Sweet times in Chocolatetown

PATRICK WILLIAMS -- For SLAM! Sports

, Last Updated: 10:13 AM ET

Truth be told, it has been a something of a guilty indulgence this week for many Canadians to read the numerous media missives out of Southern California chronicling that area's lack of hockey knowledge and to sit back, roll the eyes and have a chuckle at the neighbours to the south.

The numerous bumps and bruises that Canadians have suffered during the NHL's long quest for widespread growth south of the border no doubt have inspired such a reaction, particularly with the Stanley Cup a possibility to land in sunny Anaheim after earlier stops with the Tampa Bay Lightning and Carolina Hurricanes.

But Hamilton Bulldogs fans who make the seven-hour trek southward to Hershey, Pa. or who from back home in the Golden Horseshoe tune in tonight's Game 1 of the Calder Cup final with the Hershey Bears will be hard-pressed to find a hockey-ignorant populace in the rolling hills of Central Pennsylvania.

John Walton, the Bears' popular radio voice, believes that the Bears have a built-in advantage on home ice. Most visiting teams, particularly those that are not regular visitors, face a difficult adjustment to Hershey.

"They have not seen anything like (Hershey). If you're a (visiting player), our building is pretty intimidating. It's a hostile environment. Not a nasty environment, but (the fans) let you know they're there."

Mind you, while there is likely a bit of a typical bandwagon effect going on in Hershey, this is not a bandwagon American town merely caught up in the midst of a potential back-to-back championship run.

Hershey has long since been one of the AHL's' strongest centres.

Only the NHL's Original Six franchises predate the Bears, the AHL's oldest club, a team in its 69th season of play and the seventh-oldest pro hockey team playing in North America. So storied are the Bears that they entered the AHL in 1937 when it was still known as the International-American Hockey League, a name that changed in 1940.

As hockey towns go, Hershey compares quite favourably with any non-NHL Canadian market, as a Canadian-style passion for and knowledge of the game makes Chocolatetown a favourite depot on the AHL map for many visitors.

Walton makes the argument that Hershey, not Detroit, could be termed the true "Hockeytown" in the States.

The Red Wings, after all, must share loyalties with Detroit teams in all of the three major American sports. Walton's Bears, however, largely have their region to themselves, sharing it only with a Double-A baseball team and a pair of teams in independent baseball.

"We are the team in the region," Walton says. "The popularity because of that is truly amazing."

"It makes (Hershey) 'Hockeytown' and then some, with all due respect to Detroit."

The Bears, making their 20th appearance in a Calder Cup final, boast a Hockey Hall of Famer in Frank Mathers, a patriarch of a proud franchise; nine Calder Cup championships, including a title last season; one of the most storied former homes in hockey history, the Hersheypark Arena; and a popular regional following that some Hershey observers say is stronger than ever.

The Bears, the Washington Capitals' AHL affiliate, led the AHL in attendance during the regular season with an 8,671 average.

Tonight the Bears are expecting very close to a sellout crowd (if not a completely full house) in the 10,500-seat Giant Center, a shiny new building in its fifth season of operation.

Coupled with an AHL-leading playoff haul of 7,146, the Bears tonight will top the 400,000 mark in combined attendance during the regular season and postseason.

Walton, who earlier spent time in the decidedly quieter former AHL burg of Cincinnati, says that he has never seen anything that resembles the Bears' current popularity.

Stickers and signs, Walton relays, can be found on cars across an area that spans a large portion of Central Pennsylvania, and Bears-related talk has taken to the radio, television and online discussion boards.

Walton equates the Bears to the Green Bay Packers, a team playing in a small centre in which loyalties have been passed down through families. The Bears have season-ticket holders who have been with the team for 40 and even 50 seasons.

The Bears' still-fresh affiliation with the Capitals that began in 2005 has contributed further to the AHL club's popularity.

While the Bears have long been a force in drawing fans from across Central Pennsylvania, their reach has now extended into Maryland and the Washington, D.C. area. With Capitals fans thirsting for playoff hockey, it is not uncommon to spot Capitals sweaters in the Giant Center crowd, and Walton remarks that it is not uncommon for him to receive e-mails from fans in the Washington area.

"It's fair to say now that we're drawing from two hours away."

With what should be a pair of full houses this weekend for Games 1 and 2 of the final, the Bears will attempt to reel in their tenth Calder Cup championship.

When the Bears departed the storied Hersheypark Arena in 2002, they did so with a fair amount of consternation from a fan base that cherished the old barn's intimate feel, steep sightlines and overflowing history.

The Bears have yet to christen their new home with a Calder Cup win on home ice. Last season's championship came in Milwaukee.

The Giant Center, Walton had said prior to last year's championship, "will become our home when we win the Calder Cup."

Now, "the only thing that could seal it is if we win it on home ice," at the Giant Center.

A win on home ice would be a sweet affair for Bears fans, for sure.

"(Hershey fans) know good hockey when they see it," Walton continued "and they know bad hockey when they see it."

"They care. They're passionate. They know the game."

THE ORIGINAL SIX AND THEIR AHL OFFSPRING

AHL affiliates of Original Six NHL teams have had a mixed range of success in reaching and winning the Calder Cup final.

The Hamilton Bulldogs' Calder Cup appearance is the first for a Montreal affiliate since 1995 when the Fredericton Canadiens lost in five games to Albany. A Canadiens affiliate has not won a Calder Cup since Patrick Roy and the Sherbrooke Canadiens pulled off the feat in 1985.

Hartford, the New York Rangers' affiliate, won the 2000 Calder Cup in their most recent appearance, and the Providence Bruins captured the AHL title in 1999.

Chicago AHL affiliates are working on a drought that dates back to the 1982 New Brunswick Hawks, who topped the Binghamton Whalers in five games.

In the most recent appearance for Toronto and Detroit affiliates, the Adirondack Red Wings bested the St. John's Maple Leafs in seven games to win the 1992 Calder Cup championship.

A Leafs AHL affiliate has not won the Calder Cup since Don Cherry and the Rochester Americans took out the Quebec Aces to win the 1968 Calder Cup in six games, remarkable considering that the Leafs have had an uninterrupted presence in the AHL dating back to 1982.

WHO'S STAYING, GOING?

The AHL will return to all but one of its 2006-07 markets next season. Hartford and Lowell both have worked out their respective situations, but the Omaha Knights are off to Moline, Ill., where they will skate as the Quad-City Flames.

The Wolf Pack have a multi-year deal in place to remain in Hartford as the New York Rangers' affiliate. The deal, according to the Hartford Courant, is for at least four years and could run as long as six years.

Lowell's situation is less clear for the long-term, but the Devils will remain in Lowell for 2007-08.

After losses that the Omaha World-Herald reported reached $4 million US, the Calgary Flames pulled out of Omaha and shifted east to Quad-City, a long-time UHL hub that led that circuit in attendance for seven of its 12 seasons. Ryan McGill, bench boss for Calgary's two seasons in Omaha, will remain in charge.

The new Calgary affiliate joins fellow AHL newcomers in Rockford, Ill. (Chicago) and Cleveland-based Lake Erie (Colorado). Quad-City and Rockford will join the West Division, and the Lake Erie entry will reside in the North Division.

CONSTANTINE TO HOUSTON

NHL-pedigreed coach Kevin Constantine has added the AHL to the list of leagues in which he will have coached after the Minnesota Wild named him the coach of their Houston affiliate. Constantine spent four seasons with WHL Everett and also has NHL head-coaching experience with New Jersey and Pittsburgh.

ARRIVALS AND DEPARTURES

Bridgeport's blue line will likely have the services of WHL defenceman Dustin Kohn, a 2005 second-round pick of the New York Islanders. The Edmonton native wrapped up a successful junior career with Brandon this season and also has a brief stint with the Sound Tigers to his name ... Houston should have OHL Oshawa forward Cal Clutterbuck on hand after the parent Minnesota Wild inked the 19-year-old to a three-year entry-level deal ... Don Maloney, part of the Hartford hierarchy during a long stint with the New York Rangers, is the Phoenix Coyotes' new general manager. No word has come down yet on who will be inserted to handle the Coyotes' AHL affairs in San Antonio in place of the departed Laurence Gilman ... Brandon Reid, the speedy Manitoba sniper who returned this season to the AHL with disappointing results, is off to Europe once again, according to the Winnipeg Sun. This go-round will see Reid head to Dusseldorf of the German Elite League ... Speaking of the Moose, forward Mario Bliznak, who won a Memorial Cup with Vancouver this past weekend, signed with the parent Vancouver Canucks and is a good bet to begin his pro career with the Moose ... Los Angeles signed Slovak winger Vladimir Dravecky and Swedish goalie Erik Ersberg, who won top-goalie honours this season in the Swedish Elite League ... Pittsburgh signed winger Tim Wallace to a two-year two-way NHL deal.

AHL NOTEBOOK

The Providence Bruins will have a lengthy stint on the road to open next season, according to the Providence Journal. Substantial renovations at the Dunkin' Donuts Center that have closed the facility for the summer months will have the Bruins on the road until mid-November ... Leafs Lunch, the talk show on Toronto-based AM 640, talked up Hamilton's Don Lever and Bruce Boudreau as AHL head coaches worthy of consideration for NHL head-coaching jobs.

Patrick Williams covers the AHL, the NHL's top developmental league, for SLAM! Sports and can be reached at patrickwilliams@canoemail.com. Read the SLAM! Sports AHL blog at blog.canoe.ca/ahl.


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