The Gladiators entered the Coliseum, got their hockey pants kicked, and left...
Book Excerpt: Ted Starkey’s Chasing the Dream: Life in the American Hockey League
Chapter 4: The Hershey Bears
By Ted Starkey
Rolling southbound on Interstate 81 through Pennsylvania, the National Hockey League feels very far away. Once you exit off of Interstate 78, you’re in the heart of central Pennsylvania’s dairy farm country — the abundance of milk was one of the reasons chocolate magnate Milton S. Hershey placed his corporation’s headquarters in the town eventually named after him in 1905.
Heading on back roads toward Giant Center, there are silver metal silos and few stop lights. Once you cross U.S. Route 22, a couple of billboards start popping up, advertising Hershey’s attractions, and you soon see a “Welcome to Hershey” sign with a dancing Hershey’s Kiss that proclaims the burg the “sweetest Place on Earth.” Past the hotels, the outlet mall and restaurants and Hersheypark’s roller coasters, Giant Center’s electronic marquee comes into view.
In a league that’s known for rapidly changing rosters — and even teams — the Bears are a throwback to the early days of the league when the hopes of this company town took on the larger cities of Baltimore, Buffalo and Pittsburgh, and had a lot of success doing so. Originally founded in 1932 to help entertain the company’s employees, the Hershey Bears joined the American Hockey League in 1938 — the league’s third season — after spending six years in the Tri-State Hockey League (renamed the Eastern Amateur Hockey League).
Simply put, the Hershey Bears are the crown jewel of the American Hockey League, the league’s version of the Montreal Canadiens or New York Yankees. The Bears are the oldest continuously operating team in the league, having played in every AHL season since joining in 1938. The club has also been the league’s most successful in terms of Calder Cups, capturing a league-record 11, including three since 2006.
Even now, the Bears represent a town of just 14,257 playing against teams from the cities of Chicago and Toronto — which could hold the entire population of Hershey 180 times over. And Hershey has won the same number of Calder Cups since 2005–06 as any other AHL club has in the last 30 years.
The Giant Center’s rafters reflect the team’s success, with 11 banners honoring each Calder Cup win. Banners honoring retired numbers and Frank Mathers’s place in the Hockey Hall of Fame hang across the ice, but none commemorate any other team accomplishment of conference or divisional championships. A Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup advertisement placed in the upper deck proclaims, “It’s all about the Cup.” It rings true — nothing else really matters here.
Giant Center, opened in 2002, is a smaller version of a modern NHL building — a circular arena sitting in a large parking lot. It seats 10,500 for hockey, and many of those chocolate-colored seats are filled on game nights. This is a team that regularly finishes atop the league’s attendance figures.
Unlike a lot of the older AHL buildings, the Giant Center features tiered seating levels, not to mention luxury boxes, club seating and a specialty restaurant. Walk through the concourse into the seating bowl itself, and you see the modern configuration that is similar to the shape of the roof of the historic Hersheypark Arena, which served as the team’s home from 1938 to 2002, and is now used as the team’s practice facility.
That history also seeps all the way down to today’s Bears.
“The fact they play in Giant Center and look up at those banners every day, they practice in [Hersheypark Arena] where the banners are back again, to know this team is the oldest in the league, has a chance to win the most number of Calder Cups in the league and be in the finals the most number of times, with a chance to play for it, it means the world to them. Doug says this a lot too . . . for him, it’s about winning, being the best,” said Scott Stuccio, broadcaster for the Bears. “It may not be so much about raising the banner as raising the Cup and getting the ring at the end of the season.”
Eric Fehr, who came up with the Bears before starting his NHL career, has high praise for Hershey: “Hershey’s a great city to play. Some of the best fans in the league, a good building that’s full most nights. It’s almost an NHL-type feel in an AHL arena.”
Fehr’s teammate the year they won the 2005–06 banner, Brooks Laich, echoed those sentiments. “It is such a hockey-mad environment, it’s the place you want to be in the American Hockey League to play hockey. You know you’re going to have a good team, you’re going to be well coached, you’re part of a great organization, you’re going to be developed as a player and you’re going to be treated like royalty in town,” he said. “I can’t say enough good things about Hershey — it’s the best place to play in the American League.”
Graham Mink concurred. “I loved playing in Hershey,” he said. “I played three years there, and they were the three best years of my career, really. I loved it there. If you’re not going to play in the NHL, there’s no better place than Hershey to play, in my opinion. It’s fun. It’s a big-time feel, there’s a nice new rink, the place is sold out every night, people are very passionate about their hockey team and their hockey players.”
And part of what makes it a great place to play is the community. As AHL veteran Andrew Gordon, who spent his first four years in the league in Hershey, said, “The town really embraced you. You couldn’t go to the grocery store without people asking for your autograph or patting you on the back, or go to [a] restaurant without people giving you 50 percent off or even picking up your tab.”
That community feel really contributes to a unique AHL environment. As Bears coach Troy Mann said, “I think it’s just the people. It’s people within the family itself of the Bears organization, and then you’ve got the small community outside Hershey. . . . It’s a small-town atmosphere, where the players and coaches can pretty much go anywhere and be recognized by someone. Even if it’s just being recognized at Hersheypark in the summer, or if a security guard recognizes you, that makes it special just being part of the community.
“Let’s face it, we’ve led the league in attendance nine straight years, there’s an expectation to win, and any time you come to coach here or play here, you know the expectation is to win, but that same time, you’ve got that great support. It’s second to none, really.”
Buy Ted Starkey’s Chasing the Dream: Life in the American Hockey League.