Washington Capitals’ web producer Brett Leonhardt provided one of the most unlikely and endearing stories of the 2008-09 hockey season, when he signed an amateur tryout contract with the Caps in order to back up Brent Johnson before a game against Ottawa on December 12. But that wasn’t the story he wanted to detail for me when he arrived in Hershey this past weekend to cover the Calder Cup finals for the Caps’ web site.
Leonhardt’s college hockey career included two seasons with the Newman College Knights of the ECAC West, a hockey-only conference in Division III. One of Newman’s conference foes was Lebanon Valley College, and the Dutchmen play their home games at venerated Hersheypark Arena. Meaning, Leonhardt was in net for the Knights against Lebanon in a building he’ll never forget.
I asked Leonhardt if his Newman teammates and he knew about Hersheypark’s legacy in hockey history before they arrived there the first time, and if his coach perhaps addressed the significance of competing in a hockey shrine.
“You always try to find out about what arenas you’re playing in, and there were a couple of arenas we played in that had cool stories,” he told me. “Coach told us it was a pretty special barn. I’d never been there being from Canada, and they actually dropped us off downtown, cause on a bus trip, you wanna get your legs going, and we walked around [Hershey Park], through the football stadium, and right as you come through the parking lot you see this old barn, and it reminded me of a barn I used to play in in Junior, but a lot bigger.
“The roof was the first thing that stood out to me, and that obviously was echoed when you got inside. Then reading the plaques outside of the different things that have happened there. And then once you get inside, it was just like one of the barns you saw in ‘Slapshot.’ It’s older, and you can feel the heritage. All the wood [seats] everywhere. But reading [about] the 100 points for Wilt Chamberlain there was pretty cool.”
I asked Leonhardt if his strong reaction to the venue was matched to any degree by his teammates.
“When I transferred my junior year [to Newman], we had like 12 freshmen, so they were all pretty blown away.
“The first thing we always do when we get to a new arena is you drop off your equipment and before you do anything you find a way to get to the ice and just take a look around. We all walked out, and our room actually went through to the bench, and so we all went out to the bench, and just looking around, you notice it’s so steep, it was just like this auditorium, like the Globe [Theater] of Shakespearean time. That’s what I loved — really cool sightlines.”
If we somehow could have seated the Bard in this building for a few games, I think it likely he’d have generated a memorable drama about our game.
On my very first visit to Hersheypark Arena I was so taken with its built-for-hockey architecture — the staggeringly steep pitch of the seats, the old time scoreboards set on high at each end, and especially the enveloping density of the seats, right on top of the players — that I made a point of sitting in about a dozen different locales just to see if I could find a single mediocre perspective. I couldn’t. I remember, too, hiking all the way to the uppermost seat at center ice to see what that vantage from on very high looked like. It was breathtaking. Turns out, Leonhardt the collegiate goaltender did the same thing.
“So I changed and grabbed two fresh sticks, and I actually went to the top level and taped my sticks while sitting there, taking it all in.
“I remember all the team pictures.”
I asked Leonhardt if by virtue of the spectators’ tightly packed proximity to the ice surface, and the obvious acoustic dimension to that, if while playing there he noticed a different caliber of road environment.
“It’s pretty crazy, the college atmosphere. The student section was to my left, and the fans were just right on top of you. You broke your neck looking up to see how much time was left in the game because the scoreboard was so high up. But when I was there in ’06 they still had some banners hanging so you could see the championships and the retired numbers, they were still up there.
“The other thing I noticed was that the corners were very tight, and when somebody threw a hit the glass was really loose and it really shook. And when you got scored on it got really loud in there, almost like an amphitheater. Real loud with an echo.”
In Leonhardt’s first visit to Hersheypark Arena, during the 2005-06 season, the game was played in the middle of winter, which made for great ice, he said. The arena is basically an outdoor sheet with a roof over it, well insulated by thick cement, and 7,500 tightly packed, great looking old wood seats.
As if the setting weren’t enough to etch itself permanently in Leonhardt’s memory, his performances there surely did. He played in two games in Hersheypark Arena for the Knights, winning both. In 2005-06 he allowed just one goal against the host Dutchmen. Then, in his senior season, he went in and pitched a shutout — (wouldn’t that be like shooting a 68 at Augusta National?) — leading to my last question.
“Yea, I got the puck,” the web guru goalie told me.