Put Hershey, PA and a hallowed sports record in the same sentence and the first thing that comes to mind is basketball.
It was on March 2, 1962, that Wilt Chamberlain of the Philadelphia Warriors set the standard for scoring in the NBA, dropping 100 points in a game played in Hershey, a record that will probably never be broken.
But that was a single-game record, set by an individual, and it is largely ancient history.
There is another sports record linked directly to Hershey that may prove equally difficult to top. This one is season-long, it is still active to this day, and it belongs not to one man, but to an entire sports-loving community.
The Hershey Bears of the AHL just completed the regular season by averaging 9,309 fans per game, marking the 11th consecutive season that the Bears have been the standard-bearer for the league. Not only are the 11 straight seasons a league record, but the Bears have done it in dominating fashion, topping an unprecedented average of at least 9,000 fans per season for the past eight campaigns.
“Our fans here are quite passionate about hockey,” said Bryan Helmer, the Bears vice president of hockey operations. “Hershey has a small-town feeling, but everyone is passionate about hockey. It’s all they talk about. You go out in the community and people know who the players are, who’s on the coaching staff and the people that work here. I always come back to that word: passion. They want to make sure that we’re No. 1 year after year.
“And the people who sell the tickets here and the marketing department, they make it happen, too, and get the Bears’ name out to the community, where the people see it and say, ‘Hey, I want to go to a hockey game and see the Bears.’ It’s a combination of all those things.”
The Bears won the Calder Cup in 2005-06, and the next season they averaged 8,671 fans per game to lead the league. That number increased each year until peaking in the 2012-13 NHL lockout season with an average attendance of 10,046.
Overall, the Bears increased their average attendance for 10 consecutive seasons, from 2004-13.
Helmer knows this perhaps as well as anyone in Hershey. He joined the Bears before the 2008-09 season as defenseman and team captain and led the Bears to consecutive Calder Cup championships. It was in the second title season in 2009-10 that the Bears topped an average attendance of 9,000 for the first time.
The AHL’s all-time leading scorer as a defenseman, Helmer returned to the Bears in 2015 as an assistant coach and helped guide the Bears back to the Calder Cup Finals before being named VP of Operations before last season, succeeding the retired general manager Doug Yingst.
The Bears are once again in the title hunt this spring, and Helmer now has one regular-season attendance title under his business suit belt, even amidst tough competition from the rest of the league.
“I think it makes us work that much harder, knowing that there’s that expectation of being No. 1 in the league every year,” Helmer said. “It gets harder. The price of tickets goes up and it makes our sales people work that much harder. And with the new teams coming out in California, we got scared. And then Cleveland having the success they’ve had.
“You know, Doug was on a roll there for 10 years and I was like, ‘I don’t want my first year to be when we lost that crown.’ But the people here do a great job. We came on strong in the second half and people came out and we made sure we had those sellouts at the end of the season.”
The Bears are supported by a fan base that brings a passion and intensity often associated with top college football programs.
“You talk to a lot of players from visiting teams during warm-ups, and there’s already 8,000 people in the stands watching warm-up,” Helmer said. “You’re already behind the 8-ball even before they drop the puck. I still remember my first time coming in here as a player and going out for warm-ups. I’d seen it as an opposing player, but to be on the home side of it, with people pounding on the glass and people with signs with your name on it, things like that, it always comes back to the passion for the Bears. It’s pretty electrifying.
“You know, the fans will let you know if you’re not having a good game. They’ll give you the boos. But they’ll never let you down. They always have your back. They’ll stick up for you. They’re very passionate and they know their hockey and they expect us to win every year. If we don’t win a Calder Cup, I don’t think they consider it a successful year. This year, we were fighting for a playoff spot with 90-something points and people were asking me, ‘What’s wrong with the team?’ So it’s a different feeling here in Hershey compared to some other spots.”
The Bears are already poised to make it 12 straight seasons in 2018, aided by the third outdoor game in franchise history. To commemorate its 80th anniversary, the Bears will face local rival Lehigh Valley in the Outdoor Classic on January 20, 2018 at Hersheypark Stadium.
The Bears drew 17,311 to Hersheypark Stadium in 2013 for their most-recent outdoor game, which commemorated the franchise’s 75th anniversary. The year before, the Bears helped set the all-time AHL single-game attendance mark in true outsized, Chamberlain-esque fashion, hosting 45,653 at Philadelphia’s Citizens Bank Park on January 6, 2012, as part of an associated event for the NHL Winter Classic.
“We had it five years ago for our 75th anniversary and this year coming up is our 80th and we had success with the outdoor game back then, so everyone was back on board to celebrate this historic franchise by taking back outdoors,” Helmer said. “And to play Lehigh Valley, our rivals, we want both organizations to have success. To have that relationship and be so close, we’re looking forward to it.”
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