Radio, most particularly of the minor pro sports variety, isn’t supposed to be a money maker, let alone a cash cow. Try telling that to members of the Hershey Bears Radio Network this week, maestro-ed by John Walton. Late yesterday the Bears’ radio voice sent out word that his network had come to an agreement with an umbrella of new radio stations for 2010-11 that will have Bears’ game audio fairly blanketing the Keystone state.
We’re talking far, far beyond the Central Valley terrain that Walton and his colleagues have captured and engrossed on winter nights since his arrival in Chocolatetown in 2002. To the North, Bears’ broadcasts next season will be heard as far away as State College and Wilkes Barre. Eastward, just about to the Philadelphia suburbs. And down to the South, almost to Hunt Valley, Md., at night and all of Baltimore and Frederick during day games on radio out of York. And lastly out to points West that include Breezewood, Pa.
Pennsylvania is a huge state, and beginning next hockey season an awful lot of it is going to hear John Walton’s calls on radio, and thousands more all over the continent will follow his streaming on the Internet. What Walton announced yesterday is believed to represent the largest minor league sports network in the country. It’s the biggest by a long shot in minor league hockey.
That Walton’s network is making such a massive migration would be newsworthy enough in its own right, but you have to consider too that these newly subscribed radio stations and markets have long been fertile territory for Flyers and Penguins’ coverage and fans. It’s Walton’s work that has a lot to do with converting one-time bitter enemy fans — clearly thousands of them, judging by the volume of radio stations announced yesterday — into followers of the Bears, and Caps. This past season I began hearing from Bears’ fans on my visits to Giant Center that sporting goods stores across the Central Valley region that for decades carried only Flyers’ gear today are Redded out. Stunning.
There is no television coverage of Hershey hockey to speak of, and greatly diminished and constricted print coverage in recent years. It has been left to Walton to be the lead and lone, night in and night out media voice of this American League dynasty.
Winning — big-time winning — by both the Washington parent and farm clubs plays a role here, but Walton has with great savvy supplemented his on-air work with a fast mastery of new media technology, distributing dramatic MP3 files of game highlights mere minutes after games and orchestrating compelling video clips and crisp copy on his wildly popular and staggeringly well-trafficed John Walton Hockey web site. It became a one-stop shop for all things media on the Bears — a little too much so. To be brutally frank, Walton’s site seriously marginalized the Hershey Bears’ official site. The team recognized this, and now Walton is driving his online legion back to Hershey’s site. He is also the owner of a new three-year contract with the club.
Walton is too modest to make mention of this, but his work is already heard far and wide, because of XM radio and Internet streaming. There are a healthy number of American Hockey League fans and media up in Canada regularly following his work — it’s just that good. His weekly ‘Old Barn Hockey Show’ is as polished a puck broadcast product as any in the big league. And next season he will call his 1,000th American League game. We are lucky to be listening in his time, with this organization.
Someone in Washington with a proclivity for cutting edge new media and its pioneering use in sports ought to take note. After all, with that voice heard so far and wide in that state, it can only be a matter of time before the big callup comes, and God forbid it be one of those big league clubs calling.
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If you haven’t noticed, there’s a bit of a discrepancy in the springtime fortunes of the Hershey Bears and their National Hockey League affiliate parent. Luck? Hardly. Who was it that said that luck is the residue of preparation meeting opportunity? I’ve seen more than a dozen Hershey playoff games since the Caps re-affiliated with them five years ago, and I’ve yet to leave Giant Center after a game thinking luck had anything to do with the result on any given night.
The Hershey Bears are the best at winning in the American League because excellence is their baseline standard, and they spend offseasons tinkering with excellent rosters seeking to make them even more excellent.
They’re 37-1 in their last 38 home games, for Pete’s sake.
This past Saturday night I entered Giant Center with a bit of a hunch related to the Bears’ very winning ways heavy on my mind. And in such instances I’m blessed to be able to bounce my hunches off of Tim Leone of the Patriot News. During Saturday night’s second intermission I asked Tim to look over the Bears’ rosters with me since the 2005-06 season, their first in the new affiliation with D.C., and a Calder Cup winning one.
I explained to Tim that I had a premonition that all these gaudily winning Hershey clubs, while distinctly skilled, also possessed their fair share of SOB skaters. On my own I could have scanned the stats columns for the skaters and picked out guys who’d piled up huge PIMs. But Leone possesses an eerie fluency with every player who’s worn Hershey’s sweater since the middle ’90s. Leone knew who skated ornery not just in the regular season but earned mischief-maker duty in the postseason. Anyway, my hunch was right: Bears’ clubs are assembled with skill and grit — plenty of grit — foremost in mind.
In 2005-06, the Calder Cup winning Bears featured Graham Mink, Louis Robitaille, Dean Arsene, Doug Doull (117 PIMs in 21 games), and Dwayne Zinger. The following season, Hershey returned to the Calder finals, undone there by Carey Price and Hamilton, but Arsene and Robitaille were joined by Matt Hendricks, Quintin Laing, and Kip Brennan. (Leone’s recollective faculty is such that he immediately reminded me that Brennan was suspended in game 4 of the Eastern conference finals, for the remainder of the postseason, for an altercation with a fan.) The Bears suffered an anomalously early exit from the postseason in 2007-08, but in 08-09 they won a Cup again, welcoming back Mink, who joined Pinner, Lainger, Arsene, and Greg Amadio.
What’s interesting about this season’s Bears is that comparatively speaking they are thinner on the brawn front: Arsene and Mink are gone. But what they boast is fantastic goaltending, more gaudy scoring, and something most novel on the blueline: the two best performers there in the league, forming what was easily the best pairing in the league. Karl Alzner was the best defenseman in the AHL, Walton told me back in March, the moment John Carlson got called up.
I stop short of suggesting that there is a direct transference of roster strategy between the ‘A’ and the NHL. They are different leagues, and the ‘A,’ to be fair, builds a bit of brawn about almost every club for marketing purposes — there is a good deal more fighting in this league. Still, I like a lot how just about every Hershey hockey club is a beautiful combination of skill and a smattering of difference-making SOBs.