Monday, October 5, 2015

Hershey's Giant Center Is The AHL's Crown Jewel

GIANT Center (Credit: Kyle Mace/Chocolate Hockey)
Taking nothing away from the Cedar Park Center, the Giant Center, home to the Hershey Bears, is the premier facility in the American Hockey League. It is a 10,500-person facility purpose built for hockey. It is simultaneously expansive and intimate. Sleek and new but steeped in a long tradition. Fans are rabid but knowledgeable.

"I played in Lehigh Valley last year, and [Giant Center] was always a hostile environment," said Austin Fyten, a former Star who now wears the Bears chocolate and white. "It's hard [for visitors] to win in this building."

On a business trip for the day job, I took the opportunity to visit the Giant Center for a preseason game between the Hershey Bears and the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins. It being a preseason game, the final score was rather immaterial. The trip was more about the chance to experience an Eastern Conference arena and game. Given the Texas Stars' connection to this building, it couldn't have been a better match.

Of course, long-time Stars fans know that this was both a site of great triumph and great sadness for their club. Hot off beating Hamilton in the 2010 Western Conference Finals, the Jamie Benn-led Stars had to take the show on the road to face the Eastern Conference champion Bears for the Cup.

Giant Center is an intimidating space. Even for a preseason game, the fans were there in droves. I seat surfed during the second period of the game and talked with fans who were extremely knowledgeable and very bought into their club. The shortest tenured season ticket holder I talked to had had their seats for seven years.

During the regular season, the doors open to several thousand fans already waiting to enter. Inside they find a shrine to the history of their club; each of the Bears eleven Calder Cup banners hangs in the main arena.

"We're getting 10 or 12 thousand on the weekend, and uh, they'll let you know if your'e not playing well," Fyten noted, laughing. "We have to bring our A game every night in this building."

GIANT Center's new video board on season ticket holder night.
(Credit: Kyle Mace/Chocolate Hockey)
Only three of those Calder Cup titles were won while their current building was open. The previous eight came during their tenure in Hersheypark Arena, the oldest continuously operated hockey facility in North America.

Opened in 1936, Hersheypark Arena has a history longer than almost any sports facility you can find west of the Mississippi, both hockey and non-hockey related. On March 2, 1962, for example, it was the site of Wilt Chamberlain's famous 100 point game. Now it hosts recreational and pick up hockey games in its cavernous main space. One might argue it's the best place to play a regular pick up game in the country. Imagine if you could just saunter down to Reunion Arena in Dallas to lace up the skates for a few hours. That's what we're talking about here.

The hockey history is all over the arena in more than just the banners. Retired numbers, championship photos, plaques and all sorts of other regalia adorn the place.

"[The history] is a good thing. They preach that here. You come here, and it's a pride thing. You put that jersey on and they expect to win. The fact taht they have 11 banners here says a lot about the organization."

Texas contributed to that history in 2010. After going up 2-0 in two sold-out games at Giant Center, the Stars dropped three at home and return to Pennsylvania to lose Game 6 by a 4-0 margin. For the Bears, it meant back-to-back Cups. Texas would be back, but it took 4 more years to achieve the Cup.

The Bears have ten Cups on the Stars, but they've also been around for 70 more years. As far as teams go, Hershey can't be a bad team to model yourself off.

1 comment:

  1. Sounds like a great arena to visit and much more desirable than any of /the Western Conference arenas I have been to. Maybe a visit in the Calder Cup finals this year would be appropriate? Fingers crossed.

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