HERSHEY, Pa — The Hershey Bears announced today that Todd Nelson has been named the 28th head coach in franchise history. Additionally, the club has announced the hires of assistant coach Nick Bootland, associate goaltending coach Juha Lehtola, and video coach Adam Purner. The announcements were made by Hershey Bears vice president of hockey operations Bryan Helmer and Washington Capitals senior vice president and general manager Brian MacLellan.
“We’re excited to welcome Todd Nelson to Hershey as our head coach,” said Helmer. “Todd has had an accomplished coaching career featuring multiple championships. He’s a coach that is driven to win, and he has played a pivotal role in developing a long list of players who have advanced to the National Hockey League. Having played for Todd myself, I know how detailed he is, and he’s truly a coach who gets the most out of his players. We’re fortunate to have Todd at the helm, and we’re excited about rounding out his staff with an experienced and decorated group of coaches.”
Nelson, 53, brings vast coaching experience and a championship pedigree to Hershey. The veteran bench boss has over two decades of experience in the United Hockey League, American Hockey League, and NHL. The native of Prince Albert, Saskatchewan spent the last four seasons as an assistant coach for the NHL’s Dallas Stars, and returns to Hershey after skating in one season with the club during his playing career, donning the Chocolate and White during the 1995-96 campaign.
“I am extremely excited about working with the Hershey Bears and Washington Capitals,” said Nelson. “Having played in Hershey, I’m aware of the organization’s rich history, and I am thrilled to return to the club. Both the Bears and Capitals strive for excellence, and it’s an honor to be part of these first-class organizations. I’m looking forward to dropping the puck on the season soon, and I can’t wait to get started.”
Overall in his accomplished professional career, Nelson has won six championships, including one as a player, one as a player/assistant coach, one as an assistant coach, and three as a head coach. Nelson led Grand Rapids to a Calder Cup Championship in 2017, becoming only the third person in AHL history to win the Calder Cup as a player (1994, Portland), assistant coach (2008, Chicago) and head coach, joining former Bears Bob Woods and Mike Stothers on that exclusive list.
In Nelson’s tenure as an AHL head coach, he worked parts of eight seasons with Oklahoma City (2010-15) and Grand Rapids (2015-18), posting a 309-189-16-47 (.607) regular season record. Additionally, Nelson owns a 42-31 (.575) record in 73 career Calder Cup Playoff games. As a head coach, he’s helped his team qualify for the Calder Cup Playoffs in all eight seasons he’s worked in the AHL.
Nelson earned AHL All-Star Classic coaching nods in 2012 and 2017. With Grand Rapids, he helped 24 Griffins move on to the NHL, including current Washington Capitals Nick Jensen and Anthony Mantha.
In the NHL, Nelson was named the interim head coach of Edmonton Oilers on Dec. 15, 2014, guiding the club to a 17-22-7 record in the season’s final 46 games. He also has experience as an assistant coach with Atlanta (2008-10) and most recently with Dallas (2018-22). Nelson served as part of Rick Bowness’ staff in 2019-20 as the Stars reached the Stanley Cup Final.
Overall, Nelson owns a 475-269-48-47 (.623) record as a professional head coach. He spent three seasons (2003-06) as head coach of the UHL’s Muskegon Fury, winning consecutive Colonial Cups (2004, 2005). He won his first Colonial Cup with Muskegon during the 2001-02 season while serving as a player/assistant coach.
Hershey’s roster features several ties to Nelson. Defender Dylan McIlrath was part of the 2017 Grand Rapids championship team, and was coached by Nelson for two seasons with the Griffins. Forward Kale Kessy played two seasons for Nelson in Oklahoma City from 2013-15. Additionally, Helmer played for Nelson with the Barons for two seasons from 2011-12, serving as Nelson’s captain with the club.
Over his 12-year playing career, Nelson skated in three NHL regular season games, including two for the Capitals, notching his lone NHL goal with Washington on Apr. 12, 1994 versus Winnipeg. He also appeared in four postseason games with the Capitals during the 1994 Stanley Cup Playoffs. With the Bears in 1995-96, Nelson logged the most productive season of his playing career, collecting 50 points (10g, 40a) in 70 games.
“Todd brings a wealth of coaching experience to Hershey and has shown throughout his career the ability to develop young players and help them transition to the NHL,” said MacLellan. “We are also pleased to welcome Nick, Juha, and Adam to Hershey. We feel they each possess the necessary experience and knowledge to help our young players in the organization.”
Nelson’s coaching staff in Hershey will include the trio of new hires, as well as returning assistant coach Patrick Wellar and strength and conditioning coach Mike Wagner.
Bootland, 44, joins the Bears after spending the past 13 seasons as head coach and director of hockey operations for the ECHL’s Kalamazoo Wings. He took over behind the K-Wings bench in 2008-09 when the club was a member of the International Hockey League, and continued with the organization in its shift to the ECHL. He owned a coaching record of 481-366-82 in 929 career IHL and ECHL games with Kalamazoo, helping the club qualify for the playoffs nine times. While at the helm, he guided the Wings to an appearance in the 2011 Kelly Cup Finals and in his tenure, the team won four division championships and one conference championship.
In his playing career, Bootland skated in parts of four seasons with the Bears from 1998-03. The forward appeared in 208 career games with the Chocolate and White, posting 42 points (15g, 27a) and 350 penalty minutes. The Shelburne, Ontario native spent the last three seasons of his career in Kalamazoo, serving as team captain. In 2006, he led the K-Wings to a UHL championship, capturing Colonial Cup Playoffs Most Valuable Player honors with 16 points (10g, 6a) in 13 playoff games.
With Nelson, Wellar, and Bootland, Hershey’s entire staff behind the bench on a game night are former Bears, marking the first time this has occurred since 1989-90 (Head coach Kevin McCarthy, assistant coach Al Hill).
Lehtola, 37, joins the Bears from his native Finland, where he worked with in the country’s top league, Liiga, for HPK Hameenlinna as goaltending coach and video coach since 2016. He was part of HPK’s 2018-19 club that won the league championship, and the former netminder was a product of HPK’s junior program during his playing days.
The native of Hameenlinna, Finland was selected as the goaltending coach for Finland in the 2021 and 2022 World Junior Championships. From 2011-13, Lehtola worked alongside Washington Capitals goalie coach Scott Murray with the Ontario Hockey League’s Sudbury Wolves. He served as Murray’s assistant goaltending coach and also held the video coach title during the 2012-13 campaign.
Purner, 46, spent the past two seasons working as video coach for the New Jersey Devils’ AHL affiliate (Binghamton 2020-21, Utica 2021-22). The Glens Falls, New York native also has experience with USA Hockey, serving as the video coordinator for the Women’s National Team at the 2022 IIHF Women’s World Championship. Additionally, Purner was a goalie video analyst for the St. Louis Blues in 2020, and worked for the Western Hockey League’s Portland Winterhawks as hockey video coordinator from 2016-19, and held the title of video coach in 2019-20.