As the AHL’s oldest franchise in the league’s smallest dateline, the Hershey Bears itch for solace and productive diversions after a forever unfinished season.
Somebody had to lighten the mood when the Hershey Bears conducted their 2019-20 season-ending presser.
Within days of the AHL pulling the plug on its suspended schedule after a two-month limbo, its most tradition-laden franchise convened a conference call for Harrisburg-Lancaster-Lebanon-York network affiliates, regional sportswriters, and Bears bloggers.
Vice president Bryan Helmer and head coach Spencer Carbery spent most of the Zoom meeting sounding like the forsaken faithful of the 1994 Montreal Expos. As it was with the baseball players’ strike, the world’s protracted public-health-conscious departure from normalcy curtailed a credible case for a contender’s label with barely a month-plus left before the postseason.
And so, after 35 minutes and 18 seconds of assessing the abrupt aftermath and wholly ambiguous future, one of the club’s internal connections stepped up. John Sparenberg, who runs the Bears Bites blog, writes for the team program, and functions as the de facto Bears historian on Twitter, tapped into his specialty.
Per the mid-May conference’s audio — obtained directly from the Bears PR department — Sparenberg told Helmer, “Bryan, we’ll change the tone a little now.”
He proceeded to acknowledge the 10th anniversary of Hershey’s most recent and league-leading 11th Calder Cup championship. That title was Helmer’s second straight as the Bears captain, and his finale as a player. He has since served the organization for six nonconsecutive seasons in two front-office capacities.
When Sparenberg asked if the decade-long time-lapse felt accurate, Helmer said, “John, it really doesn’t, to be honest with you.” But after a moment of fond reflection, the VP wrapped up his response by circling back to his lament for this eternally incomplete season, the first of its kind in Hershey’s 82-year AHL membership.
Well, Sparenberg tried.
One fact nobody mentioned on the call is that, come next spring, the Bears will have tied their longest all-time title drought.
Hershey Bears hit hard by AHL’s sudden cancelation of 2019-20 season
With 11 banners, no gaps between Cups longer than 11 years, and no waits between playoff appearances longer than three years, Bears buffs can practically take springtime bonus action as a birthright. At 37-18-7, their team had put them in a confident position to expect much more of that in 2020.
For the better part of their team’s history (since at least 1966), Bears fans have banked on hockey season spilling into April. They always have their go-to family- and budget-friendly weekend athletic outing available for at least half the calendar year.
For Hershey, Triple-A hockey is a crucial partner of foliage, flakes, and fresh flowers for gauging the calendar.
“I think not having games has made it tough to keep perspective on the rest of our lives,” wrote Kyle Mace, founder and owner of the Chocolate Hockey blog, in an email to this author. “You know from October to April, normally May, there will be Hershey Bears games.”
That’s right, normally May, and a decent chance for games in another month. That is the expectation in modern times.
Since June became pro hockey’s trophy season, Hershey has played in it six times (1997, 2006, 2007, 2009, 2010, 2016). Only the IHL/AHL’s Chicago Wolves and NHL’s Detroit Red Wings and Pittsburgh Penguins have stretched as many seasons that far.
Of those teams, only the Bears have averted any 10-year gaps between June games. Based on their record in 2019-20, normal circumstances might have given them a chance to break the four-way tie.
Instead, the span of this season was akin to a Division I college team bowing out of its conference quarterfinal and missing out on an at-large bid to the national tournament. Everyone started in October, halted in the second week of March, then two months later got the belated word that everything is over until next season.
“Normally, two and a half months without hockey means we’re on the doorstep of August,” Mace mused via email. “I find myself going, ‘Oh, it’s not July, it’s the end of May,’ every so often. Without sports in general it’s been tough to remember what time of year it is.”
This offseason going the maximum college length and no longer assumes normalcy is securely restored by fall. There was a reason why “uncharted” was a motif from the mouths of Helmer and Carbery in mid-May’s Zoom call.
Elton Hayes of the Johnstown Tribune-Democrat collected reactions from both the Bears and Lehigh Valley Phantoms brass. During the Hershey call, he asked for Carbery’s take on the indefinite shutdown’s potential business side effects and impact on the Bears.
In response, the coach issued multiple disclaimers that there is only so much he knows in that department. But, he offered Hayes, “you’re exactly accurate in saying that this could have ramifications farther than just missing games or pushing the season off with pay, with ticket sales.”
Instead of worry over the unknown, the flavor of the cancellation’s aftermath around Hershey is bitterness (albeit tamed with requisite real-world perspective) over what was already decided.
On-ice achievement aside, with 62 games completed (and 14 cancelled), this was effectively the Bears’ shortest season since 1945-46. The AHL’s bygone rival, the International Hockey League, was born that year.
The league’s second-oldest existing franchise, the Rochester Americans, would not show up for another decade. Most of Hershey’s past and present NHL parent clubs were at least 22 years away.
Besides being the AHL’s historical yardstick, the Bears have made Hershey stand out in the shadows of Harrisburg and other larger communities in the market for something besides its homonymous confectioner. (Although the franchise and fan base clearly embrace the tie-ins.)
Still, for all of their history, the Bears were born one generation after the last pandemic severe enough to halt hockey in North America. (The 1918-19 flu cut the Stanley Cup Final short.)
The Bears, their league, and their first arena all came about when America was still grappling with and clawing out of the Great Depression. Today, the necessary distancing for health and safety is having an economic side effect unheard of since that era.
But unlike in prior financial crises, the puck pushers cannot persevere as usual to heal the locals’ economics or emotions. And with their towering presence within their dateline’s community limit, their extended absence from their workplace is most conspicuous.
“I truly miss being able to see all the people I know at Giant Center,” emailed Mace. “It’s those relationships that make the Bears so special, and ending a season not being able to say one last goodbye to players, staff, friends, and fans is tough.”
Especially since Hershey is where the faces that convene at the arena frequently say hello by name at other establishments.
The unincorporated community’s population south of 15,000 is lower than the seating capacity of any NHL arena. At 10,500 seats, Hershey’s aptly named (albeit after a sponsor) Giant Center combines with its still-standing predecessor, Hersheypark Arena (7,286), to exceed Chocolatetown’s headcount.
With medians consistently above 8,500, though often north of 9,000 and occasionally 10,000, the Bears led the AHL in attendance every year from 2006-07 to 2016-17. The San Diego Gulls broke that streak, but Hershey has hardly fallen from the canopy. This season, only the Cleveland Monsters eclipsed them on the nightly turnstile leaderboard.
Moreover, the locals keep finding new ways to underscore their passion and help the team give back. At Christmastime in 2018, fans thrust a record-shattering 34,798 toys at Giant Center’s Teddy Bear Toss. The tally amounted to roughly 2.3 toys for every Hershey resident.
As an encore this past December, the ticketholders chucked 45,650 items, more than three for every registered Chocolatetownie. The collection benefited the Milton Hershey School, which caters to underprivileged students and intersects with the Bears through many other community initiatives.
Right after Sparenberg’s 2010 Calder Cup flashback on the Zoom call, Mace brought up the Toss and ESPN’s coverage thereof.
“I still get goosebumps thinking about it,” Helmer replied. Then he cited more examples of fanfare and circled back once again to how “disappointing that this season was cancelled.”
Some of the call’s querying parties could hardly help but echo the sentiment. Of all the conference’s participants, Mace may epitomize the Bears’ magnetic tug on Hershey-area citizens.
Mace graduated from Penn State Harrisburg last spring, but this season’s cancellation disrupted a bigger milestone than one might think. He launched Chocolate Hockey (nee Sweetest Hockey on Earth) when he was in middle school, and was rounding out his 10th season on the beat.
But he still got to close the campaign opposite fellow bloggers, other local and regional writers, and TV personalities in a way one would think is reserved only for a major professional team’s press corps, or for a handful of NCAA basketball or football reporters.
“I don’t think any other minor league hockey team could have three beat writers and have all news outlets be competitive with each other in this day and age,” Mace wrote, “but Hershey does. That’s just a testament to the passion of Hershey Bears fans.”
Ditto, he added, the supply and demand for uploads of players-at-home videos. And Mace, for one, is working to ensure neither the fervor nor the benevolence hibernate through the unusually lengthy offseason.
This Thursday, Chocolate Hockey will assemble a smattering of players — led by Liam O’Brien, the longest-tenured active Bear at six seasons — for a web-based telethon. Proceeds will benefit Cocoa Packs, a Hershey-area charity dedicated to alleviating food insecurity among local schoolchildren.
“We’re super excited to host such a fun event for a great cause!” Mace declared, punctuating perhaps the most hopeful Hershey Bears-related message in nearly three months.
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