Hockey roots run deep in central PennsylvaniaPosted on October 11, 2012
HERSHEY-Trips to Hershey to see Washington's stars of tomorrow at Giant Center is a must for any serious fan. I've mentioned in this space previously many activities in Hershey that make a trip up north a great weekend getaway, especially during the holidays and with family. But to understand why hockey is so important to those in central Pennsylvania, it's necessary to dig a little deeper and know about Chocolatetown culture. The surrounding area is populated by former Hershey players and their families. If you know where to look at a home game, it's nearly impossible not to find a notable Hershey alum in the stands cheering on today's skaters. It's also easy to find hockey's roots in the surrounding town and countryside, as many players call Hershey home long after their playing days are over. Many of them are now pillars in the business community. However, there is one family, and one last name, that perhaps represent Hershey hockey and tradition better than any other. On Tuesday night, I took team videographer James Heuser to the Warwick Hotel and Restaurant in Hummelstown, PA, perhaps a five minute trek from the front door of Giant Center. The 'Wick, as it's known to locals, has been serving up food and drink on Main Street since the 1790's, but its current owner has perhaps the deepest hockey roots in the area. On any given night, J.D. Mathers is working the floor and overseeing the operation, with his daughter serving drinks behind the bar and a fleet of wait staff catering to locals. Since 1995, J.D has owned the 'Wick, and served up many a meal to many a Hershey Bears player. It's a popular spot for postgame food with the guys, and even after practice. For instance, on the night we were dining, Dmitry Orlov and Stan Galiev had been in earlier in the day for lunch. It's easy for a hockey player to feel at home at the 'Wick, and eating there after games is a longstanding tradition. That has a lot to do with the fact J.D.'s father was. Frank Mathers is in the Hockey Hall of Fame, and also the American Hockey League Hall of Fame for his lifelong contributions to the game. In 1957, after nearly calling it a career to pursue a career in dentistry, Mathers was persuaded to join the Hershey Bears as a player/coach. The rest, as they say, is history. Mathers won Calder Cup titles as a player, coach, general manager and team president, and never left Hershey even in retirement. A winner of the Lester Patrick Award in 1986 (which our own Dick Patrick will formally accept next week), Mathers still could be found at games until shortly before his passing in 2005. To this day, he's known as "Mr. Hershey Bears Hockey." On February 27, 2005, the Bears honored Frank's memory with a game in his honor. Fans were given replicas of his Hockey Hall of Fame banner that hangs in the Giant Center rafters, not far from Frank's retired uniform number, number three. Mike Emrick, a longtime friend of Frank's, came to deliver pregame remarks about Frank to the fans in attendance. When the game was over, there was an absolute moment of chills for all of those who realized it. Hershey defeated Albany by a final score of 3-0, on the night that Hershey's most famous number three was memorialized. No time in Hershey hockey history did a final score seem more appropriate. For more on Frank Mathers, and his story, click here For me returning to Hershey this week, it was an honor to talk hockey with Frank's son at the 'Wick over a couple of cold ones at the bar Tuesday. I talked with J.D. about the upcoming inaugural Hershey Bears Hall of Fame inductions, and who should be included. We had a spirited discussion of different former players, and the teams that they played on. He told me his memories of watching the Calder Cup Finals on TV in 2006, 2009 and 2010, and how much 2009 meant to him. Frank was born and raised in Winnipeg, so to see the Bears win a Calder Cup in Manitoba was especially sweet for the Mathers' family. J.D. also told me about the time when he was 14 years old and a new Hershey Bears player befriended him and took him under his wing. It was 1968, and J.D was an aspiring youth player, wearing his father's number three on his back for his team. But he decided to change his number to 15 that year, following in his footsteps of Garnet "Ace" Bailey, who skated in Hershey during the 1968-69 season and wore 15 for the Chocolate and White. Whenever Bailey would come back into Hershey later on, he never forgot J.D. and still chatted with him at Hersheypark Arena. Bailey, who tragically passed away on September 11, 2001 aboard United Airlines flight 175 in New York, was the director of pro scouting for Los Angeles at the time of his passing. J.D. still remembers him fondly to this day. It is discussions like this that bring home to me all over again how much hockey is woven into the fabric of this central Pennsylvania hamlet. There's a spiritual quality one receives, for those who pursue the hockey faith, by chatting with someone from Hershey's puck past. No one has lived and embodied that life any more than the son of "Mr. Hershey Bears Hockey." If you're making a trip to Hershey for a couple of weekend games, and are looking for a place to take in local flavor and color, consider a stop at the 'Wick. If you're lucky, perhaps J.D. will stop by your table and tell you a story or two. When you see Frank Mathers' number three jersey hanging to the left of the bar when you walk in, you'll have a deeper appreciation of what hockey means to folks that live in these parts. For 75 years, it's been what brings Hershey together and how time is measured. For countless alumni still in the area, especially J.D. Mathers, they wouldn't have it any other way.