History makes Hershey a great hockey town
HERSHEY, Pa. -- The best way to start a story about the best minor-league hockey town in America is to tell the one about how a modern dynasty began.
At first glance, the phrases "minor league" and "dynasty" aren't supposed to go together. The minor leagues in hockey and baseball are, by design, in a constant state of flux. Roster turnover is required as these teams provide parent organizations with future big leaguers.
Hershey, Pa., didn't become the best minor-league hockey town in America by being like the rest, though. The Hershey Bears win, and they win consistently.
As a result, the Bears, now aligned with the Washington Capitals, built a modern dynasty in the American Hockey League.
So, about the beginning of that ... it almost never happened.
In 2006, the Bears led the Portland Pirates three games to one in the Eastern Conference Final of the Calder Cup Playoffs, but Hershey lost two straight games.
If this was going to be remembered as one of the great playoff series in recent AHL history, it was going to need some quirks, and it had plenty. Because of scheduling conflicts, the best-of-7 did not follow a traditional format, and Hershey had Games 3, 4 and 7 at home, instead of a 2-3-2 or 2-2-1-1-1.
The Pirates won Games 5 and 6 in Portland, but then there was a six-day layoff before Game 7 at Giant Center in Hershey.
Even worse for the Bears, Portland's parent club, the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim, were eliminated from the 2006 Stanley Cup Playoffs between Games 6 and 7, and that's where the mythical part of the tale arrives.
This story works better if some of the principal characters tell it:
John Walton, Bears play-by-play broadcaster: You lose Game 6 in Portland, but the series was a 2-2-2-1. We had home ice in Game 7. It was just bizarre. The circus was in town.
Eric Fehr, Bears forward: We lost Game 5 and Game 6 in Portland and then we had to wait six days. We were all watching Anaheim and it was just, 'Please don't get kicked out, please don't get kicked out.'
Walton: The Ducks were playing Edmonton, and the Oilers knocked them out. We were in the press box for Game 6 and word starting spreading that if Portland wins this, the three horsemen of the apocalypse are coming down for Game 7: Penner, Perry and Getzlaf.
Dustin Penner, Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf combined for 31 goals and 71 points as NHL rookies for the Mighty Ducks during the 2005-06 season.
Bruce Boudreau, Bears coach: The best memory wasn't winning the Calder Cup in 2006, because we won that game so easily. We won that game 5-1. The best memory by far was Game 7 against Portland. We won [5-4] in overtime after they had just had Getzlaf, Perry and Penner sent down to them. If you look at their roster, it was just loaded with NHL players. So was ours, I guess. It was just a great game. I don't even know what happened. It must have all been instinct, but Eric Fehr scored and the next thing I knew I was jumping on the pile with everyone down by the net. I've got that picture in my house, and I just thought it was a great moment for us.
Walton: There is a great photo of Bruce jumping in the air, and I'm talking a full 2 inches off the ice.
Fehr: I lost my helmet at the bottom of that pile and I was just trying not to hit my head on the ice. These guys were just going crazy.
Walton: That photo pretty much personifies everything about Hershey from that time for me. There's an opening at that end of the rink where you can stand by the glass, and [former Hershey Bears center] Mitch Lamoureux, who is as Hershey as it gets, is standing right there. Now, Mitch is a little rounder than in his playing days, but he's just jumping up and down and going crazy. You've got yesterday and you've got today and the fans just going berserk. It was the single greatest moment, even more than winning any of the Cups. It was there [at Giant Center], the team had been bad for a while and it was the new affiliation. It was a completely new roster.
Fehr: There you go. [Walton] just wrote the story for you.
Boudreau: The next night after we won, (country music star) Tim McGraw was having a concert at Giant Center and he called all the Bears on stage and the biggest cheer of the night was when we were on that stage.
The Bears won that Calder Cup, defeating the Milwaukee Admirals in six games, and again in 2009 and 2010. They also nearly won in 2007. That year, Boudreau's dream of an AHL championship again was derailed by a future goalie of the Montreal Canadiens.
In 1985, Boudreau was playing for the Baltimore Skipjacks when they ran into ran into a 19-year-old a few weeks removed from the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League named Patrick Roy, who was playing for Sherbrooke. In 2007, it was a 19-year-old from the Western Hockey League named Carey Price, who played for Hamilton.
It was four trips to the Calder Cup Final in five seasons for the Bears, with three championships. Hershey is the most successful organization in AHL history, and this was the peak of its success.
"It might be the best minor-league franchise in all of sports," Capitals general manager George McPhee said. "For whatever reason, it just seems to be a special place. The support for that team is incredible from the whole area. It is amazing that they sell out every Saturday night and they set an [AHL] attendance record last year. They started as a strong franchise and have been a strong franchise for a long time. I think the people in that marketplace are proud of that and support it for that reason."
Hershey has 11 Calder Cup titles, two more than the defunct Cleveland Barons and five more than any active AHL franchise. The Bears have played in the Calder Cup Final 22 times.
The Bears are the only franchise that has been part of the AHL without interruption since 1938, when Hershey joined from the Eastern Amateur Hockey League. While other historic clubs like the Springfield Indians and Barons have been lost, Hershey remains the cornerstone of the second-best hockey league in the world.
"The first thing you think of with Hershey is, this is the Montreal Canadiens or the New York Yankees of the American Hockey League," Bears coach Mike Haviland said. "All of the championships and the history and the players and the coaches, it is such an honor and a thrill to be part of that. Then you come here and you get into the community and see the passion and the loyalty of the fans."
Winning is an expectation in Hershey, unlike that of other minor-league franchises, and it stems from the large, devoted fan base which fills Giant Center on the weekends and isn't satisfied with solely watching their team help some players get better on their path the NHL.
Hershey has led the AHL in attendance every season since winning the Calder Cup in 2006. The Bears have averaged more than 9,000 fans during each of the past five seasons and set a record at 10,046 in 2012-13, their 75th anniversary season.
Sports Business Journal has released rankings of the top minor-league markets in the United States every other year since 2005. Hershey/Harrisburg has been in the top three all five times; no other market has accomplished it more than twice. Hershey/Harrisburg was No. 1 in 2009 and 2011, and was No. 3 last year.
While the Bears set AHL attendance records, the other tenant in the market, the Harrisburg Senators of baseball's Eastern League, finished 75th out of 176 minor-league teams in attendance in 2013.
"Hockey means a little bit more to people in central Pennsylvania," said Walton, who was radio play-by-play man for the Bears for nine seasons before taking that role with the Capitals. "Part of it, I think, is longevity. Part of it is Hershey is a really special place on any number of levels. The fandom that surrounds that organization goes back literally to the Great Depression and World War II. In the early days, they really had to struggle just to get out of the blocks, but they made it through and it is the major-league franchise for central Pennsylvania.
"The people who follow it don't view themselves as being Triple-A. You're held to a high standard, whether you're player or a coach or a broadcaster or in the front office. They don't look at it any different than Capitals fans look at the Caps or [New York] Rangers fans look at the Rangers or whatever.
"I used to say when I was there, with all due respect to Detroit, Hershey was, in many ways, 'Hockeytown,' but with a little more emphasis on the town part. It's an amazing place for hockey, and a really special place overall."
Milton Hershey was a successful man. He was born in a Derry Church, Pa., and by the time he died there 88 years later the town had changed its name to his.
Hershey built the world's largest chocolate factory just after the turn of the 20th century on some land in the heart of central Pennsylvania farm country. To the rest of the world, the town of Hershey is the chocolate town, "The Sweetest Place on Earth" as the locals like to say.
An idyllic community arose around the chocolate factory. Eventually there was a theme park, a zoo, and a sports complex with a multipurpose arena and a football stadium.
These days, there is a new arena, but the old one is there for anyone to explore. There's a cluster of factory outlets nearby, but the small-town charm remains.
"Hershey typifies what America is really about, if you want to look at it like that," Walton said. "A guy had a dream and he came to central Pennsylvania to open up a business. It became something that was much bigger than himself. Many people in Hershey are born there, they grow up there, they have kids there, they have grandkids there, and they die there. It is a stable area, and by the way, as a newcomer, that can be kind of intimidating at first.
"There are season tickets that get passed down from generation to generation for 50 years. There are longer season-ticket holders in Hershey than the Capitals have been around (since 1974). You grew up going to Bears games. Your mom and dad live down the street. Your kids go to the same school you did. It is a slice of America that you don't find in a big city, and it is a town that loves hockey all at the same time. It is not something you can just re-create anywhere else."
Officially, the town of Hershey, according to the 2010 census, had a little more than 14,000 people in it. Include Derry Township and the population climbs to more than 21,000.
Hershey's main street is aptly named Chocolate Avenue, and it is lined with light poles adorned with bulb holders in the shape of Hershey's Kisses. It's sleepy on a weekday afternoon, but it bustles on weekends with tourists there to see Chocolate World or the museum, especially in the summer when Hersheypark is open.
"It almost feels like a resort town," said Washington defenseman Karl Alzner, who played in Hershey from 2008 to 2010. "It feels like that place you go to vacation. They've got the team, which is a big deal there and people are always buzzing about that. There's Hersheypark. It is festive around Christmas time, everything is decorated. It is just one of those places that you don't realize how much you miss it until you're gone."
Though chocolate has been the ticket to superstardom, there are an amazing number of great places to eat in such a small, relatively rural area. Players arrive from all over the world and need time to get acclimated, but most quickly realize it's unique.
"You see the number of people that come through here, and it is a small town but it's not really a small town," Haviland said. "It is well known around the world because of Hershey and all that. Then you start hearing about the history of the Milton School [for underprivileged youth] and all that happens there and what this corporation does for the area, it is pretty amazing. It really is. This is not a typical small town that people think it is. It is a lot bigger.
"It may be small in size. If I'm in Chicago and talk to people there, it is, 'Oh yeah, Hersheypark and the chocolate and all that. I've visited there.' You don't hear that about other small towns. They don't have a big name like this."
Hershey has managed to maintain its small-town principles. While other "resort towns" have struggled to keep an identity from bygone eras, this remains a simple place where people can open a business and try to do what Milton Hershey once did.
As Bears forward Jeff Taffe put it, "Some people in this town tried to fight it when they wanted to put in a Chipotle [on Chocolate Avenue]."
The Chipotle is not quite finished, but there are plenty of options for those who seek local flavor.
"Depending on which way the wind was blowing, it could smell like cow manure or chocolate," said Anaheim Ducks assistant coach Bob Woods, who won the Calder Cup with Hershey as a player, assistant coach and coach. "I'm from the farmland, so it just felt very familiar to me and my family loved living there. I just couldn't think of a better place to live. Everything is there. They have the park and the chocolate factory and we had memberships to the country clubs. It is just a clean, family-oriented place. It has all four seasons but none of them are all that harsh."
Boudreau said, "We bought a house there and we still have it. I'm sure me and my wife and our kids are going to move back there when we're done. It's a special place on this Earth."
Milton Hershey played a part in the formation of the Bears, because in this town, of course he did. Hershey helped sponsor a team called the Hershey B'ars in 1932; by 1936 they were known as the Bears.
That year, Hershey Sports Arena opened (it became Hersheypark Arena). It is a classic barn, complete with an airplane hangar shell for a roof, and more than 7,000 cozy seats packed into a vertical alignment.
"The old building was awesome," said Philadelphia Flyers coach Craig Berube, who played parts of three seasons for Hershey. "The fans were right on top of you. It was loud. It was pretty hard to beat that. Even though it's a minor-league team, it goes down as one of the better hockey places around."
Woods said, "It was noisy and you almost felt like you were in a cage match. I played there lots as a visitor and getting to play there as a Bear was pretty cool. There's such a vast history there and I'm proud to have been part of it."
The arena was host of Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association state championships in basketball and wrestling. Wrestler Kurt Angle won the heavyweight state title there in 1987. Los Angeles Lakers star Kobe Bryant won a state title in the building in 1996. Across the parking lot is Hersheypark Stadium, which has hosted the Big 33 Football Classic, a high school all-star game that pits the best players from Pennsylvania against the top talent from another state. At least one player with a Big 33 appearance has dressed for each of the NFL's 48 Super Bowls.
The Bears won eight AHL championships playing in Hersheypark Arena, but the most famous night in the building's history came March 2, 1962, when Wilt Chamberlain of the Philadelphia Warriors scored 100 points in an NBA game against the New York Knicks.
Two shrines to that night remain in the arena, which is the home to the Lebanon Valley College hockey team.
Also in the building is a photo of the 1997 Hershey Bears, the last edition to win the Calder Cup while a tenant. Woods is one of the players in that photo, and his coach, Bob Hartley, went on to success at the next level.
"It was two great years in a wonderful community," said Hartley, a first-year coach for Hershey that season who won the 2001 Stanley Cup with the Colorado Avalanche. "It's a very storied franchise in the AHL. Once I got there, I understood real quickly why it was the Hershey Bears.
"[The fans] were unbelievable; very demanding, very supportive, very loud. You know, Hershey's not a big community, and, at that time, we would get six, seven thousand every game. We would pack the building basically every game. ... I still run my hockey camp in that area [in York, Pa.] and every year, every summer I take 10 minutes and go to the rink, walk to the rink and look at the banner and walk out. I look at the dressing room and everything. Wow. It was real fun."
Hartley (now with the Calgary Flames), Berube and Boudreau are only part of the list of NHL coaches who have spent time in Hershey. Berube and John Stevens, the former Flyers coach who is an assistant with the Los Angeles Kings, played there for John Paddock in the late 1980s.
Former Winnipeg Jets coach Claude Noel spent five seasons as a player in Hershey and was running the bench for Milwaukee when Boudreau's team won the Calder Cup in 2006.
"You could tell right when you got there what the expectations were," Woods said. "Just look up in those rafters. You don't see division championships or conference championships. All you see is banners for Calder Cup championships."
Those expectations are a blessing and a burden. Win and the community will adore you. Don't win and expect no quarter.
"I think there's a lot of pressure. It is very similar to the NHL," said Haviland, who won the Stanley Cup as an assistant with the Chicago Blackhawks in 2010 and is in his first season as the Bears coach. "You take this place and add another 8,000 seats and it is like an NHL city. It's a little town, but they are very passionate and they know this game. They want a winner, and they're not afraid to tell you when they're not pleased. I think that's great for a player or a coach, because that's the National Hockey League. I love it. I love being part of that pressure, and it helps everyone here in their career."
Alzner said the fans would be on the team some nights if the Bears couldn't get set up in the offensive zone on the first power play. General manager Doug Yingst is constantly aware of it and is one of the most active in the league at his position at trying to add the right mixture of AHL veterans to pair with up-and-coming prospects from Washington.
Walton knows all about it too. He came to Hershey in 2002, following two broadcasters who moved on to the NHL, and was on the call for three Calder Cup champions. Dave Mishkin left Hershey to be the radio voice of the Tampa Bay Lightning and Dan Kamal spent a decade doing Bears broadcasts before becoming the radio voice of the Atlanta Thrashers.
"I will probably be remembered as the guy who did a lot of screaming during that time," said Walton, whose signature phrase, "Good morning, good afternoon and good night (team Hershey just defeated)" came to Washington with him.
"When you're in Hershey, you have to prove yourself. When I walked out after nine years, I felt that I did, but when you walk into a place like that, everyone just says, 'OK, you're going to have to show us what you're all about, and you better be good because otherwise you'll be gone.'"
The most famous broadcaster to call Hershey home worked Bears games as an employee of a visiting team. Mike "Doc" Emrick has been a voice of the sport for two decades, and though his on-air references to his former residence aren't quite as frequent as those for his beloved Pittsburgh Pirates, Emrick is sure to mention the Bears on NBC whenever provided an appropriate opportunity.
"Doc lived in Hershey for five years," Walton said. "He got to know the place as a broadcaster with the Maine Mariners, like I did with Cincinnati. I told Dave Mishkin years and years ago, 'If you ever leave this place, I hope you call me first.' Doc didn't have that opportunity, but when the Flyers hired him, instead of living in Philadelphia, he lived in Hershey and he took the train to work every day. He lived right by Hershey Lodge and he would get on the train in Elizabethtown, Pa., and cover the Flyers that way. To this day, it is one of Doc's favorite places on Earth."
The Bears had an affiliate partnership with the Flyers in the 1980s and 1990s, and Hartley helped Hershey win the Calder Cup with the Avalanche as the affiliate in 1997. As Colorado continued to press for championships at the NHL level, Hershey slipped into a related funk.
After two years without making the postseason, the Avalanche were out as the Bears' NHL affiliation and the Capitals were in. It was opportune timing because Washington had stocked its system with interesting prospects as it began a full-scale rebuild.
To coach this collection, the Capitals and Bears turned to Boudreau, a hockey lifer who had success at lower levels but had yet to break through as a coach in the Calder Cup Playoffs.
"This is a silly thing, but when you're in the American League your whole life like I was, Hershey was the furthest south you could go when I played, so it always had the nicest weather," Boudreau said. "Most of the buildings are up north in, well, let's face it, dingy areas. Then you go to Hershey and it is beautiful there and the people treat you so well. Their past and their history is No. 1 in the league.
"It's like a mini-NHL. The building they play in is state of the art. The dressing room is as good as most NHL rooms. You're coming into a town where it is really relevant to be a Hershey Bear. You have to understand that."
The Bears started winning again, and winning big. Boudreau took the team to back-to-back final appearances before moving south to coach Washington. Many of the young players who played on those teams soon followed him.
Mike Green became a star. Fehr, Brooks Laich and Tomas Fleischmann became valuable secondary scorers. David Steckel, Boyd Gordon and Jeff Schultz became role players as the Capitals transformed from also-rans into Stanley Cup contenders.
"There was a mentality to me that started in Hershey," Walton said. "Winning there, the coach moved up, the players moved up, and there was an expectation set."
There was a one-year blip in Hershey in Boudreau's first season with Washington, but a second wave of talented young players was on the way. Defensemen Karl Alzner and John Carlson, goaltenders Semyon Varlamov and Michal Neuvirth, and forwards Mathieu Perreault and Jay Beagle supplemented the best group of veterans in the league and the Bears became dominant.
Back-to-back championships followed, including an AHL record 60 victories in the 2009-10 regular season. Lots of players have gone on to success with the Capitals, but Chris Bourque, Keith Aucoin and Alexandre Giroux will be revered in Hershey for years to come for their play in those two seasons.
"I think the marriage between Hershey and Washington is a perfect working relationship," Laich said. "The proximity (133 miles) is great, which obviously is helpful for everyone. But you see all the guys in this locker room that have won championships in Hershey and then come up here. Guys get to Hershey and they see that. They think, 'Jeez, this is the fast track up to the NHL.' Our organization does a great job of developing kids at that level and also giving them opportunities to be here.
"Guys on other teams in the AHL see that and want to get to Hershey because they think you can have success there and it can be a sling shot to the NHL. As a guy developing in the minor leagues, that is all you can absolutely ask for."
The Bears' desire to win means Yingst, the general manager, is more likely to add players like Giroux and Bourque, ones who can dominate the AHL but can't quite translate that success at the next level. Other organizations resist adding those players to their AHL team, not wanting to take ice time from prospects.
McPhee and his staff have believed in a different philosophy, and the Bears have benefited.
"It has to start with a good relationship between the two managers, and Doug and I get along really well," McPhee said. "We both have the same objectives. We think the objectives are winning games and developing players, and we both believe you can do both at the same time. Some people believe that veterans get in the way of the kids, but I don't necessarily subscribe to that. I think kids will, if they are good enough, get to the top. We get along well and have the same views on things, so that is why it works."
It hasn't worked as well at either level in 2013-14. The Capitals were unable to find a surge like the season before and will miss the playoffs for the first time since 2006-07, the year before Boudreau arrived.
The Bears have spent the last weeks of the season in a similar scrap to keep their postseason streak intact. Just returning to the Calder Cup Playoffs again won't satisfy a fan base that's been disappointed by three straight first-round defeats since the back-to-back titles.
Though it hasn't been a season expected to produce another glorious spring, the Bears faithful have had the arena rocking on certain nights like no one else in the minors can.
"It is just an absolute hockey town in my mind," Laich said. "It is the closest thing to an NHL facility and being treated like an NHL player, and the fans are second to none. It basically is an NHL town, scaled down a little bit. [The 2006 Calder Cup run] was an unbelievable two months.
"I remember coming out for warm-ups and there would be 8,000 or 9,000 people in their seats already and the booming, 'B-E-A-R-S, BEARS! BEARS! BEARS!' chants. It blew me away, to be honest. That atmosphere, it is just a mecca of hockey."