off their first last-place finish in decades and were back in the basement near midseason this year.
A streak of 17 games without a regulation loss, including 11 wins in a row, got them into playoff position.
Ness was a big part of it, leading AHL defensemen with 55 points and 50 assists, earning second-team all-star honors in a vote of league players, coaches and media.
What did he mean to the Bears? “You got an hour?” asked Hershey’s first-year head coach, Spencer Carbery. “He’s been tremendous from the start of the year on and off the ice. He’s been a workhorse on the ice. He logs a ton of minutes in every situation. He’s a pro’s pro. He does everything right, treats people well.
“On the ice, off the ice, he’s just a perfect pro to have as part of your organization, and frankly to lead your organization.”
After those 280 games for Bridgeport, Ness has become a mainstay in the Washington organization, too. He has played 239 games for the Bears, plus another 18 for the Capitals; he’d played 29 for the Islanders. He helped the Bears to the Calder Cup Final in 2016.
And this year will mark three years for Ness as a married man.
“A few life changes since I’ve been back here,” Ness said. His wife, Samantha, “she’s been awesome. She keeps me where I am. There’s a lot of behind-the-scenes stuff you never even think to imagine what she does for me. She’s a rock.”
Ness has meanwhile grown from a baby-faced kid out of the University of Minnesota into a veteran leader in the AHL, one of the league’s best players.
“He’s just such a good kid,” Thompson said. “What stands out to me, every time I walked in that locker room, he was always a guy that was smiling. He showed that passion, that love of the game.
“You could just see it, he loved being in the room, around the guys, in the game itself. It’s what has made him such a good leader in this league and such a valuable asset.”