A Visit To The Baby Capitals

Giant Center, Hershey PA (Author photo)

I know that I write for a Washington DC based sports blog, but I am not a Capitals fan. And if I told you which NHL team I root for, I might be driven off of this website by angry dogs. I am, however, a sports fan at heart. And I love minor league sports, so I am going to explain why you must visit the minor league affiliate of the Washington Capitals: the Hershey Bears.

The Hershey Bears were founded in 1932 and are the oldest continuously-operating professional ice hockey team in North America, outside of the “Original Six” of the National Hockey League. At one point, the Hershey hockey team was  known as the Hershey B’ars and once even as the Hershey Chocolate B’ars.

They are the oldest member club of the American Hockey League (AHL). The AHL is the hockey equivalent of AAA baseball. Usually the teams play in large cities that are not quite big enough for an NHL team.

Portland, ME, Hartford, Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, Rochester, Hamilton, ONT and Rockford are the best example of this. There are a couple of suburban teams in larger cities such as the Chicago Wolves and Toronto Marlies that play in the league. But the entertainment and candy mecca in central Pennsylvania is a unique hockey destination on its own.

The Hershey Bears Hockey Club is a wholly owned sub-division of the Hershey Entertainment and Resorts Company, an entity administered by the Hershey Trust Company. The Milton Hershey School is funded by that trust.

The Bears have also won quite a lot during their history, holding 11 Calder Cups and 22 conference championships. Since the 2005-06 season, the Bears have been the top affiliate of the Capitals.

The team has been successful, but what about the home arena of the Bears? First one should consider the historic former home of the team, the Hersheypark Arena.

Opened in 1936 as the Hershey Sports Arena, the 7,286 venue has seen quite a bit of great hockey over the years. It may be known more as the arena that Wilt Chamberlain recorded a record-setting 100 points in an NBA game against the New York Knicks.

A 2012 fire damaged parts of the arena’s roof, although luckily no substantial damage occurred. Lebanon Valley College ice hockey and Shippensburg University ice hockey still use the arena for home games, as well as being used as a public ice rink.

Even with that history, the Bears needed to move. In 2002, the Bears opened the 10,500 Giant Center located across the parking lot from Hersheypark amusement park. Instead of building a modern arena with little character, the designers Populous, (which also built the new Yankee Stadium in New York and Wembley Stadium in London) created a venue that has all the modern amenities that today’s fans want and all the character of an older venue.

The arena invokes memories of the old Hersheypark Arena. You can almost close your eyes and forget you are in a new stadium. But even with your eyes open, you will witness a fantastic old hockey barn kind of arena. It really takes the best of the old and mixes it with new, modern amenities.

The arena’s interior also feels light and bright compared to many darker arenas. The sight-lines and sound are all excellent. It is one of the best arenas built in decades. It just has that near-perfect “feel” to it.

A great arena with charm and character? Check. Free chocolate at Chocolate World before every game? Check. The amazing Troegs Brewery located down the street for pre-game revelry? Check. So why would you not want to check out the “Baby Capitals”?

Any Capitals fan, or even a fan of any team, owe themselves a trip to central Pennsylvania to see the Hershey Bears in action. Their regular season ends in a few days, but expect the Bears to make another run in the Calder Cup Playoffs.