In this chocolate-factory city that resembles the top of a huge birthday cake, the Hershey Bears of the American Hockey League once held the deed to the people's hearts.
The Bears - now oddly stocked with a schizoid concoction of players owned by the Washington Capitals and the Buffalo Sabres - used to skate many of their own players. Like almost everyone else in this play town of golf courses, amusement parks and fragrant chocolate factories, the hockey players often worked for the hershey chocolate conglomerate.
The oldest (41 years) in the AHL and arguably the most successful long-term minor-league operation in any sport, the Hershey Bears led the AHL in attendance for 12 of the 13 years prior to last season.
But season attendance has gone down every year since the 1973-74 season, when the Bears won their fourth and most recent Calder Cup-Stanley Cup's kid brother.
The town was heavy with celebration the night the Bears won the Calder Cup Several Bears, needing transportation for themselves and their Calder Cup from the Hershey-park Arena to their favorite tavern, hopped into an empty police car and drove away.They left the car outside Ummies Tavern in the middle of chocolate Avenue with the red light blinking. Inside they passed around their Calder Cup filled with champagne.
The players seldom go to Ummies any more. There is no Calder Cup to drink from. Last year they missed the playofs entirely for the first time in 14 seasons. A former season ticket holder and a regular at Ummies said, "It's not like it used to be. Interest is way down. With all the big money, the players don't seem to work hard any more."
The players do work hard but what they work to do is to get out of Hershey and up to the NHL. What they used to care about in the days when there weren't 17 NHL teams and zillions of dollars floating around was Hershey - the tearm, the town, the tavern. The people.
Now players are shuffled up and down to the two NHL tearms so often that, before every game, the public address announcer goes over the newly printed scorecard with fans, noting printed scorecard with fans, noting additions and deletions.
"The players are moving more and they don't get close to the fans the way we did," said Hershey hairdresser Ralph Keller, who played for the Bears from 1962 to 1974 and has remained here.
"I really think the players are missing out on a lot and the fans are missing a lot. This was one of the nice things about Hershey - I felt obligated every time out on the ice to everyone in the rink and to the Hershey Chocolate Co.
"When I played, the townspeople thought highly of us. We were here a long time. We portrayed an image they liked."
Now it is hard for a minor-league hockey player to feel a part of anything. A Washington Capital sent down to Hershey is coached by Fred Stanfield, who is under contract to the Buffalo Sabres. Unlike baseball's minor leagues, where each major league team has its own minor-league "school" of sort, a Washington-owned Hershey Bear learns the Buffalo Sabre way.
That part of the confusion will end soon. The Sabres are pulling their players out of Hersbey next year. But for the time being a Washington owned Hershey Bear can use his Sabre tricks against members of his own Washington organization, because Washington players are also sent to the Birmingham Dusters, also of the AHL. Consequently, players under contract to Washington wind up playing against each other.
The Hershey Bears are a division of HERCO, a sibling corporation of Hershey Foods. The Bears have the first right of refusal to the players Washington and Buffalo feel need seasoning, and the Bears may have 10 from each team on their roster. Hershey pays a fixed amount to each Washington and Buffalo player and the NHL team pays the rest of the cost of the salary. Hershey owns but one player, defenseman Bob Bilodeau.
Washington currently has 10 players at Hershey, one at Birmingham, four at Port Huron and one at Saginaw.
This season alone, Ron Lalonde has gone from Washington to Binghamton, to Washington, to Hershey, to Washington, to Hershey, and as of March 31, to Washington.
"It really is hard to feel you belong," said Lalonde, 26.
The moving, Lalonde said, "is terrible. My wife had a baby in October and this is miserable for her."
It is no mystery then that Lalonde may not be close to the Hershey fans as Keller had been, even though Lalande is fond of the town and was recently recognized by a butcher who waited on him seven year ago.
Keller's career involved some hops between New York, Vancouver, Providence, Los Angeles and Baltimore. He played just long enough in the NHL to score one goal. But the bulk of his career was with the Hershey Bears.
Now 43, Keller hopes to be the next coach of the Bears when Stanfield moves out with Buffalo next year.
Hershey's general manager, Frank Mathers, is widely respected and is concerned about the drop in fan interest. Mathers came to Hershey from the Pittsburgh Hornets as a playercoach in 1956. And, like so many, he stayed.
"This is the finest little town in the world," said Mathers, whose son handles the Bears' radio play-by-play broadcasts.
"Since last year, we've been fighting to get the fans back. The fans get mad at us because they say we're a development team now, and it's true. It's tough to get the fans back. There is not the identification with the team that there was when Keller palyed. But if we win games and produce good hockey players, we'll be fine."
Mathers would love to own about 10 of his won players, as he did three years ago. But with escalating salaries, he can't afford them. It cost Mathers $650,000 to operate the club last year, and he kept in the black with fringe profits from a summer hockey school and from an apartment building in the arena parking lot which rents rooms to players in winter and workers in the nearby amusement park in summer.
Mathers would prefer to work with just one NL club to simplify matters all around, but exactly what will happer after the withdrawal of Buffalo is uncertain.
Mathers is not citing just a dropoff in interest in the Hershey Bears. He is waging the larger battles of inflation, the crunch of the sports dollar and the rising apathy toward athletic performers who zip in and out of town with paychecks full of commas. He represents to a certain extent a small town fighting the evils of progress.
There are signs of Bearmania rebirth in the town. The Bears are back in the playoffs this year and attendance has crept up about 225 people per game over last year.
But in an age when many professional teams fight to stay alive financially, a minor-league team operating at even a small profit has reason to be optimistic and is a credit to management wizardry.
In spit of the dropoff, there remains a substantial number of Bear devotees.Mathers likes to recall a story he heard about how it all began, about a game played in 1938 - the first year the Bears (originally called the B'Ars) had turned professional.
Milton Hershey, the real Candyman, gave away bars of cocoa butter soap to fans who attended the game. The fans put the soap to what they felt was good use. They threw it at officials.
"Mr Hershey said that if the frugal Dutchmen of this area would throw their soap away, then hockey is here to stay," said Mathers. CAPTION: Picture, Hershey Bears take a break: from left, Rick Brangnalo, Gary Rissling and Rollie Boutin. Coach is Fred Stanfield. By Richard Darcey-The Washington Post