Thanks for the memories...
by Bruce “Scoop” Cooper
When the first formal hockey game ever played in Hershey was contested seventy-four years ago at the Ice Palace -- just a few hundred yards from where the GIANT Center now stands -- on February 18, 1931, growing up some 1,200 miles to the Northwest of Hershey in the Canadian prairie city of Winnipeg, Manitoba, was a sprightly, aspiring young hockey player named Frank Sydney Mathers. Although then still six weeks shy of his seventh birthday, the young Mathers was already developing the glorious hockey skills that would eventually lead him to Hershey a quarter of a century later -- and keep him here for the rest of his long, incredibly productive, and giving life.
When Frank Mathers was taken from us earlier this month after that almost half a century in our midst, not only did the entire world of hockey lose a giant in every sense of the word, but so too did every member of this community that he loved so much.
Curiously when Frank Mathers arrived here in 1956 as a then veteran 32-year old perennial AHL All-Star defenseman, he had some considerable misgivings about coming to Hershey after playing for the Hornets in Pittsburgh for the previous eight years. But fortunately Bears’ manager John Sollenberger could be extraordinarily persuasive, and Mathers soon relented and agreed to become player/coach of the Bears.
It proved to be a decision that he never regretted. And it was also one for which every one of the countless people whose lives he touched here will always be eternally grateful.
For three-and-a-half decades Frank Mathers led the Hershey Bears Hockey 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. These remarkable achievements also earned him many well deserved personal honors as well including the Lester Patrick Award in 1987 for his "contributions to hockey in the United States," and, in 1992, our game's ultimate individual honor -- election to the Hockey Hall of Fame.
None of this personal success in the highly competitive, rough and tumble world of hockey ever went to his head, however. Frank Mathers always remained the personification of grace, class, generosity, and above all personal humility that many aspire to but so very few ever really achieve.
The formal part of Frank's active career with the Bears ended with his retirement fourteen years ago, and on March 9, 1991, an SRO crowd assembled to honor and thank him on Frank Mathers Night. I will always remember it as by far one of the most memorable events in the storied history of Hershey Park Arena, and one of the most meaningful to all in attendance. In an emotional ceremony attended by Frank's then nonagenarian mother, key players from each of his six championship teams, and countless friends and colleagues, Frank's number "3" became just the second (after Mike Nykoluk's "8") to be retired by the club.
While Frank was clearly moved by the heartfelt outpouring of love and respect accorded him that night, the class and self-effacing graciousness of his remarks in thanks made everyone in attendance feel as if they were being equally honored by him as well, as indeed they were.
That was Frank Mathers.
Tonight we gather together again to honor -- and more importantly to celebrate -- the almost eighty-one years of Frank Mathers’ remarkable life marked by unmatched grace, personal accomplishment, unequaled generosity, great good humor, incomparable ability, personal humility, and unselfish dedication to the game, family, and friends.
In my own thirty-five years working in hockey in Philadelphia, ironically the four people in the game who have meant the most to me have all been closely associated with Hershey hockey in one way or another. Two of them -- Doug Yingst and Mike Emrick -- are here tonight helping us all celebrate Frank's life. The third, late Patriot-News hockeywriter extraodinaire Steve Summers, was tragically taken from us far too young in 1993. The fourth, of course, was Frank Mathers, the brightest star in any constellation of friends that one could ever hope to have in a lifetime.
In an age of cynicism, there was never anything cynical about Frank Mathers. He treated everyone with respect and as an equal. The countless things he did -- often quietly and without recognition -- to help people in the game will probably never be known, even to many of the people he did them for. And when disputes arose among clubs or in the business of hockey, Frank Mathers could always be counted on to be a fair and honest broker, and trusted to do the wise and right thing for all concerned.
Frank Mathers was certainly a highly competitive man, and everything he did was aimed at helping the Bears to win the next hockey game. When the Bears lost he was always gracious, but also then even more determined to do whatever was necessary to help his team win that next game. And in victory he was always personally humble and made sure to give full credit to his team, his co-workers, the fans who supported them all, and even to the Bears' great Arena itself.
“I remember how impressed I was with the Arena when I played in Hershey for the first time in 1948 as a member of the Hornets,” Frank told me once. “It has always had great ‘personality’ not only because of the building itself, but because of the nature of the fans, and the people who worked here for so long. Mitch Grand, for instance, was a fixture at the Arena for almost fifty years and I don't think he ever missed a game. While his contributions were musical, they were nonetheless important to the success of the Bears and the atmosphere of the Arena that helped them to win.”
Frank Mathers inspired great loyalty in all that knew or worked with him, and he always was unfailingly loyal in return. He lived his life -- professionally and personally -- without pretention, and, like Clarence Campbell, answered his own phone. A call to the Bears was just as likely to be answered simply "Hockey club, Mathers" as it was "Hershey Bears" or "Bears, Hancock." It was his trademark.
“The moments in our lives that last longest in our memories are often fleeting as they pass,” wrote Steve Summers after the Bears’ remarkable 12-0 sweep to the Calder Cup in 1988, the last under Frank Mathers’ guidance.
That is usually -- but not always -- true.
Fortunately for Frank Mathers’ countless friends, he gave us each many years of such valued “moments” to collect and build in our memories. Tonight many of those friends are here, either in body or in spirit, to reflect on those moments and memories, and to celebrate the life of the man who gave them to us.
Thank you, Frank, for the gift of your friendship, unfailing wisdom, valued counsel, good humor, unmatched class, and your inexhaustible graciousness.
And most of all, Frank, thanks for the memories.
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