Friday Night Services in a Hockey Cathedral

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.
Tim Leone, one of the best hockey reporters in America
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.

Oskar Osala earns a fan for life

Oskar Osala earns a fan for life

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.

This entry was posted in American Hockey League, Hershey Bears, Mathieu Perreault, Michal Neuvirth, Prospects, Washington Capitals. Bookmark the permalink.

24 Responses to Friday Night Services in a Hockey Cathedral

  1. HersheyHockeyFan says:

    Thank you – that made my evening.

  2. Great write up, this if the first year I think I will fully follow the exploits of the Bears because of all the great talent that will be there. Great photo of Osala and his fan-for-life, and overall just a great story. Just one more reason OFB is required reading for the Capitals Fan.

  3. greg says:

    I have seen many games at the old barn and there really isn’t anything like it. Everytime I see the place I want to go in and watch a game. It is truly a special building. I can remember numerous moments from inside the place durning. From arriving through the doors, finding the seats, everything about the place. The concourse on the upper level….everything…and of course all the hockey played there. Definitely come up and see a game there…it is definitely worth it. Great post!

  4. Chris Poisal says:

    JK,You’ve done it again. You captured the entire essence of that cathedral. I was fortunate to have relatives who live within minutes of Hershey. Even though I was born and raised in Baltimore(sorry Bears fans,I was a Skipjacks fan), I had the opportunity to attend alot of Bears games at the old barn. The biggest thrill for me was being able to attend the final game at HPA. I still have the ticket stub and program.That is a night I’ll never forget.

  5. Matt says:

    I took in a Lebanon Valley game last year and pretty much just used the intermissions to walk all over the building. It brought back such memories…feels good to walk around a place like that.
    LVC got beat 10-2 on that day, but I found it pretty cool that they still use the goal siren and Rock & Roll, Pt. 2 (even though the song could be better) when LVC scores…and as far as I remember, that was the same siren/song the Bears played before leaving the old barn.
    It’s so much different than watching a Bears game there, but it’s the fact of live hockey still being played in the arena and it still attracts you to go and watch no matter the skill of the team playing.

  6. As if I needed additional inducement to return. Thanks for the terrific detail about your game experience in the old barn, Matt. Save me a seat.

  7. Josh says:

    Great article! I’m a 23 year old Hershey native and a life long hockey fan. I literally skated in the Arena hundreds of times through public skating as a kid, and youth hockey for the Jr Bears. I also had season tickets to the Bears (with my parents) for several years when I was about 10 years old. Section 17, two rows from the top of the lower level – Seats 1 and 2. I still remember that. We would go to every game and then wait for the Bears walking up the steps on the side next to Hersheypark for autographs in the bitter cold. It was always worth it.
    There was nothing like trying to fight your way through fans walking around that place in the ‘front concourse’ which would allow you to still follow play while venturing for a bite to eat. The organ player playing “Bingo” to the chants of “B-E-A-R-S”. The bench clearing brawls between the Kentucky Throughblades (Ken Belanger) in the playoffs. There are thousands of memories that I could tell you from about 5 season of season tickets, let alone the first 60 some odd years of Bears Hockey.
    You could hear fans yelling from across the ice like they were sitting right next to you. I frequently go back to watch my nephews play there.
    To be completely honest, I haven’t followed the Bears too much since they moved to Giant Center and it’s not that I don’t want the Bears to do well anymore, I just tend to spend a lot more time and money on going to Flyers Games as I split season tickets with a few people (go ahead, BOOOO me haha).
    The reason I bring that up is because I’ve seen dozens of Flyers Games in a state of the art facility in Wachovia Center. Awesome sound system, video scoreboard, LCD lights that surround the arena of play; but some times I just miss that old fashioned brand of hockey in a classic venue like HPA.
    Yesterday, I attended the last Flyers NHL game in the Spectrum (est. 1967) and it was an emotional day as they’ll be tearing it down next season.
    That made me think of Hersheypark Arena. It’s just amazing to know that it’s been up since 1936! It’s still remains a beautiful facility and it even has ‘chocolate’ leaking from the ceiling! All good things must come to an end and when the day comes that Hershey decides to take it down, I’ll be there…a grown man, balling my eyes out.
    I shed a few tears just writing this post…

  8. Josh, all I can offer as response to your remarkable reflections is a heartfelt thank you. I know I can speak for most readers, too. Stupendously enriching, and I’m grateful.

  9. scott says:

    Great article. Thanks for sharing. I spent about 40 years watching hockey at Hersheypark Arena, the last 12 as a season ticket holder–gotta add, that I HATE the Giant Center, have only been to a handful of games there since it opened.
    A bit of a clarification on your observation concerning the media boxes. The print media sat in the box on the side of the ice facing the player benches (the front of the building). The box on the opposite side was for management (Jay Feaster, Doug Yingst) and Herco officials. Also recall the brass from parent clubs (specifically Pierre Lacroix from Colorado sitting there from time to time. The radio broadcaster (Dan Kamal and later Dave Mishkin) actually sat at a small table furthur up above the Bears box (right above one of the exits) on the same side of the ice as the player benches.
    What charm and personality that building had. I can recall many happy evenings spent there. Thanks for the memories!

  10. Drew says:

    I skated in a tournament at Hersheypark in 1996 for the Bowie Bruins Midget A, and then saw a Bears game the same weekend. One of my favorite experiences, from the locker rooms to the stands to the rafters. Thanks for writing this and reminding me. I should really get up there; if the Bears use the facility again, will you promise to post about it beforehand?

  11. The Hersheypark Arena Aura…

    Earlier I read pucksandbooks’ article on his trip to the old Hersheypark Arena to watch a Bears practice. Pucks waxed……

  12. Scott Zellers says:

    What a great article. Sitting here reading it brought back memories of watching great Bears hockey games at the “old barn”. I watched my first hockey game there, it was an experience all its own. The sounds, the smells, and all the great fans. Like you said in your article, “not a bad seat in the place.”
    My wife and I are now season ticket holders for the Bears. The Giant Center is a great place, but it will never replace watching a game at HersheyPark Arena. My first year having the season tickets with my wife, I remember sitting at the Giant Center and telling her that its just not the same, it was not the Arena. I wish she could have watched a game there.

  13. Paul says:

    Back when I was like 10 years old my grandmother got transfered to a hospital in Harrisburg. She was in bad shape but fully recovered. I remember my father, attempting to take mine and my brother’s mind off the horribly stressful moment, took up to a bears game. It was like the second or third game iv ever been to. The other two were at US Air Arena (Also a great venue). The Arena is just absolutly a great place to watch a hockey game. We sat right behind the wooden back chairs and even being so young I could realize how special the place was. It is a great memory that came out of a pretty horrible time.

  14. Jesse says:

    I myself am currently a season ticket holder and have been for years now. I do like the Giant Center for the beer and restrooms alone, but for every other reason I will take the Old Barn any day to watch a hockey game. I watched many games there, enjoyed the AHL all start game and various other types of events. Brawls /w Kentucky and Cornwall stick out in my mind. I coach my kids currently in the Hershey Inhouse program. I never overlook the fact that my kids get to play most of their games in both of the Hershey rinks. Some of the other kids who play on travel teams and Quebec get to travel, visit some nice new modern rinks, but none of those rinks have the history and banners hanging from the rafters like the Old Barn does. I’m enjoying ever second I get to skate w/ my kids and players at the Old Barn I can. Someday, there is a chance it may not be there. Get there, even if it’s just to public skate if you have not been there yet!!!!

  15. pepper says:

    File this one under “Best of OFB.” Instant classic!

  16. Kim says:

    Thank you for the article. I was able to recall many memories of my own through your experiences. I grew up about 5 miles from the Arena and although I didn’t get to too many games for financial reasons, the memories I have are rich. I remember sitting up in the “nose bleeds” watching our great Tim Tookey and Mitch Lamoureux and thinking it doesn’t get any better than this! I remember going to watch the exhibition games between the Bears and the Flyers and later the Avalanche.
    The Giant Center is nice and fancy. I enjoy my partial season-ticket seats. But I miss being able to walk around the Arena while watching the game and listening to the organ during stoppages of play. And they always had the league standings listed on a manual board at the one end of the Arena so you could keep tabs with the rest of the league! Awesome.
    I was one of the few in attendance for Saturday morning’s practice. I was so excited just to go watch some hockey, but the moment I stepped foot in the old barn, I was overcome by the atmosphere. It was kind of ironic, though, as we sat in the seats, my five-year-old daughter complained that they were too hard (funny I was thinking that at the GC on Sunday). And the “funniest” thing of all…..about half way through our time there, she turned to me and asked “Where’s the big tv???”

  17. I enjoyed your article very much. I was fortunate to get to play a scrimmage game last year on that ice in the old barn. It was incredible sitting on that bench, coming out the player tunnel, and looking up at the old scoreboard. My favorite part of the experience was getting to shoot in our little shoot out. Standing at center ice, all those empty seats surrounding me. It was a great experience. To answer your question, no, I missed on my penalty shot. 😉

  18. Brock Kerchner says:

    My memories of the ole barn start early. I was raised in Section 25. Anyone with a knowledge of the barn would know us as the rowdies in the corner. Some of the oldest season ticket holders held court in our section and we certainly weren’t family friendly but the amount of hockey knowledge in this section was immense. I will never forget being able to stand up in my second row seat and have a stick come right at my face over the glass in the corner. So many great, great memories, the cups, Neil Little puking, Scott parker taking on the entire Kentucky Thoroughblades team, Bob Hartley’s pre calder cup game descussion with section 25, etc.
    I still miss the ole barn greatly. I was also a member of the LVC hockey team in college. My senior year we won the ECAC Northeast championship. We were honored before a Bears game on the ice and our banner raised to the rafters. What a feeling of honor in that house. Ironically, we won the championship in Matthews Arena in Boston. (known as little Hershey for it’s construction date and style) I have many great memories of Bears and LVC moments but too me the best part was always walking the crowded concourse. You never knew who might be the next person to pass you by, Frank Mathers, Tim Tookey, a current NHL player back to visit, etc. Everyone had to come see the ole barn at some time and everyone knew section 25 and the Hershey fans!

  19. Lynn says:

    What a thrill! We are the parents of the young Bears fan who got the stick from Oskar on Friday night. Our son is an obsessed Bears fan, and was over the moon when Oskar handed him that stick. My husband and I are long time Bears fans, and some of our first dates were at games at the old barn. We were at the last game there and the first at Giant Center.
    Friday night was such a great time for us, because we all just love our hockey, but for our family it means a little bit more. Please indulge me with a little story about why we love the Bears, and look forward each season to a few special players.
    Our son (the one in the photo) was born in Guatemala. He was still there waiting for our adoption to be completed when he was diagnosed with cancer at the age of 9 months. He began treatment while still in Guatemala, and continued treatment when he came home to us in October of 2003, just after his first birthday. We were thrilled when his Oncologist at Hershey Medical center told us that despite the fact that he was on Chemo, we could still take him to the Bears games. Our son LOVED hockey from the first minute. It was hysterical to watch him so focused on the game. He was so funny trying to move around and watch around those “rookies” who would get up during play. We were able to continue to take him to all of the games.
    He treated with Chemotherapy until July of 2004. We thought all was clear until March of 2006 when he had a local recurrence of the cancer and once again had to start Chemo, and this time also with radiation. He treated that time from March until August of 2006.
    We were fortunate to have many friends and fellow hockey fans who arranged at that time for Bruce to meet Frederic Cassivi, and from that first meeting our son had found favorite. The Cassivis were so good to us, and over the years we have come to call them friends. We were able to make every home game of the playoffs and of the Calder Cup Final, in between lengthy stays at the hospital. Just after the Calder Cup win, we were able to go to the party at the Giant Center, and the photos we have of our son and Frederic with the Cup are ones we will treasure forever. Our son had no hair and was obviously sick, but his smile is the only thing you notice in those photos. Frederic and his family came to visit Bruce in the hospital, and so did Coco the Bear. I have to tell you that we felt incredibly special to be part of such a wonderful Bears family.
    Bruce is now 2 years off treatment and is doing fantastic. He is healthy and doing everything that an almost 6-year-old should be doing, and more.
    We try to get to as many practices as we can, and we love going to the Arena because we can be so close to the players.
    The bottom line is that we also love that old Arena…my husband and I love it because it means a lot to us to have started our lives together at the games, but we especially love it because our son LOVES it even more…he can climb all over the seats and get right up next to the glass to tease with the players and try to pick out the ones he already knows.
    And every now and then he can make a connection with a player like Oskar…a young kid himself who took the time to stop and say hello to a little hockey fan, and to offer something that to Oskar was just one of his sticks, but to our son it was magic…a link to a player that means so much…and a moment that brought tears to his mother’s eyes.
    Thanks for that, Oskar…and thanks to the Arena for the memories that were and the new ones that are still being made.

  20. Ravensun says:

    I thought you might like to be able to see what’s going on in that photo… it’s great, by-the-way!

    Here you go! (There’s a larger version linked behind the thumbnail.)
    Go Oskar!

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