Prior to Friday, I’d made one lone visit to Hersheypark Arena, and stripped to its event-less essence then, it nonetheless made such an impression on me that I felt compelled to research it and write up my admiration (‘An Eternal Home for the Hockey Heart‘). At the time I was riddled with regret at my failure to see live hockey contested in such a shrine. So you can imagine my elation last week when I learned that the Hershey Bears would open their 2008 training camp with a Friday night skate at the old barn.
There was no way I was going to miss that.
From my visit last year I could tell that the arena, built in 1936, was designed for hockey. That made it distinctive as arenas go, but it also helped make me fall in love with it. As in, love at first sight. But Friday night allowed me to see what hockey actually looked like in there. The arena’s seats are inordinately steeply pitched, placing every spectator right on top of the fast action, and while it’s a bit of a cliche to say that there’s not a bad seat in the house, I actually tested out that hunch Friday night. I climbed up to the very top row at center ice, section 70, row P, sat in an aisle seat, and fell in love with the view. I’d equate that perch to the center ice view from the front row of Verizon Center’s club level — except the Hersheyarena view is more intimate.
I loved how the first four rows surrounding the glass at Hersheyarena are the original wood-backed seats installed some 70 years ago. I sat in one of them most of the evening.
I was also struck by the charm of two media boxes inset within two center ice sections and opposite one another, one presumably for print press and the other for broadcast, approximately halfway up the arena. What a perfect vantage those reporters had. And if I wasn’t already lucky enough Friday, I had the company of Patriot News Bears’ beat reporter Tim Leone, who actually covered the team for his paper in the old barn. Tim initially sat down in his old media box perch, and I snapped a pic of the moment.
The skate Friday night was set for 7:00. Around 5:00 players began arriving at the modern and stylish Giant Center for their physicals. Many of them of course had only been informed of their assignment to Hershey earlier that day, back in D.C., and rode up I-83 for the first Bears’ skate. Near 6:45 I noticed the first players walk into the old arena fully dressed, gear bags slung over their shoulders, sticks in hand. The scene reminded me of beer leaguers casually arriving for their weekly skate at the neighborhood rink. You could say that I was really diggin this assignment at this point.
Ice at Hersheyarena had only been laid down recently, without the benefit of a base white paint job, so when spectators first arrived and looked down at the surface they saw only red and blue circle and line markings atop the grey of the arena’s surface slab. One new Bear walked in, looked down, and said to a teammate, “Where’s the ice?”
The ice was actually decent. It was appropriately cool in the arena. Snow during the practice session built up on the surface fast; Coach Woods had the arena maintenance staff bring the Zamboni out to resurface after just 40 minutes of practice.
Coach Woods had the Bears execute rather basic drills that lasted a solid 90 minutes, but in truth, he could have gathered his troops by his strategy board for the entirety of the evening, without any skating, shooting, and hitting at all, and I’d have been speechlessly enthralled. I was moved by Hersheyarena’s structural elegance for hockey. It’s positively true that time and age have wrought havoc upon the structure — a visitor can easily detect ceiling chipping and erosion and the pernicious effects that moisture has had in nooks and crannies about the rink. Still, the arena’s functional essence for hockey is unspoiled. And timeless.
I found myself feeling transported back in time, even seated hard by the glass and seeing so many of the present Washington Capitals’ future, outfitted in modern gear, skating hard and fast before me.
Frank Sinatra once played Hersheypark Arena. Near 9:00, after Andrew Gordon had once again been the last player to exit the ice, and as the Zamboni began its evening-ending repairs, I was wholly reluctant to exit this special venue, and I could actually imagine handlers leading a fedora-ed Chairman through the underbelly of the arena to his pre-show lounge area. Leone told me that concerts weren’t known to sound real strong in the arena, but I wager that Old Blue Eyes left ‘em happy on that night.
Tim was busy chatting up various Bears’ coaches and staff down low by the players’ benches during the skate, and seated nearby, I could overhear some of the conversations. One Bears’ official was reflecting on Mathieu Perreault’s prolonged stay in Washington. According to this club official, Perreault made “the biggest jump” of anyone from Capitals’ Development Camp in July to fall camp.
Watching some of the European newcomers to Hershey such as Viktor Dovgan and Oskar Osala and Michal Neuvirth Friday night, I wondered to what extent they’d already developed an appreciation for furthering their professional careers in such a storied hockey community. I had my answer, I think, right as Oskar Osala departed the sheet. There was a very very young Bears’ fan seated hard by the player’s entry and exit portal, separated from his parents by about a half dozen seats, and Osala slowed as he saw the boy.
“Need a hockey stick?” he asked, holding his expensive composite up and out to the youth.
At this moment I saw the boy’s parents leap up and fuss through bags for a camera to capture the moment. It was one of about 175 moments Friday I felt rewarded by for making my trip north.
The hockey team at Lebanon Valley College plays their home games at Hersheypark Arena. I’d like to come back up and catch one of those on a weekend I’m up covering a Bears’ game. I wonder if those college players recognize and appreciate the novelty of their skating home?
Attendance at the session was sparse. One good reason for this was that it was a September Friday night in Pennsylvania, which is a sacred time for high school football. It’s a sacred time in a lot of America for high school football, but especially in Pennsylvania. The Hershey High football team was playing in Hershey Stadium, just a 5-iron from the arena, under the lights during the Bears’ practice.
Hockey spectators Friday night largely consisted of stray sets of puck bunnies and a few lone Bears’ fans. I saw only one Friday night date couple seated for the skate. I guess the Central Valley isn’t big on romance.
Recommended reading: Tim Leone’s blog file from the skate.
On my way home, I left the car radio silent for some while and allowed my mind’s eye to trace back over the surreal scenes of a contemporary hockey skate in a historical setting, one I never thought I’d get to see. I stopped at a Friendly’s ice cream outpost just south of Harrisburg, and ordered a thick shake for the ride home.
Chocolate, of course.