Hershey for hockey

Now is the time to elevate Hersheypark Arena and the former Ice Palace to their highest and best uses.
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Hersheypark Arena

Now that venerable Hersheypark Arena has a new roof and a new ceiling, it’s time to give serious thought to what the “Old Barn” should be when it grows up.

The House that Milton S. Hershey Built turns 77 in December and hasn’t been the Hershey Bears’ home for more than a decade (although the American Hockey League club practices there on occasion).

For years, speculation was that rink owner Hershey Entertainment & Resorts longed to knock down or retrofit the arena for the benefit of Hersheypark. That’s not going to happen, which is no small comfort for a community that so recklessly turned its back on some of its most historic properties in decades past.

New lease on life

The arena remains integral to the Hershey Jr. Bears youth hockey program, to Lebanon Valley College men’s hockey, to figure skating, among other activities. But the aforementioned renovations, completed in the past year, have given the arena a new lease on life.

So now is the time to elevate the arena and the adjacent former Ice Palace – the original home of the Bears that has been vacant since 2009 when the Hershey Museum moved into downtown – to their highest and best uses.

Jr. Bears practice under the new roof and ceiling at Hersheypark Arena.

Jr. Bears practice under the new roof and ceiling at Hersheypark Arena.

They should be leveraged to make Hershey a true hockey hotbed, from youth hockey all the way up to the Bears, the AHL’s perennial attendance leaders.

Old hockey arenas present challenges for modern use, to be sure, but what a challenge to have. The Montreal Forum is a movie theater, Boston Garden is a parking lot. Even Philadelphia’s Spectrum, a relative youngster completed in 1967, fell to the wrecking ball in 2011.

But hockey never left Hersheypark Arena and should be the essence of its future – only more so. Architects and engineers should rework the adjacent buildings so that they function as one historic edifice offering a range of hockey-related products and services aimed at regional youth hockey players and hockey fans and the millions of tourists who visit Hershey each year.

The parts – like so many Reese’s Pieces – are there. They just need to be packaged properly, starting with the older of the two buildings.

The Ice Palace actually didn’t have ice in it until 1931. Built in 1915, it originally was known as Hershey Convention Hall, which comprised a 56,110-square-foot auditorium with a 71-foot ceiling and four large meeting rooms.

Hershey for the hall

The centerpiece of the Ice Palace’s rebirth should be a modern, hockey-themed restaurant that would operate year-round. It would feature Bears memorabilia, similar to what is featured in this exhibit, with a special area carved out for the arena’s original Zamboni. (I tracked it down in this story for my short-lived hockey magazine.) I envision something much more authentic than The Bears’ Den at the Hershey Lodge, another Hershey Entertainment & Resorts entity.

And talk about an authentic experience: How about creating a section of upstairs seating that actually looks out over Hersheypark Arena?

The former Ice Palace, adjacent to Hersheypark Arena's south end.

The former Ice Palace, adjacent to Hersheypark Arena’s south end.

As 11-time Calder Cup champs, the Bears are the AHL’s most storied team. The AHL’s hall of fame doesn’t have a physical home. It should – and it should be incorporated in any plans for the Ice Palace.

The restaurant wouldn’t be the only money-making component. The arena needs a hockey shop, complete with skate sharpening. If you’re a hockey parent in central Pennsylvania, you know how difficult it can be to get skates sharpened. The “rink rats” at the arena sharpen skates – but not if it interferes with resurfacing the ice.

A bricks-and-mortar store needs foot traffic (not to mention online sales), so there should be an impetus to book more hockey in the arena. The Jr. Bears or another group should offer a hockey academy or training center, complete with off-ice workout space that could be incorporated into this project.

Bring in another team

Let’s not forget that the arena has a seating capacity for hockey of more than 7,000. Hershey Entertainment and Resorts should explore options for putting a lower-level team in the Old Barn. If the company didn’t want to own another team, maybe it would allow another operator to lease the arena.

One option would be an entry in the North American Hockey League, the oldest and largest junior league in the United States. The NAHL’s 24 teams – including the Johnstown Tomahawks – play a 30-game home schedule; the league’s players vary in age from 16 to 20, most of them pursuing collegiate and professional hockey opportunities. In 2012-13, the league averaged 1,524 fans per game, including 2,527 per game in Johnstown.

Those numbers would seem reachable in Hershey, particularly if a junior team were associated with the Bears/Jr. Bears brands.

There’s a world of opportunity here – and plenty of it can fit under the roofs of Hersheypark Arena and the Ice Palace.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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