1938-1998: SIX DECADES OF AHL HOCKEY IN HERSHEY
By Bruce C. Cooper
With this, the 1997-98 hockey season, Hershey marks a remarkable anniversary--its sixtieth consecutive season of AHL hockey. And while Hershey is surely one of the "smallest" of all of the hundreds of communities in North America that have been the home of one or more pro sports franchises in the Twentieth Century, only the major NHL metropolises of Boston, Detroit, Chicago, New York, Toronto and Montreal can claim greater continuous longevity in pro hockey than Hershey, PA!
The Hershey Bears Hockey Club joined the American Hockey League (then known as the International-American Hockey League) with the 1938-39 season, and in 1987-88 became the first professional minor league hockey team in the world to celebrate a Golden Anniversary campaign. Now playing their sixtieth consecutive season in the league, in their distinguished history the Bears have captured the Calder Cup title eight times, competed in the play-off finals on eighteen occasions overall, earned fourteen Divisional or overall league regular season titles, and have played in front of well over 25,000,000 spectators at home and on the road.
The new I-AHL club's first ever game came at the Arena on November 5, 1938, as the nascent Bears defeated Providence, 2-1. This season's final game will be the franchise's 4,329th in regular season action-some 1,100 more than have been played by their next nearest active AHL rival, the Rochester Americans. Last season the Bears captured their 2,000th career regular season victory. In January, one of the players you see on the ice tonight will score the Bears' 15,750th regular season AHL goal, a total which accounts for fully ten percent of ALL the goals ever scored by the 67 clubs which have competed in the AHL since 1936!
In play-off competition the Bears have also been AHL record setters. In fifty-nine play-off years the Bears have earned a post season berth a record 50 times, 19 more than either the now departed Springfield Indians/Kings or the Cleveland Barons which are tied for second with 31 play-off appearances each. (The Amerks are again the Bears' nearest active rivals with 23 years in the play-offs but they have also missed them twice as many times as Hershey-18.) When the Bears captured their eighth Calder Cup title last May they did so with their record 219th win in 422 career post season games.
While hockey has been a well established fixture in Hershey for two-thirds of a century now, not one game would have likely ever been played here without the vision of two most remarkable men-Milton S. Hershey and his long time chief entertainment and amusements factotum, John B. Sollenberger. Both men were known for being willing to take a risk when they believed in something. And both believed that ice hockey could and would-be a success in Hershey. Six-and-a-half decades later their prescience continues to prove itself over and over again as a quarter-of-a-million hockey fans regularly enter the Arena every year to watch the Bears play AHL hockey.
The beginnings of hockey in Hershey, however, were far more modest.
The first hockey game ever played in Hershey took place on February 18, 1931, when two amateur teams, Penn A.C. and Villanova, faced off in the 1,900-seat pre-World War I vintage Convention Hall. By then known as the Ice Palace, this classic quadrispired building still stands proudly next to the current Arena serving now as the home of the Hershey Museum of American Life. Nine months after that successful inaugural contest, Swarthmore A.C. moved into the Ice Palace where they played their first game on November 19, 1931, against Crescent A.C. of New York City.
In the lineup that night for visiting Crescent was a strapping center named Lloyd S. Blinco who came to Hershey the next season to play for the new Hershey B'ars--and would remain continuously associated with Hershey hockey until his death some fifty years later. Hershey's hockey club would probably still be called the "B'ars" today, in fact, had it not been for the objections of the New York City-based Eastern Amateur Hockey League scribes who covered Crescent A.C. and the New York Rovers. These old school pundits apparently just did not approve of a club being named for a commercial product-the HERSHEY'S Bar-so they took to referring to the new squad as the "Bears from Penn's Woods" and the moniker stuck.
To the surprise of many--but not M.S. Hershey and J.B. Sollenberger--the popularity of hockey in Hershey grew quickly, not only among the townsfolk, but it also began to draw many fans from the surrounding towns and counties. Despite the depths of the Depression, within a year or two it became clear that a much larger building was needed to accommodate the thousands who wanted to watch hockey in Hershey. (The apparent precipitating event which led to Mr. Hershey's decision to build a new arena was when he was unable to buy a ticket to a sold out game which he wanted to attend at the last minute.) And so in the Spring of 1936 the 7,286-seat Hershey Sports Arena--now called Hersheypark Arena--began to rise adjacent to the Ice Palace. When it opened its doors eight months later in December, 1936, the new Arena was the largest monolithic structure in the United States. As such, not a single seat suffered from an obstructed view.
The first hockey game in the new Arena took place on December 19, 1936, when the Bears met their EAHL arch rivals, the New York Rovers, the legendary farm club and Madison Square Garden co-tenant of the New York Rangers. Despite the fact that not all the seats were yet installed, some 6,000 fans packed the existing stands and were quickly rewarded as Hershey captain Lloyd Blinco beat New York netminder Johnny Inglis just 1:28 into that inaugural contest to register the first of the many thousands of goals to be scored in the Arena in the decades to come. By game's end blueliner Billy Morris and winger Harry Currie added two more goals for coach Herb Mitchell's locals while goaltender Nick Damore held the Rovers to but a pair of enemy markers to christen the Sports Arena with a 3-2 Hershey victory.
At the end of their first 48-game season in the new Arena, the "Hersheys" found themselves in first place in the EAHL standings, two points ahead of the Atlantic City Sea Gulls whom they eventually went on to beat for the James J. Walker Cup, three-games-to-one. After winning another EAHL title in 1937-38, the now renamed Bears finally turned "pro" in June, 1938, with the acquisition of a franchise in the fledgling International-American Hockey League (now the AHL) in which the club has played ever since.
The young league had originally formed two years earlier in 1936 when the four clubs of the International League-Buffalo, Syracuse, Pittsburgh, and Cleveland-joined up with Philadelphia, Providence, New Haven, and Springfield of the Canadian-American League to form an interlocking eight-team pro circuit of convenience as the I-AHL, although Buffalo was forced to drop out a month into the 1936-37 season after its building burned down. At a meeting in New York City two years later on June 28, 1938, the two leagues finally formally merged and elected the former Can-Am league's head, Maurice Podoloff of New Haven, as its first formal President.
Among Podoloff's first official acts that day was to sign the franchise certificate admitting the Eastern Amateur Hockey League champion Hershey Bears as the I-AHL's eighth member to replace the departed Buffalo Bisons. (Hershey would continue to operate an EAHL team coached by Lloyd Blinco-the Hershey Cubs-in the Arena for one more season.) Although charter member cities New Haven, Springfield, Syracuse, Providence, and Philadelphia are all in the AHL today, it is Hershey alone which has been represented in the league without interruption since that day in June of 1938.
Veteran defenseman Henry J. "Hank" Lauzon, an original EAHL B'ar, became the first player to sign a pro contract with the new Bears which the club's EAHL coach, Herb Mitchell (1938-41), was to guide for their first three seasons. They were soon joined by winger Harry Frost, another former Hershey EAHL'er, while netminder Nick Damore followed in 1939. The Bears impressed immediately in their inaugural pro campaign by finishing first in the Western Division of the eight team league with a 31-18-5 record. They were defeated in the play-offs, however, by the Rangers' top farm team, the Philadelphia Ramblers, three-games-to-two. Defenseman Herb Kalbfleisch became the first Bear to be named a First Team All Star that year while goalie Alfie Moore took Second Team honors behind Rambler netminder Bert Gardiner.
Former Boston Bruin center Ralph "Cooney" Weiland (1941-45) took over the Bears' bench duties from Mitchell in 1941 after having coached the NHL Bruins for two years and guided Hershey throughout the War years. Always strong contenders under Weiland (who was elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame as a player in 1971), the Bears won the regular season title in 1942-43 and again in 1943-44 when Hall of Fame coach and manager Emile "The Cat" Francis briefly played goal for Hershey along with Nick Damore, a three-time First Team All Star from 1943 to 1946. The Bears' 13 losses in a 1942-43 are still the fewest setbacks for the club in a single season, and Wally Kilrea's 99 points (31-68) that season gave Hershey its first of seven AHL scoring champions. (With that then-record season, the AHL's trophy for its top scorer was named for Kilrea, renamed in 1948 for Carl Liscombe, and in 1955 was permanently named in honor of John B. Sollenberger.) Blueliner Roger Jenkins and original Bears Kilrea, Frost and Luzon (Second Team) all garnered AHL All Star berths in 1942-43 while Damore, Lauzon, Bill Moe and Gaston Gauthier filled four of the six spots on the 1943-44 First All Star squad.
The 1946-47 season saw second year coach Don Penniston (1945-50) guide the club to their fourth Division title in just nine seasons as they dominated the East with 84 points-25 more than second place Springfield-on a record of 36-16-12 backstopped by second team All Star goalie Harvey Bennett, Sr., who played 60 of Hershey's 64 games during his only season as a Bear. When the play-offs began, however, Bennett was gone thus leaving Hershey's fate up to back up Gordie "Red" Henry who had appeared in just 21 games since joining the Bears two years earlier and only five times in 1946-47. It seems the "rest" had done Henry no harm, however, as he held the powerhouse Western Division champion Cleveland Barons to just three goals in a four game first round sweep. Hershey marksmen, meanwhile, found the back of the Cleveland net a stunning 24 times on the way to 3-0, 3-2, 9-1 and 9-0 victories to earn the Bears their fourth trip to the finals since joining the league in 1938-39.
Also for the fourth time in their play-off lives the Bears were to face the Pittsburgh Hornets, who had eliminated them in 1940, 1941 and 1946, although never in a championship series. This fourth meeting with Pittsburgh would prove to be the charm for the Bears, however, as Henry added three more shut-outs and Frank Mario increased his play-off point total to 18 as the Bears captured their first of eight Calder Cup titles by finally defeating the Hornets although they needed the full seven games to do so.
After that outstanding play-off run "Red" Henry became the Bears' top goalkeeper in 1947-48 and would remain so for eight seasons until 1954-55. Another stalwart joined the Bears a year later in 1948 in a 21-year-old Winnipeg-born centerman named Arnie Kullman. Except for a dozen games with the Boston Bruins in 1949-50, Kullman would remain with the club for a dozen years. When Kullman finally played his last game for the Bears in 1960 it was a then team record 753rd, a total which would only ever be eclipsed by Mike Nykoluk. And over his dozen campaigns in Hershey, Kullman would contribute 253 goals and assist on 376 for 629 points, the third most ever by a Bear.
Thirty nine years later Arnie Kullman still lives in the area and on December 6th the chocolate and white sweater number "9" that he wore for so long was jointly retired along with Tim Tookey's "9" honoring the second (Tookey) and third (Kullman) all time point getters in Hershey hockey history. It is indeed a fitting tribute to both.
Former Boston Bruin defenseman Johnny Crawford (1950-52) coached the Bears to another Division title in 1951-52 with more All Star netminding by "Red" Henry before player-coach Murray Henderson (1952-56) -- another former Bruin blueliner -- took over the Hershey bench for the next four seasons. And another key player arrived in 1952 in 25-year old right winger Dunc Fisher, a former New York Ranger and Boston Bruin, who would earn All Start berths as a Bear in five consecutive seasons (1953-58) and collect 561 points (260-301) in his eight seasons in Hershey.
Although the Bears would not win a second Calder Cup title until the club's twentieth season, 1957-58, Hershey's teams of the early and mid-1950's always provided their fans with hard-hitting, entertaining hockey. Those clubs also placed their share of players on the AHL's All Star Teams of the era including goalie "Red" Henry, defensemen Rollie McLenahan and player/coach Henderson, and forwards Fisher, Lorne Ferguson and George "Red" Sullivan. In 1953-54, Sullivan -- who also played ten years in the NHL with Boston, Chicago and New York and later coached both the New York Rangers and Washington Capitals -- became the second Bear to win a scoring title. He was also the first Bear to be named the league's MVP as he collected 119 points (30-89) in just 69 games to set an AHL scoring record which would stand for almost thirty years! (Sullivan's 89 assists that season have still not been bested in 43 years.)
Although never an All Star, another player to briefly skate in Hershey during this era is today over forty years later one of the game's most visible-and controversial-figures, Don "Grapes" Cherry. Then a wide eyed 20-year old defenseman from Kingston, Ontario, Cherry made his professional debut with the Bears during the 1954-55 season and also played for the club in 1956-57. Although his playing career was workmanlike it unspectacular, as a coach with the AHL Rochester Americans, NHL Boston Bruins, and NHL Colorado Rockies between 1971 and 1980 he became a household name to hockey fans as by far the game's most colorful character. Now as a TV personality and longtime commentator on Hockey Night in Canada, this former Bear is currently one of the best known figures in Canada -- in any field.
The single event with the most long term significance in the history of the Bears-before or since-also occurred as the Bears' approached their Twentieth Anniversary. Following the 1955-56 season, the powerhouse Pittsburgh Hornets -- winners of two Calder Cups over the previous five seasons -- folded because their deteriorating arena, the ancient Duquesne Gardens, was torn down. With so much talent suddenly available, Sollenberger and Blinco acted quickly to acquire the services of seven of the Hornets' best players including four-time All Star goalie Gil Mayer, all-time scoring great Willie Marshall, and the AHL's only ever five-time First Team All Star defenseman -- Frank S. Mathers.
Mayer moved on after three seasons in Hershey to Cleveland and later Providence. Marshall, who by the end of his record twenty-year AHL career was (and still is) the league's all-time leader in games played (1,205), goals (523), assists (852) and total points (1,375), would lead Hershey in scoring in each of his seven seasons as a Bear (1956-63). And Frank Mathers, of course, would remain active with the Bears for an unprecedented thirty-five seasons as everything from player/coach to team President. (As if these seven were not enough, also added that same year was tough-as-nails defenseman Larry "The Rock" Zeidel who would appear in 517 games for the Bears between 1956 and 1963).
Curiously, the then 31 -year old Mathers had considerable misgivings at first about coming to Hershey after eight years in Pittsburgh, but John Sollenberger could be extraordinarily "persuasive" when he wanted you. And so Frank Mathers -- after a brief but intense period of Sollenbergerian courting -- soon relented and agreed to become player/coach of the Bears in 1956-57. Of course it did not take long for Mathers to be won over by Hershey (or Hershey by him), and over the next three-and-a-half decades he led the club on the ice, from behind the bench, and in the front office to six Calder Cup titles and in excess of 1,500 victories. All these remarkable achievements also earned Frank Mathers well deserved personal honors, too, culminating with the Lester Patrick Award in 1987 for his "contributions to hockey in the United States," and, in 1992, his game's ultimate individual honor-election to the Hockey Hall of Fame.
The Mathers' era in Hershey started slowly with a fourth-place finish in 1956-57, but the next two seasons saw his Bears capture back-to-back Calder Cup titles.
With Bobby Perreault and Gil Mayer in goal, the league's leading scorer Willie Marshall (whose 104 points bested the AHL's number two marksman, linemate Dunc Fisher, by sixteen points), and Mathers himself earning All Star honors on defense for the sixth time in seven years, the Bears won both the regular season and play-off championships in 1957-58.
Hershey's road to the Cup in 1958-59, however, was much more difficult as the Bears ended the regular season with just a .500 record (32-32-6) and were the fourth and final team to qualify for post season play. But after taking a full seven games to defeat the Cleveland Barons in the first round, the Bears upset the regular season champion Buffalo Bisons in the finals, four-games-to-two, to win their third Calder Cup title.
While that win was certainly significant, an event vastly more important to the long term success of the club also happened in 1958 when the Bears acquired the services of a 23-year old center named Mike Nykoluk who had split the previous two seasons between the Toronto Maple Leafs and their AHL club in Rochester. When Nykoluk retired fourteen years later, he was the AHL's fourth all time leader in points with 881 on 195 goals and 686 assists and his 972 games as a Bear are 219 more than Arnie Kullman's second overall 753 in a Hershey uniform. (Nykoluk has since been passed on the AHL's all time scoring list by Jody Gage and Tim Tookey.)
Upon Nykoluk's retirement in 1972 to become assistant coach to Fred Shero with the Philadelphia Flyers, the "Big Bear's" familiar number "8" became the first jersey ever to be retired by the club. After helping Shero guide the Flyers to Stanley Cup titles in 1974 and 1975, Nykoluk eventually went on to be head coach of his old NHL club, the Toronto Maple Leafs. In 1990, however, he returned to Hershey to see his name and number finally raised to its rightful place high over the same Arena ice surface on which he scored -- and set up -- so many goals during his fourteen seasons as a Bear.
After falling precipitously to sixth place in 1959-60, Mathers' Bears then finished second in the Eastern Division for five consecutive seasons (1961-66). During that five-year span five more key players would also join the club who would each stay from anywhere from seven to nine seasons -- defensemen Barry Ashbee (1962-70) and Ralph Keller (1963-72), and forwards Roger DeJordy (1962-70), Michel Harvey (1963-71) and Gil Gilbert (1965-72). Together they would eventually account for 2,654 games played, 710 goals, 1,251 assists, and 1,961 points as Bears!
In 1966-67, these five and league MVP Mike Nykoluk all helped the Bears finally win their Division's regular season title again for the first time since 1957-58 with 86 points on a 38-24-10 record behind the goaltending of First Team All Star Andre Gill and a league-leading 52 goals by left wing DeJordy -- most of which were set up by Nykoluk. A fourth Cup title was not to follow just yet, however, as the Bears were knocked off in the first round of the 1967 play-offs by the Western Division champion Pittsburgh Hornets.
The Bears suffered a similar fate at the hands of the eventual Cup champion Rochester Americans the next season, but after a decade's absence Hershey finally captured its fourth Calder Cup crown in 1968-69 by defeating the Flyers' then AHL farm club, the Quebec Aces, four-games-to-one. Center Gil Gilbert led the league in scoring that season with 100 points (35 goals, 65 assists) with teammate Michel Harvey close behind at 93 as the Bears also won their third consecutive Eastern Divisional title. That season also saw Frank Mathers add the duties of GM to his portfolio with the retirement of Lloyd Blinco from that post.
After four more seasons Mathers finally ended his unprecedented, unbroken seventeen-year coaching run and retired from the bench after the 1972-73 season to devote his efforts full time to his duties as GM. Including a brief return to the bench in 1984-85, Mathers compiled a personal coaching record of 610-513-134 for a career winning percentage of .539. As his successor as coach Mathers named 34-year old former Bears' winger Chuck Hamilton (1973-79) who had spent seven productive seasons playing for Mathers from 1963 to 1970. In his first season as the Bears' new coach, Hamilton guided a young and inexperienced squad (nine of the Bears that season were first year players) to unexpected heights as his club -- soon dubbed the “Comeback Kids” -- rallied night after night to thrilling come-from-behind victories.
Despite not having a single Bear among the league's top ten scorers and placing just one player -- veteran defenseman Duane Rupp -- on the Second All Star Team, by season's end the Bears were just two points behind the first place Baltimore Clippers in the Southern Division race. In the play-offs, however, nobody could touch them as they lost just twice on their way to clinching their fifth Cup title by defeating the Cincinnati Swords (4-1), Baltimore Clippers (4-0), and Providence Reds (4-1) with the championship game played before an Arena crowd of 8,703. Ironically at the same time the NHL Philadelphia Flyers were winning their first Stanley Cup championship thus simultaneously bringing the top two titles in professional hockey to the Keystone State for the first -- and so far only -- time in history.
Pennsylvania almost repeated in 1979-80, however, but the Flyers lost to the New York Islanders in the finals in six games exactly one week after the Bears clinched their sixth Calder Cup title. That remarkable season the Bears were led by player/coach Doug Gibson who replaced first year coach Gary Green when he was unexpectedly promoted to the Bears' then NHL affiliate, the Washington Capitals, early in the season to replace Danny Belisle. Incredibly Gibson not only led the Bears to a title as their coach, but also in play-off scoring with twelve goals and seven assists for nineteen points in sixteen Calder Cup games. In the nets former Penguin, Flyer and Capital goalie Gary Inness -- who himself would later coach the team -- compiled a 6-1 playoff record while his goaltending partner, Dave Parro, was 6-3.
Although Hershey had finished four games below .500 during the regular season (35-39-9), they defeated the Syracuse Firebirds in four straight games in the opening round and then upset both the Southern Division champion New Haven Nighthawks in the semifinals and the Northern Division winning New Brunswick Hawks in the finals, each four-games-to-two. (During the regular season, Hershey had beaten those two powerhouse clubs just one time each.) What made that title even more remarkable was that two of their four wins in the championship series came in double overtime!
Although the Bears did not repeat as Calder Cup champions in 1980-81 under new coach Bryan Murray (now GM/Coach of the NHL Florida Panthers and older brother of former Flyer coach Terry Murray), they had the best regular season in their history to that point with 103 points on a record of 47-24-9. That Bears squad also established new single-season team standards for wins, points, goals (357), power-play goals (103), assists (585), and scoring points (942). (In 1988 they would win 50 games and compile 105 points to better both of those team marks.)
The 1980-81 season also saw right wing Mark Lofthouse become the fifth Bear to win the AHL's scoring title notching 48 goals and 103 points. On the night of February 7th, 1981, Lofthouse also collected a team single game record eight points (4 goals, 4 assists) as the Bears smothered the Rochester Americans at Hersheypark Arena, 11 -2, while the team also tied an AHL record for goals in a period that same night with nine in the second frame. Among the new faces on the club that year was a 20-year old rookie center then on assignment from Capitals named Tim Tookey. Over three separate stints with the Bears in the years to come, Tookey would outscore every other man to play for the club but one, Mike Nykoluk.
As had Gary Green in 1979, Bryan Murray left the Bears early in the 1981-82 season to become coach of the Washington Capitals (replacing Green) and was replaced by Gary Inness who took over behind the Hershey bench under most unusual circumstances. Inness had retired as a player a year earlier but wanted to remain in Hershey and keep involved with the Bears. With no coaching position available to offer him -- but in need of a new trainer -- Frank Mathers asked Inness if by any chance he would be interested in that job! While not exactly what Inness had in mind, he accepted -- and with Murray's precipitous promotion to Washington a month later the former Hershey netminder was summarily elevated from sharpening skates to being the eleventh coach in the Bears' history. Inness would remain behind the Hershey bench until December, 1984, when Frank Mathers returned to that post on an interim basis for the first time since 1973 and coached the club until then recently retired Hall of Fame Flyer winger Bill Barber took over for the final sixteen games of the season.
That 1984-85 season was the first in which the Bears had an NHL affiliation with the Philadelphia Flyers who shared the club with the Boston Bruins that year. When the Bruins left at the end of the season, however, the Flyers took over as the sole parent club of the Bears and installed former Flyer right wing John "Too Tall" Paddock (1985-89) as coach of the club in 1985. The 31 -year old Paddock was no stranger to success in the AHL having played on a pair of regular season and Calder Cup championship teams with the Maine Mariners in 1977-78 and 1978-79 when that team was the Flyers' AHL development club and then coaching Maine to another title in 1983-84 as the farm club of the New Jersey Devils.
Over the next four seasons in Hershey Paddock's clubs would average a remarkable 45 wins a year, win two overall regular season titles, reach the play-off finals twice, and bring Hershey a seventh Calder Cup championship in record setting fashion! In fact records of all kinds would be common place during Paddock's highly successful four year tenure in Hershey.
In his first year as the Bears' coach, Paddock led the club to first place overall in the regular season with a 48-29-3 record as the Bears set new AHL marks for both wins in a season (48) and home-ice victories (32)--as well as establishing a still standing league "standard" for penalty minutes with 2,872! Winger Steve Martinson also set a then individual AHL record with 432 minutes in the box that year. (Hamilton's Dennis Bonvie amassed 522 minutes last season to set the current mark.) Six of the AHL's top twenty all-time miscreants, in fact, "earned" many if not most of their career penalty minutes in Chocolate and White including Mike Stothers (5th; 1,887 minutes), Gary Rissling (7th; 1,743), Steve Fletcher (8th; 1,723), Archie Henderson (I0th; 1,650), Larry "The Rock" Zeidel (11th; 1,632), and Don Nachbaur (17th; 1,452).
With four goals in the final game of that 1985-86 season, left wing Ross Fitzpatrick became the third Bear to score 50 goals in a season while rookie goalie Ron Hextall set a team record with three consecutive shutouts at home. Both Hextall and defenseman Kevin McCarthy, later a Bears' assistant and then head coach (and now coach of the Beast of New Haven), were First Team All Stars while linemates Fitzpatrick and Tim Tookey were both named to the second All Star Team. (Tookey also won the Butterfield Trophy as MVP of the Calder Cup play-offs.) With five shut-outs and a 30-19-2 record, Hextall became the first Bear to be named AHL Rookie of the Year as well as winning the Baz Bastien Memorial Trophy as the AHL's top goalie. (As an NHL rookie the following season with the Flyers Hextall would win both the Vezina and Conn Smythe trophies.)
In the 1985-86 play-offs, the Bears reached the Calder Cup finals for the sixteenth time in their history by defeating the New Haven Nighthawks in five and the St. Catherines Saints in seven penalty-filled games which included a memorable bench clearing brawl at the Arena at the end of game two in which Hextall fought and defeated three of the toughest players on John Brophy's Saints. In the finals, however, the exhausted Bears were upset by the Adirondack Red Wings, four-games-to-two, who were led in goal by Mark LaForest. Ironically Hextall and LaForest later became the Flyers' goaltending tandem from 1987 to 1989.
Although the Bears finished fourth in the Southern Division in 1986-87 with 87 points (43-36-1), their top line of Tim Tookey, Ross Fitzpatrick and Ray Allison finished first, fifth and seventh in overall league scoring with 124, 85 and 84 points respectively and accounted for a total of 125 of the Bears' 329 goals. (Center Mitch Lamoureux also finished in the top ten with 43 goals and 46 assists for 89 points good for fourth overall in the league.) Tookey's 124 points (51 goals, 73 assists) also established a new single-season record for Hershey, made him the seventh Bear to win the AHL's scoring title, and just the third to win the Les Cunningham Plaque as the league's MVP.
Tookey's 124 points that year is also still the sixth best single-season total for an individual player in AHL history, just fourteen points less than the current league record of 138 set by former Bear Don Biggs with Binghamton in 1992-93. That splendid season also earned Tookey recognition as the AHL's First Team All Star center and another trip to the NHL the following year with the Los Angeles Kings thus ending the second of his three tours of duty with the Bears.
With the drop of the puck to start the 1987-88 AHL campaign on October 9th, 1987, the Bears became the first pro hockey club outside of the NHL to open a Golden Anniversary season -- and oh what a season it would be! As memorable as the previous half dozen championship Bears' teams had been, for sheer perfection none could ever hope to match the remarkable march of the 1987-88 Bears. After winning a then league record fifty regular season games, Hershey swept all three of its Calder Cup series in April and May, 1988, to post an unblemished play-off record of 12-0 and accomplish what was truly the "Miracle in Chocolatetown."
The unquestioned key to the Bears' success that season was the man who guarded the nets for Hershey -- Wendell Young. After just ten games it looked as if there would not be much to celebrate in Hershey that year as Paddock's club was an unexpectedly dismal 3-7-0 and enemy pucks were finding their way into the Bears' net with uncomfortable regularity. But with former Bear goalie and 1986-87 Vezina and Conn Smythe Trophy winner Ron Hextall sitting out an eight-game suspension to start the Flyers' season as the result of a vicious slash he had delivered in the 1987 Stanley Cup finals, both Young and Mark LaForest had to remain in Philadelphia.
With Hextall's return to the Flyers in early November, however, Young was finally dispatched to Hershey and he went 33-15-3 with a 2.77 goals-against average over the next five months while rookie Darryl Gilmour appeared in 25 games compiling a creditable 14-7-0 record and 3.68 average. To go along with veterans such as 1987-88 (and 1993-94) Bears' leading scorer Mitch Lamoureux, former Flyer Al Hill, hardnosed winger Don Nachbaur, 36-goal scoring right wing Kevin Maxwell, steady blueliner Steve Smith, and former Rochester American captain and AHL All Star defenseman Dave Fenvyes, Paddock also had nine first or second year players in his lineup as regulars getting their feet wet in pro hockey. The contributions of these nascent pros would prove to be another essential element in Hershey's 1988 Cup triumph.
Brian Dobbin, then a sophomore right wing, finished third in team scoring (behind Lamoureux and Maxwell) with 83 points (36-47) even though he had been recalled to Philadelphia seven times during the campaign and only played in 54 games for Hershey. Rookie center Glen Seabrooke also broke the 30-goal mark (32) and was fifth overall in Bears' scoring with 78 points. Second-year defenseman John Stevens and rookie rearguard Gordie Murphy (a stalwart on defense these days with the NHL Florida Panthers) also had outstanding seasons on the Hershey blueline while Jeff Chychrun, another sophomore, came into his own after a difficult rookie year in 1986-87 to become one of the most physically dominating players in the league by season's end.
By the time the regular season had come to a close in April, the Bears had collected fifty wins for the first time in their history -- one to celebrate each year of their existence -- and less than six weeks later became the first professional hockey team to ever sweep to a playoff championship in three best-of-seven series without losing a single post season game!
The Hershey Bears had already been in existence for anywhere from twenty to thirty years by the time that each of the players on the 1987-88 team was born. For some of those 1987-88 Bears such as defenseman Kevin McCarthy and right wing Kevin Maxwell, the end of the play-offs also meant the end of their playing careers and the beginning of new ones in coaching or management. For others, however, the Bears' Golden Anniversary season was marking just the beginning of successful pro playing careers. But for each of the men who wore Chocolate and White in 1987-88, having been a part of the 50th Anniversary Hershey Bears and the "Miracle in Chocolatetown" is something that remains very special to them.
Most special of all, of course, was the night of May 12, 1988, when the team completed its unprecedented 12-0 sweep to the Cup by defeating the Fredericton Express, 4-2, in the fourth game of the finals. The Express -- the AHL's top scoring team in the 1987-88 regular season -- poured 37 shots on Wendell Young that night but only two got by the Hershey goalie who had played every minute of every game for the Bears in the 1988 play-offs. Those two goals came early in the game to give Fredericton only their second lead in the series, 2- 1, but then the Bears' power-play took over as it clicked three times to give Hershey the 4-2 Cup clinching win. Veteran Mark Lofthouse scored the first Hershey goal while Mitch Lamoureux, Kevin Maxwell and Ross Fitzpatrick collected Hershey's power-play tallies.
Some 2,000 ecstatic fans were on hand to greet the Bears when their Air Canada charter landed at Harrisburg International Airport at 1:45 a.m. the next morning after a raucous 850-mile flight from the Canadian Maritimes. Two days later another 10,000 lined the sidewalks of Chocolate Avenue for a victory parade. The Golden Anniversary season for this great franchise was officially over and this remarkable group of players would go their separate ways and never all play together as a team again.
In 1988-89, Paddock's fourth and final season behind the Bears' bench, he led the club to 40 more regular season victories and a second place finish in the Southern Division before they bowed in the semifinals to eventual Calder Cup champion Adirondack Red Wings, four-games-to-three. For the second year in a row Bears' captain Dave Fenvyes won the Eddie Shore Plaque as the AHL's top defenseman while winger Brian Dobbin also earned First Team All Star honors and center Don Biggs became the seventh Bear to break the century mark in scoring with a team leading 103 points.
After the 1988-89 season Paddock turned over the Bears to assistant coach Kevin McCarthy (1989-90) so he could join Flyer GM Bob Clarke in Philadelphia as his Assistant GM. Although the Bears failed to make the play-offs in McCarthy's only season behind their bench, Ross Fitzpatrick with 103 points (45-58) and linemate Brian Dobbin both earned berths as Second Team All Stars in 1989-90.
Former Flyer assistant coach Mike Eaves (1990-93) began a three year run as Bears' coach in 1990-91 which was also to be Frank Mathers' last season at the helm of his beloved Bears. On the night of March 9, 1991, the Arena was packed to the rafters as Hershey and the hockey world gathered to recognize one of the true gentlemen of hockey on "Frank Mathers Night." Among the many guests who traveled in from far and wide were one or more players of each of his six Calder Cup teams, his ninety-year old mother who came from Winnipeg, representatives of many AHL and NHL teams, and many thousands of loyal Hershey fans who came to honor the man who had delivered championship hockey to them for three-and-a-half decades.
After an emotional ceremony at center ice and Frank Mathers' equally heartfelt remarks in response to the love and respect being shown him that night, a banner officially retiring his jersey number "3" was raised to the ceiling of the Arena to join that of Mike Nykoluk. Although officially retired now for almost seven years, Frank Mathers nonetheless continues to serve the game that has been his life as an Honorary Life Member of the AHL Board of Governors and is still frequently called upon by the league for his sage advice and guidance. And as he has now for almost forty years, Mathers still attends almost every Bears' home game greeting almost every fan he meets by name. And thus with the 1991-92 season, HERCO executive Jay Feaster became just the fourth man to serve as GM of the Hershey Bears in fifty-four years while veteran hockey coach and team executive Doug Yingst was named the Bears' Assistant GM and Director of Hockey Operations. (Yingst has since been promoted to General Manager.)
Although by then on the north side of thirty, Tim Tookey -- who was in his third term of service in Hershey -- continued his march up the Bears' all time scoring list with a pair of 100+ point seasons making him the only Hershey player to ever notch one hundred or more points in a single season more than once. With 105 points in 1991-92 and 108 in 1992-93, Tookey also led Hershey in scoring for the third and fourth times in his career while also earning All Star honors for a third time with a Second Team selection in 1991-92. By the time he played his 529th and last regular season game as a Bear in April, 1994, Tookey ranked second only to Mike Nykoluk among the 700-plus players who have ever donned the Chocolate and White livery of the Bears with 251 goals and 442 assists for 693 points.
What is most impressive about Tookey's numbers, however, is that his career average of 1.31 points-per-game with Hershey is second only to his former teammate, Wes Jarvis, who averaged 1.58 in 96 appearances with Hershey between 1979 and 1982 on 52 goals and 100 assists. After a final season as player/assistant coach with the Providence Bruins in 1994-95-and a much deserved appearance in the only AHL All Star Game to be contested while he was an active player-Tim Tookey retired after a distinguished hockey career which saw him appear in a total of 824 AHL games with five clubs while amassing 974 points on 353 goals and 621 assists to place him fifth overall on the list of the AHL's all-time career scoring leaders. On December 9th he joined Arnie Kullman as they both had the same familiar number "9" each wore during their Hershey Bears' careers retired to join Mike Nykoluk's "8" and Frank Mather's "3" high above the Arena ice.
With Mike Eaves' departure in 1993, former Springfield Indian mentor and NHL Hartford Whaler assistant Jay Leach (1993-95) was named the seventeenth head coach of the Bears, and in his first season, 1993-94, he guided the club to its fourteenth career regular divisional title on a 38-31-11 record. Leach's first play-off challenge as Bears' coach was to take on the Rochester Americans-a club that Hershey had faced five times before in post-season action since 1964-65 but had never even come close to beating in any previous series. The Bears-Amerks series in 1994 would be far different, however, as Hershey not only finally eliminated Rochester for the first time in six tries but did so in four straight games. The Bears' quest for an eighth Cup came to an end in the 1993-94 Southern Division Finals, however, as current Flyer netminder Garth Snow led Bob Hartley's Cornwall Aces to victory over them in seven games.
Mitch Lamoureux won his third team scoring title in 1994-95 with 85 points on 39 goals and 46 assists to highlight the Bears' 57th consecutive season in the AHL. And although the team dropped to a third place finish in the Southern Division and was eliminated in the play-offs for the second consecutive year by Cornwall, Milton Hershey's and John Sollenberger's long ago professed faith in the popularity of hockey in Hershey nevertheless continued to be rewarded as the Bears drew an all time record of 262,323 fans to Hersheypark Arena to see them play in 1994-95.
It was also announced early in that 1994-95 season that on January 16, 1996, Hersheypark Arena would be the site of the nationally televised 1996 AHL All Star Game. After a lapse of 35 seasons, the league had reinstituted its mid-season classic in 1995 for the first time since the 1959-60 season with a highly successful game in Providence. The 1996 contest would be just the ninth All Star game ever in league history but the third to be contested in Hershey which had hosted two earlier matches in 1954 and 1959.
The 1995-96 season saw several key changes in Hershey just as the Bears headed into the All Star break. In mid-December it was announced that at season's end the Flyers would reluctantly end their fruitful twelve-year affiliation with the Bears in order to operate an AHL expansion franchise of their own. With the Flyers' scheduled departure from their home of twenty-nine seasons, the Spectrum, at year's end in favor of its neighboring new 20,000+ seat facility, the CoreStates Center, a new tenant was needed for the venerable Spectrum -- thus the birth of the Phantoms. With this new AHL club, Philadelphia -- one of the circuit's eight original member cities in 1936 -- would follow in the footsteps of three earlier Philadelphia-based AHL clubs: the Ramblers, Rockets and Firebirds.
Two weeks later on December 30th the Bears also changed coaches as Flyer Hall of Famer Bill Barber, who had guided the Bears over the final sixteen games of the 1984-85 season, took over the bench duties for the second half of the 1995-96 campaign from Jay Leach. Hershey finished its final season as a Flyer affiliate in second place in the then Southern Division just two points behind Binghamton but were upset by Baltimore, three-games-to-two, in the first round of the playoffs.
The 1996-97 campaign brought Hershey both a new affiliation with the just crowned Stanley Cup champion Colorado Avalanche -- and rekindled an old on-ice rivalry with Philadelphia of a kind not seen since the first year 1938-39 Bears had fought it out tooth and nail with their first arch foes, the Philadelphia Ramblers. With the vast majority of the first year Phantoms' roster made up of former Bears, the intensity of play generated in each of the seventeen regular season and playoff games eventually contested between the two clubs in 1996-97 reached increasingly higher levels as the season progressed. By January every meeting between the two clubs in either building was invariably played to SRO crowds. And with Bill Barber returning to Philadelphia to guide the Phantoms, ironically the Bears were taken over by Bob Hartley who in both 1994 as assistant coach and 1995 as head coach had helped lead his former club, the Cornwall Aces, to playoff series victories over the Bears.
As had also been the case in Hershey's first AHL season in 1938-39, only Philadelphia finished 1996-97 with more points than Hershey-and also (as six decades earlier) these two rivals dominated the league's All Star Teams. Bears' netminder Jean-François Labbe took both the Cunningham (MVP) and Holmes (top goalie) awards to go along with his First All Star Team berth while right wing Blair Atcheynum, Hershey's leading scorer (42-45-87), also collected First Team honors. (Three former Bears -- Darren Rumble, Vaclav Prospal and Patrik Juhlin -- represented the Phantoms on the First Team.) Hershey defenseman Pascal Trepanier rounded out the Bears' all stars with a Second Team berth.
With a 43-27-5-10 mark, the 1996-97 Bears' 101 points broke the century mark for Hershey for just the third time ever -- and for the first since John Paddock's 50th Anniversary club amassed 105 points in 1987-88 and then swept to the Calder Cup in an even dozen games without a loss. As did that club, the 1996-97 Bears would also bring a Calder Cup title to Hershey. But unlike Hershey's 1988 run, the Bears' road to their eighth championship would be a far, far rockier one to travel!
Hershey's first play-off game of 1997 proved to be a harbinger of things to come as it required a trip into double overtime before Blair Atcheynum -- who in the next series would score a triple overtime goal to stave off elimination -- notched the winner in a 4-3 victory over the Kentucky Thoroughblades. After a 3-0 Labbe shutout in game two and a 4-2 loss in Kentucky, the Bears wrapped up the series in four games with a comfortable 5-2 victory. That, however, would be the last time for weeks that the Bears would have a "comfortable" game.
In what many thought were the "real" Calder Cup finals, the Bears next met the league's overall regular season champion Philadelphia Phantoms in the MidAtlantic Division finals. While Hershey had won the ten game season series, 5-3-2, on paper the Phantoms appeared to be clear favorites. To beat them would require hard work, sacrifice, and more than a little bit of luck. Fortunately for the Bears, they got all three.
Trailing by a goal with less than five minutes to go in game one in Philadelphia, Christian Matte and Kurt Miller took advantage of a pair of uncharacteristic Philadelphia mistakes just 40 seconds apart to give the Bears a 4-3 lead to which Matte then added a victory sealing empty net goal. An enraged Phantoms' club then evened the series in game two, 7-4, in a marathon contest that featured, among other things, fourteen game misconducts, a pair of suspensions, and the appearance in the game of five goalies (Labbe, Sinuhe Wallinheimo and Sylvain Rodrique for Hershey; Neil Little and Dominic Roussel for Philadelphia.)
After winning game three, 4-2, at Hershey, the Bears then lost their chance to take a commanding lead in the series when they failed to convert on a power play in the final minute of regulation after coming back from a 2-0 deficit. Instead Philadelphia's Colin Forbes tied the series with a power play marker in overtime for a 3-2 Phantoms' victory. Momentum regained, Neil Little then shut out Hershey, 3-0, in game five in Philadelphia to set up the Bears for potential elimination the following night at Hershey in what would prove to be one of the most remarkable games in the history of Hershey hockey.
With game six tied at 2-2 after sixty minutes, all Philadelphia needed was one more goal to end Hershey's season but Labbe held them off despite facing 18 shots (to just 6 for Hershey) in the first overtime. The second overtime then saw Philadelphia's Little shine as Hershey poured 22 shots his way over minutes eighty to one hundred of the match while Labbe turned aside ten more Phantoms' shots. Through now five periods and almost five hours of hockey, the two clubs had combined for 120 shots and still the match was tied at 2-2.
Blair Atcheynum -- the hero of Hershey's double overtime win over Kentucky in the previous round -- finally ended the suspense just :42 in to the third overtime, however, when he beat Little on a breakaway with the Bears' 57th shot of the night. That incredible Bears' victory also seemed to break the Phantoms' spirit as three nights later they fell to Hershey in game seven in Philadelphia, 3-2, with the Bears getting two goals from Josef Marha who had just returned to the club from a call up to Colorado.
After that draining seven game victory over Philadelphia, however, Hershey seemed to sag badly in the Southern Conference finals as they inauspiciously dropped the first two games -- at home -- to Springfield, 6-2 and 5-3, and then trailed, 3-1, late in game three in Springfield. However Cory Banika got them to within one with 8:01 left, and then, with Labbe pulled in the final minute, Steffon Walby scored with :40 left in regulation when Falcons' goalie Manny Legace was "inadvertently" knocked down just outside of the crease.
To Legace's great distress, referee Denis Larue did not rule interference and let the tying goal stand. Legace's frustration was then compounded when Larue disallowed an apparent Falcons' game winning goal with just a dozen seconds left in regulation. When Mike McHugh scored 2:53 into overtime it was more than Lagace could take, however. He charged after Larue and hit him with his stick resulting in a ten game suspension for the Springfield goalie.
After allowing three goals on the first five shots in game four, Springfield's backup goalie Sylvain Daigle then settled down and shut the door on the Bears while the Falcons scored four unanswered goals for a 4-3 victory and a 3-1 series lead. This, of course, meant that Hershey would have to win three in a row or be eliminated. And incredibly that's exactly what they did as Labbe held Springfield to a single goal in each of the next two games both won by Hershey, 4-1. When a bout of stomach flu forced Labbe to the sidelines early in game seven, however, rookie Marc Denis -- fresh out of junior hockey -- allowed just one goal over game seven's final 41 minutes to earn his first professional victory as Hershey completed its incredible comeback with a 3-1 series clinching victory.
After those fourteen games against Philadelphia and Springfield, the finals against the Hamilton Bulldogs were relatively easy for the battle hardened Bears. It seemed by now that there was no adversity this remarkable team could or would not overcome. After winning game one, 4-2, the Bears were down by the same score in the third period of game two. But just three power plays later Hershey had both erased and then overcome that deficit with a trio of power play goals -- the club's third, fourth and fifth of the game -- to take a 5-4 lead. Even a tying goal by the Bulldogs in the final minute of regulation did not phase the Bears as play-off MVP Mike McHugh won it just :56 into overtime on a two-on-none breakaway for Hershey's only even strength goal of the night.
Hamilton made a bid to make the series interesting with a tight checking 2-1 home ice win in game three but the Bears then polished them off with impressive 4-2 and 4-1 road victories to bring the Calder Cup back to Hershey for the eighth time in their storied history. Despite missing four games Josef Marha led the league in play-off scoring with 22 points (6-16) while Eric Veilleux tied Springfield's Kevin Brown with eleven goals. Hershey captain Mike McHugh became the third Bear to earn the Jack Butterfield Trophy as play-off MVP while also leading the team in +/- at +9. With success, however, comes advancement and when the 1997-98 season -- the Bears' sixtieth -- opened players such as Eric Messier, Pascal Trepanier, Richard Brennan and Blair Atcheynum had moved up to the NHL while J. F. Labbe was signed by Edmonton as a free agent. Ironically he is now playing for the same Bulldogs he helped Hershey defeat in the finals.
As with most things in Hershey -- the chocolate factory, Hersheypark, the Milton Hershey School, the Hotel, the Motor Lodge, and the town itself -- ice hockey's beginnings here were modest indeed. A relatively small number of people attended that first hockey game in Hershey at the Ice Palace on February 18, 1931. But just as Madison Square Garden's legendary duo of dynamic showmen, "Tex" Rickard and Col. John Hammond, had seen in New York six years earlier, that night Milton Hershey and John Sollenberger saw enough in the eyes of those fans -- and in the action on the ice -- to know that hockey would have a bright and wonderful future in their sylvan Central Pennsylvania paradise of Hershey, PA.
And so it has.
©1998 Bruce C. Cooper