Washington Capitals American Hockey League Affiliate, Hershey Bears, Thrive in Central Pennsylvania
Tuesday, March 3, 2009
Just beyond the billboard welcoming visitors to "The Sweetest Place On Earth," past the cornfields and fast-food restaurants but before the entrance to the amusement park, a gleaming building rises from acres of asphalt.
This quaint central Pennsylvania town is quite possibly the last place anyone would look for one of hockey's oldest and most successful franchises. Yet here is Giant Center, the home of the nine-time American Hockey League champion Hershey Bears.
Two hours before opening faceoff on a recent Saturday night, traffic backed up half a mile on Hersheypark Drive. The parking lot was filling up fast, and thousands of fans waited in sub-freezing temperatures outside the entrance, eager to get inside and find their seats for the anticipated matchup against the Bears' biggest rival, the Philadelphia Phantoms.
"I've been to Hamilton, Worcester, Hartford, Providence and Wilkes-Barre," season ticket holder Shaun Batts said as he navigated the congested concourse earlier this month, "and this is the best [AHL] town for hockey I've seen. I went to Worcester last year, and there were 1,000 fans there. We have that many waiting outside the doors to get in."
This season has unfolded like so many others in the team's 71-year history: The Bears, the Washington Capitals' top minor league affiliate, sit atop the Eastern Conference standings and have sold more tickets, by a whopping margin, than any other AHL team.
Attendance around the league has suffered this season from the economic downturn, off about 3 1/2 percent from last season. Hershey, though, is among the exceptions. A year after setting a franchise record for attendance, the Bears are averaging 8,842 fans per game, almost 1,500 more than the Manitoba Moose and nearly 4,000 more than the average for the 29-team league.
If attendance figures aren't enough, proof of Hershey's passion for the Bears is obvious once inside the arena, which is about 40 percent smaller than a typical NHL building. Most fans take their seats an hour before the opening faceoff, and many of them remain in them during intermissions for fear of missing any action.
Less than five minutes into Saturday's game, a middle-aged man behind the Bears' bench leaned forward and bellowed: "Come on! Aren't you guys sick of losing yet?" By the time Hershey's second power play came up empty later in the first period, he was no longer alone in his dissent. A booming round of boos echoed throughout the arena. The scoreboard, by the way, showed 0-0.
"We expect a lot," season ticket holder Travis Sooy said after making reference to the team's 11-game winning streak earlier this season. "We see the talent on this team, and we expect to see that talent produce."
There's a prevailing hope among the team's legion of loyal patrons -- no, make that an expectation -- that a 10th banner will soon join the others. Hershey is home to many division and conference titles, too. But only league championships are considered significant enough to warrant banners.