1936-2002: HERSHEYPARK ARENA'S SIXTY-SIX YEARS AS HOME TO HERSHEY BEARS HOCKEY.
By Bruce C. Cooper
Digital Image Illustrations by
“Three hundred workmen of eighteen different trades are doing their utmost to finish the huge Hershey Sports Arena for its opening on Saturday night, when, at 7 p.m., the doors open for the hockey game between the Hershey Bears and the New York Rovers.
"Evelyn Chandler, who electrified the spectators last week at the First Annual Winter Sports Show and International Ski Meet in New York’s Madison Square Garden, will skate between periods, giving a series of ice acrobatics with her partner, Bruce Mapes, one of the world's best known professionals. Miss Chandler and Mr. Mapes will also give their ice exhibition on Wednesday night, December 23, when the Hershey Sports Arena stages its second hockey game, between the Hershey Bears and the Atlantic City Sea Gulls. On the night of the opening, the Hershey Community Theater Orchestra will furnish the music, as they will also at the hockey game on the night of December 23.
"For the first game in the new Arena there will be a special train bringing New Yorkers from the metropolis. About three hundred hockey fans are expected on the train from new York City. Several hundred Pennsylvanians are expected on the Hockey Special, which leaves Allentown and will make all intermediate stops between there and Hershey.
"A huge parking space has been created between the Hershey Sports Arena and the site of the new Industrial High School Stadium which is planned to be erected between the school and the Arena next year. Workman were engaged in clearing away the debris on the Derry Road side of the building and laying a walk between the highway and the entrance. The bracket lights around the outside of the building have been lighted and proved to be satisfactory. A floodlight will light the parking space.
"In the Arena itself, the electrical engineers have tried out a 1,000-watt bulb in the 47 sockets in each of the lightoliers, and at Wednesday night’s practice the lighting was found to be excellent by the players of the Hershey Hockey Club."
The Lancaster Daily
December 18, 1936
A nasty winter storm raged in Hershey on Saturday, December 19th, 1936, but that did not deter some 5,000 plus eager hockey fans who braved the inclement weather to make their way to the wondrous new Hershey Sports Arena. They came that night, some two-thirds of a century ago, to witness the first regular season game of the Hershey Bears Hockey Club to ever be contested there. With a mixture of curiosity, awe, and excitement, they nestled themselves into the same then freshly (although still not yet completely) installed rows of curved wooden folding seats many of you are sitting in tonight.
Shortly after 8:30 p.m., referee Chick Crovat skated to center ice and dropped the puck between veteran Hershey hockey club captain Lloyd Blinco and rookie New York Rovers' pivot Kilby MacDonald to begin that inaugural game. Just a minute and thirty-eight seconds later, Blinco -- who would later go on to be GM of the Bears for many years -- beat Gotham netminder Johnny Inglis for what would be the first of the many many thousands of goals to be scored in the Arena in the decades to come.
By game's end Bears' blueliner Billy Morris and winger Harry Currie had added two more goals for coach Herb Mitchell's locals while goalkeeper Nick Damore held the Rovers to a pair of enemy markers to christen the Sports Arena with a 3-2 Hershey victory over the New York sextet, the Bears' then top rival.
Tonight another group of Hershey icemen -- some of whose grandparents were not even born when that first game took place here -- will face off against the Chocolate and White's current archival, the Philadelphia Phantoms, in the 2,274th regular season professional hockey game to be played by a Bears’ team on Arena ice.
It will also be the last.
With the departure in recent years of such historic hockey venues as Boston Garden, Chicago Stadium, Montreal Forum, and finally Maple Leaf Gardens, the mantle of being the longest continuous home to a professional hockey team now belongs to the Arena. But that honor too will move on to another as next season the Bears begin play in the new 10,500 seat Giant Center rising just a few hundred yards to the west of the veteran club’s familiar home. And with that, venerable Hersheypark Arena will "retire" after sixty-six glorious consecutive seasons as host of one of the most distinguished and honored franchises in all of sports history.
The unlikely story of how a relatively small, rural Pennsylvania community such as Hershey -- and its beloved Arena -- became an internationally known hockey mecca is a remarkable one.
For over seventy years now, not a season has gone by in Hershey without having a hockey team represent this unique community. And like so much that makes Hershey the special place that it is, it should come as no surprise that not one of the over 2,600 regular season and play-off games that have taken place here since 1931 would have ever been contested -- nor would this hallowed Arena being honored tonight likely have ever come into being -- without the vision and determination of two most remarkable men, Milton S. Hershey and his long time chief entertainment and amusements factotum, John B. Sollenberger.
Both men were well known for their willingness to take a risk when they believed in something. And both believed that ice hockey could be -- and would be -- a success in Hershey. Over two-thirds of a century later their prescience continues to prove itself over and over again as a quarter-of-a-million hockey fans have regularly entered Hersheypark Arena every year to watch the Bears. And over the last seven decades eleven Bears’ teams (three EAHL, eight AHL) have finished their seasons with play-off titles. On five of those occasions (1947, 1959, 1969, 1974 and 1980) the Calder Cup was presented to a Bears’ captain at the Arena to be skated around the ice to the cheers of the Bears' faithful fans.
For all its remarkable success, however, the beginnings of Hershey hockey were far more modest.
The first "formal" hockey game ever played in Hershey took place some seventy-one years ago on February 18, 1931, when two amateur teams, Penn A.C. and Villanova, faced off in the 1,900-seat Hershey Ice Palace. Built in 1915 as the Hershey Convention Hall, this classic quadrispired building still stands proudly next to the 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 center Lloyd S. Blinco, a strapping then 23-year old native of Grand Mere, Quebec.
Program for a game played at the Hershey Ice Palace in January 4, 1932,
between Montreal A.A.A. and Swarthmore A.C. won by Montreal, 8-3.
The B'ars would spend just one winter playing in the all too ephemeral T-SHL, however, as the league itself (which had only four member clubs -- the B'ars, Philadelphia Comets, Atlantic City Seagulls, and Baltimore Orioles) proved to last for just that 1932-33 season. While also playing games against teams of the New York Amateur Hockey League, each of the four clubs in this tiniest of possible circuits was scheduled to play an 18 game league slate of six meetings with each of the other three T-SHL clubs which the B'ars opened when they visited the Comets at the Arena in Philadelphia on December 10, 1932. Atlantic City (15-1-2) and Baltimore (12-5-1) dominated the loop while Philadelphia (0-16-0) and Hershey (6-11-1) essentially provided the cannon fodder. (Apparently all six Hershey victories came at the expense of the lowly Comets.) With the not unexpected demise of the Comets at the end of the season, in 1933-34 the B'ars (playing that year as the "Chocolate Bars"), Seagulls, and Orioles joined up with four venerable and long standing New York based senior amateur clubs -- the Bronx Tigers, New York Athletic Club, St. Nick's Hockey Club, and Crescent-Hamilton Athletic Club -- to form a new seven-team EAHL, a league that would go on to operate almost continuously for the next four decades. (The EAHL failed to ice any teams only during the 1948-49 and 1953-54 seasons.) Hershey's hockey club reverted to being nicknamed just the B'ars again in 1934-35, and might well still be playing under that name today had it not been for the objections of some New York City-based EAHL scribes who apparently just did not approve of an "amateur" club being named for a commercial product -- the HERSHEY'S Bar. The Gotham pundits took to referring to the squad instead as the "Bears from Penn's Woods" and that moniker became official -- the "Bears" -- in 1936-37.
Hershey's first hockey club, the 1932-33 T-SHL "Hershey B'ars"
To the surprise of some skeptics -- but not M.S. Hershey and J.B. Sollenberger -- the popularity of hockey in Hershey grew quickly not only among the townsfolk, but, as Mr. Hershey had intended, it also almost immediately began to draw many fans from surrounding towns and counties. Before long it was clear that the Ice Palace was inadequate to accommodate the thousands who wanted to watch hockey in Hershey. A much larger building would be needed. The apparent precipitating event which led to Mr. Hershey's final 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.
It should be remembered that life and times in America were far from easy at this time in its history. The nation had already been in the depths of the Great Depression for half a decade with many millions out of work and labor strife rampant. Meanwhile in both Asia and Europe the seeds of the great world war soon to come were festering. But ironically in Hershey many of its greatest buildings and other public works came into being at this same time. The Hotel Hershey went up on Pratt’s Hill overlooking the future site of the Arena in 1933. Later that year the great Hershey Community Building and Theater also opened. In 1934 the new Junior-Senior High School building welcomed it first students not far from the Hotel. The golf course and Rose Garden soon followed.
Hershey Park, which Mr. Hershey had established along with the chocolate factory in 1904, was filled by both townspeople and thousands of visitors from outside in the summer months. But it would be the new Arena, however, which would finally make Hershey truly a year round focal point for the people of south central Pennsylvania.
The Bears' first 48-game season in the new Arena saw the "Hersheys" again 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 Bears finally turned "pro" in June, 1938, with the acquisition of a franchise in the newly reorganized International-American Hockey League (now the AHL) in which the club has played ever since.
The Bears' new loop had unofficially begun play two seasons earlier in the Fall of 1936 when the four clubs of the seven-year old International Hockey League -- Buffalo, Syracuse, Pittsburgh, and Cleveland -- joined up with Philadelphia, Providence, New Haven, and Springfield of the decade old Canadian-American Hockey League (aka the "Can-Am" League) to play an interlocking schedule as an informal new eight-team, two division "circuit of mutual convenience" styled as the "International-American Hockey League." with the four Can-Am clubs constituting the I-AHL East Division and the IHL's quartet playing as the West Division. Just a month into its inaugural 1936-37 campaign, however, overall membership in the combined loop fell by one when the Buffalo Bisons unexpectedly dropped out. The Bisons had lost their home rink, the lovely Peace Bridge Arena in nearby Fort Erie, Ontario, the previous March when the 5,000-seat, eight-year old structure's state of the art "Lamella Trussless" roof unexpected collapsed as the result of a major snow storm. The Bisons started the 1936-37 season playing out of an arena in Niagara Falls, Ontario, but it soon became clear that they wouldn't be able to make a financial go of it in the smaller facility. The club permanently ceased operations after playing just eleven games with a record of 3-8-0, and the makeshift league carried on for the rest of that season (and all of the next) with just seven clubs.
A modified three-round play-off format was devised and a new championship trophy, the Calder Cup, was established which was awarded for the first time at the end of the 1936-37 season play-offs to the Syracuse Stars who defeated Philadelphia, three-games-to-one, in the Finals. Now second only in both age and prestige among such pro hockey awards to the Stanley Cup, the Calder Cup continues on today as the AHL's play-off championship trophy.
At a joint meeting held in New York City on June 28, 1938, the two leagues finally agreed to formally merge after two seasons of interlocking play and elected the former Can-Am League's head, Maurice Podoloff of New Haven, as the first President of the now fully integrated new International-American Hockey League. (The name of the circuit was changed to the current American Hockey League in 1940.) Among Podoloff's first official acts that day was to sign the franchise certificate admitting the "Hershey Bears Hockey Club" as the I-AHL's eighth member to fill the two-year old void left by the departed Buffalo Bisons. (Th hockey club would, however, also continue to also operate an EAHL team coached by Lloyd Blinco -- the Hershey Cubs -- in the Arena for one more season.)
Although six of that then new league's eight charter member cities (Hershey, Springfield, Syracuse, Providence, Cleveland, and Philadelphia) were also represented in the AHL in 2001-02, when the original Providence franchise was sold and moved to Binghamton, NY in 1977, the Bears became -- and remain -- the only hockey club to have played in the league without interruption since that day the league was formed in June, 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 former club's EAHL coach, Herb Mitchell, was to guide for their first three seasons. They were soon joined by winger Harry Frost, another former Hershey EAHL'er, while Nick Damore, the Bears' netminder in that first game in the Arena in 1936, returned in 1939.
Over the sixty-four seasons in which the Bears hockey club has competed in the AHL many great rivalries have developed and flourished. Ironically the first of these began with a game at the Arena just two weeks into that 1938-39 season with a club from the same city as the Bear's current top rival and tonight's visitors, the Philadelphia Phantoms. Since 1996 the Bears have played no team more often -- or more fiercely -- than the Phantoms. Tonight they will meet for the 86th time in regular season or play-off action in just those six seasons! But in 1938-39 it was the Philadelphia Ramblers that the Arena faithful loved to hate.
The Bears had already won their first two AHL games at the Arena, including a home opening night 2-1 victory over the defending Calder Cup champion Providence Reds on November 5, 1938, when they met Herb Gardiner's Ramblers at the Arena for the first time ever on November 17, 1938. First period Hershey goals by Howie Mackie and Red Hamill would give the Bears all they would need to remain undefeated at the Arena as goalie Alfie Moore held the Ramblers to just one goal. Wally Kilrea added an unassisted clincher with exactly one minute to go in the third period.
wizzended hockey pundits from Philadelphia
were not only impressed with this new team from Hershey, but also with
their first visit to the Bears' impressive still new home.
"Hershey's fast skating, stiff body checking and clever stick handling Bears handed the Gardinermen a 3-1 defeat in a thrilling, nerve-tingling struggle," the Philadelphia Inquirer's Stan Baumgertner noted of the match. "From start to finish it was a spectacular struggle staged in an ideal setting. The Arena is one of the most perfect rinks this writer has ever seen -- perfect from a spectator's as well as a player's standpoint. Apparently familiar with every nook and cranny of the large rink the Bears took the slightly bewildered Ramblers by storm."
The Bears sailed through 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 Ramblers, three-games-to-two, in a raucous series that thrilled the fans in both cities. Defenseman Herb Kalbfleisch became the first Bear to be named an AHL First Team All Star that year while goalie Alfie Moore took Second Team honors behind Rambler netminder Bert Gardiner. (Unfortunately that first rivalry with Philadelphia lasted just three more seasons as the Ramblers folded in 1942.)
Former Boston Bruin center Ralph "Cooney" Weiland 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.
The 1946-47 season saw second year coach Don Penniston 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. In the play-offs the Bears held the powerhouse Western Division champion Cleveland Barons to just three goals in a four game first round sweep while Hershey marksmen 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.
For the fourth time in their play-off lives the Bears were to face another Pennsylvania rival, 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 but they didn't make it easy on themselves. After winning the first game of the best-of-seven finals at the Arena on Gordon "Red" Henry's third play-off shut out, 4-0, the Bears dropped the next three to fall behind three-games-to-one. Henry then took over allowing just one goal in the next three games to earn the Bears the first of their eight Calder Cup titles with a 5-0 game seven whitewash at the Arena on April 15, 1947.
After his outstanding play-off run "Red" Henry became the Bears' top goalkeeper in 1947-48 and would remain so for eight seasons until 1954-55 appearing in more games for the Bears (510) by a wide margin than any other goalie. 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. (Kullman's number "9" is one of four which hangs from the rafters of the Arena.)
Although the Bears would not bring a second Calder Cup title to the Arena until the club's twentieth season, 1957-58, Hershey's teams of the early and mid-1950's brought some great individual accomplishments on Arena ice. In 1953-54, George "Red" 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. Sullivan, who that year also became the first Bear to be named the league's MVP, 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 almost half a century.)
Although never an All Star, another player to ply the Arena's blueline for Hershey during this era is today 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. 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.
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 bring seven of the Hornets' best players to play at the Arena including four-time All Star goalie Gil Mayer, AHL all-time scoring great Willie Marshall, and the AHL's only five-time First Team All Star defenseman -- Frank S. Mathers.
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.
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.
"I remember how impressed I was with the Arena when I played here for the first time in 1948 as a member of the Hornets," Mathers recalls today. "For decades it was by far the best building outside of the NHL. 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.
"My favorite Arena 'personality' was probably organist Mitch Grand," Mathers continues. "Mitch was a fixture at the Arena for almost fifty years and I don't think he ever missed a game. His musical 'contributions' to the success of the Bears and the atmosphere of the Arena were real."
Frank Mathers ended his 35-year career with the Bears with one of the most memorable events in Arena history as a full house was on hand for Frank Mathers Night on March 9, 1991. In an emotional ceremony attended by his nonagenarian mother, key players from each of his championship teams, and many other friends and colleagues. Mathers number "3" became just the second (after Mike Nykoluk's "8") to be retired by the club. Those two digits were later joined in the Arena rafters by the "9" of Arnie Kullman and Tim Tookey, and the "16" worn by Willie Marshall and Mitch Lamoureux.
The Mathers' era at the Arena 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 with a 5-2 Cup clinching victory at the Arena on April 28th.
The 1958-59 season also saw another important figure arrive at the Arena as the Bears acquired the services of Mike Nykoluk, then a 23-year old center 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.)
After a decade's absence the Calder Cup returned to the Arena in 1968-69 as the Bears defeated the Flyers' then AHL farm club, the Quebec Aces, four-games-to-one, and for the third time the Cup clinching game came at the Arena with a 3-0 John Henderson shut out on May 7th, 1969. That season also saw Frank Mathers add the duties of GM to his portfolio with the retirement of Lloyd Blinco who thirty-two years earlier had scored the first ever goal in the Arena.
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 a 4-3 Bob Johnson win in the championship game played before a near record Arena crowd of 8,703 on May 8th. Ironically just eleven days later the NHL Philadelphia Flyers won 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 with dual Cups in 1979-80, 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 with a 7-4 victory over the new Brunswick Hawks on May 17th, the fifth and last time that the Calder Cup was awarded at the Arena. 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 including the double overtime game winner in game four of the series at the Arena on May 14th. 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.
The night of February 7th, 1981, the Arena saw another remarkable performance as RW Mark Lofthouse as he collected a team single game record eight points (4 goals, 4 assists) while the Bears smothered the Rochester Americans, 11 -2. (The team also tied an AHL record for goals in a period that same night with nine in the second frame.) And 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.
The 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 as coach in 1985.
The Hershey Bears dressing room at the Arena.
Over the next four seasons Paddock's clubs would bring some of the greatest night-in-and-night out success ever witnessed in the Arena as the Bears averaged a remarkable 45 wins a year, won two overall regular season titles, reached the play-off finals twice, and brought Hershey a seventh Calder Cup championship with a perfect 12-0 play-off record in 1988 In fact records of all kinds would be common place during Paddock's highly successful four year tenure behind the Bears' bench.
In his first year, Paddock led the club to first place overall in the regular season with a 48-29-3 record as the Bears set then 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! In 1986 the Calder Cup finals came to the Arena for the sixteenth time as the Bears defeated 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 goalie Ron 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.
In 1987-88 the AHL Bears celebrated their Golden Anniversary in both the league and the Arena and by the time the regular season had come to a close in April, the club 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.
A new era came to Hershey hockey in 1996 when, after a fruitful twelve-year affiliation with the Bears, the Flyers left Hershey in order to operate an AHL expansion franchise of their own. With the Flyers' departure from their home of twenty-nine seasons, the Spectrum, in favor of its neighboring new 20,000+ seat facility, the CoreStates (now First Union) 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.
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 at Hersheypark Arena and the Spectrum 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 bitter playoff series victories over the Bears.
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 and would feature one of the most memorable games in the then six plus decade history of Hersheypark Arena.
After defeating the Kentucky Thoroughblades in the first round, the Bears next met the league's overall regular season champion Philadelphia Phantoms in what many thought were the "real" Calder Cup finals that year. 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. The Phantoms 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 (J.F. 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 ever played at Hersheypark Arena.
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 a double overtime Bears' 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 Hershey victory also seemed to break the Phantoms' spirit as three nights later they fell to the Bears in game seven in Philadelphia.
After falling behind, three-games-to-one, to Springfield in the third round the Bears won the final three games of that series to earn a berth in the finals which they won in five games from the Hamilton Bulldogs to bring an eighth Calder Cup banner to Hersheypark Arena.
"That triple overtime game is my greatest memory of the Arena," says Hartley today. "It was probably the most difficult game I've every coached. There is no way to describe the atmosphere in the Arena that night, but it is something that I will never forget.
"Hersheypark Arena is a very special place to me," continues Hartley, "even though I only coached there for two years. Fortunately I am able to return now every summer to run my hockey school at the Arena. I don't think I would want to do it anyplace else."
Besides the coziness, superior sight lines, and downright "charm" of the building itself, what makes Hersheypark Arena so special is the dedicated people who have given so many years of their lives to this remarkable edifice. Generations of Hallmans and Stovers, among others, have been here as long as the building has. Milt Garland, the engineer who installed the Arena's ice plant when it was built in 1936, continued to check on it weekly -- and then stay for the game -- up until his death in 2000. When he attended his last Bears' game Milt was 102.
Ken Hatt and J. Bruce McKinney, both now retired CEOs of HERCO, also both started their careers at the Arena and still almost never miss a Bears' game. Hatt's first experience came while a student at the Milton Hershey School in the 1930's when he played at a game as a member of the School's band and then worked in the box office as a teenager. McKinney, also a Milton Hershey School alumnus, once was the Arena's PA announcer. And both describe the the importance of the Arena to Hershey in almost identical terms.
"The Arena is truly a place where people can come together as almost an extended family," notes Hatt who once went thirty years without missing a home game. "Over the years you see and come to know people from every part of the community on an equal basis. You are all here for one common purpose -- to enjoy the game and relax in the company of friends."
"There is no place quite like Hersheypark Arena," adds McKinney. "After a period of time you feel as if you know almost everybody here. The sense of community is remarkable."
As with most things in Hershey -- the chocolate factory, Hersheypark, the Milton Hershey School, the Hotel, the Motor Lodge, the town itself -- ice hockey's beginnings here were modest indeed. A relatively small number of people attended that first hockey game at the Hershey 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 Hershey.
Their belief was reaffirmed with the opening of the Hershey Sports Arena five years later in 1936. For sixty-six seasons since the Arena and the Bears have proved them right.
Next year the Bears will have a new home. But the fond memories of Bears' hockey at Hersheypark Arena will live on forever.
The following is the game story for the first ever game played at the Hershey Sports Arena (now Hersheypark Arena) in which the Bears defeated the New York Rovers, 3-2, on December 19, 1936.
Hershey Bears Nose Out New York Rovers
5,000 FANS SEE HERSHEY HOCKEY CLUB
CAPTURE INAUGURAL FRAY
Despite Inclement Weather Huge Crowd Turn Out to
Ice Hockey Battle In Spacious New Hershey Sports Arena.
By MARTIN RUDY
Hershey. Dec. 19-A fighting Hershey hockey club scored a 3 to 2 triumph here tonight over the New York Rovers at the new Hershey Sports Arena which is ranked the finest in America.
More than five thousand fans, braving the most inclement weather the season, jammed the three tiers of the immense auditorium.
Captain Lloyd Blinco, of Hershey, assisted by Russell, rang up the first score ever to be recorded on the new rink within one minute and thirty eight seconds of play. The Rovers, provoked by this early score against, launched a rough attack which resulted in Gromoll going into the penalty box for two minutes for tripping.
Hardly was the visiting player off the ice when Hershey opened its fireman drive on the Rovers, but Collins taking the puck from in front of his own goal, skated into the clear slid the entire length of the rink to even the score.
After 12 minutes and 17 seconds of play of the second period, Hershey again went into the lead when Morris, unassisted, rang up a goal. Four minutes later, after several hard offenses, Babcock, unassisted, tied the score for the Rovers while Hershey had a player in the penalty box.
And then, two minutes later, Hershey got their winning point, the score being made by Currie, assisted by Mancuso.
The Rovers tried desperately during the final period to tie the score and force an extra period. At times the entire team but goalie skated down the ice and into the Hershey team, which several times nearly ended in fisticuffs.
Johnny Inglis, the Rover goalie, made several sensational saves throughout the game by falling on the puck when it seemed certain, that surrounded by Hershey players, he was about to be scored on.
A colorful crowd of 5,000 sport fans furnished the background of the opening of the Hershey season in the Hershey Sports Arena last night.
Frederick R. Rublen, of New York president of the Eastern Amateur Hockey League and former secretary and treasurer of the N.A.A.U., was present for the opening. Thomas Lockhart, of New York, member of the board of governors of the league, also was present.
The visiting Rovers brought with them 400 rooters on a special excursion train which was parked near by in the park. Six hundred other excursionists came from Reading and Pottsville.
The Hershey Park police estimated that 1,500 automobiles were parked in the enlarged parking grounds opposite the new arena. Spectators came from its far away as Ontario, Canada and autoists from Scranton. Movie newsreel cameramen were on hand to record the event for posterity.
The Hershey team, taking a point from the footbally teams, appeared in silk suits. Captain Lloyd Blinco and "Russ" Russell, who were responsible for the first tally to go up on the new score board, each was presented with a shirt and tie.
Evelyn Chandler, who was one of the sensations at the New York Ice carnival recently, was given an ovation when she appeared for an exhibition. She was dressed in a flame colored chiffon velvet costume, trimmed in brilliants. She received another ovation when she fell while doing a spiral.
Bruce Mapes, another professional skater, who with Miss Chandler will remain at Hershey during the skating season, danced the tango on skates dressed in a green and gold Argentine costume.
The management announced that the building is the finest arena anywhere, and when they said it without adjectives that's just how they meant it. The structure, without visible pillars or roof supports from the inside, is 382 feet long and 232 feet wide with 100 feet from the ice to ceiling. The seats are grouped around the entire rectangle and are placed within three tiers, the upper one containing 3,000 unreserved seats.
counters and rest rooms are to be found
on each tier and the entire building can be emptied in one minute by
of 46 exits.
The SUNDAY NEWS
December 20, 1936
©2002 Bruce C. Cooper