December 28, 2008 - Hershey, Pennsylvania
History and tradition- these are the 2 words which come to mind when thinking about hockey in Hershey. Not only is the franchise among the oldest in all of minor league sports, they continue to pack 'em in year after year as the Bears are always near the top, if not at the top, of the attendance ladder in minor league hockey. I had attended a game at the nearby Hersheypark Arena many years ago and loved it. The atmosphere there is hard to top, but they did a great job with a new arena here in Hershey. The GIANT Center opened in 2002 and is still state-of-the-art. Yes the place is big, but the name comes from the local grocery chain which sponsors the facility. It sits on the same large tract of land owned by the Hershey Corporation as the nearby Chocolate World, Hershey Park, and Hersheypark Arena and Stadiums. There is a ton of parking, and the circuitous route seems a little goofy when entering, but makes exiting back onto the main road after the game quick and easy. I am not a big fan of the $6 parking charge, but there is no where else to park, and the above mentioned easy access makes up for it somewhat. From the outside the brick, and concrete building is accented by the high glass facade near the entryway. The grounds are obviously well kept. The main entrance is at a higher grade than the rest of the building, and this smart design allows the concourse inside to be at the top of the seating bowl, without having to climb any stairs.
I had previously taken in a preseason game here in 2007, but that was before I started this website, and I wanted to return to get photos for the site as well as experience the game-day happenings during a regular season game instead of a half empty building during preseason. I am glad I did. I got an excellent seat in the upper level in front of the pressbox for $12. They let me into the arena about an hour and 15 minutes before the game and there were quite a few others already milling around. I like this as it gives me a chance to get some arena pictures and check the place out without rushing around before game time. They had a live band set up on the concourse just inside the main entrance, and there just seemed to be a buzz about the place, even though this was a regular season game against non-rival Albany. The concourse seems like a mall as there are souvenir and food vendors all over the place, and they also have the nicest team store of any I have ever seen. The concourse also had quite a few booths manned by community organizations such as a local animal shelter and others. The concourse does get quite crowded between periods, making it not quite impassable, but pretty close. As mentioned the concourse runs around the top of the upper bowl behind the seating area, with steps leading to the upper seating bowl. Once inside the main arena you notice how large the place is, and it is quite an impressive sight. The lower bowl itself extends quite high, and features a relatively steep angle and brown plastic seats with cupholders in keeping with the chocolate theme. The view from just about everywhere is good, and I especially liked the view from the upper level as the seats are steep and offer a great view. The upper bowl is in a horseshoe shape, and reminds me alot of the John Labatt Centre in London, Ontario. About the only down side is the amount of separate seating and luxury suites the place has. These are sure money makers for the team, I am just not a big fan of the separation of the classes as the "big whigs" get their own concourse which is guarded by security. I realize this is the same as most newer buildings, and I guess if you pay alot of money for special seats you should get special privileges, I just never understood the whole luxury box thing, as even if I had the money I would buy a regular ticket like average hockey fans. In addition to the suites which sit on their own level between the lower bowl and upper level there is the "club seating" section, which encompasses the seats between the blue lines behind the penalty boxes. These seats are blocked off with railings and have a restaurant and bar at the top of the section. Again this is great for the corporate types, just not really for the average hockey fan. This is probably the main difference between the new building and the old Hersheypark Arena where everyone had the same uncomfortable wooden seat.
The atmosphere at the GIANT Center is about the best I have experienced at a newer arena. The place was packed even for this Sunday evening game. The announced attendance was over 10,000 people in a place that seats about 11,000. Most minor league teams would kill for crowds half this big a couple times a year, yet this is the norm in Hershey. The fans really support the team as there are more fans walking around sporting team jerseys than just about any other arena I have ever been to. The game presentation is your standard minor league routine, with fun contests between periods, the blimp flying around, and the usual music during stoppages. The sound system could be turned up a little as the PA and music was kind of quiet, at least where I was sitting. There is a little too much of a corporate presence with ads and things for situations in the game, but this is no more distracting than at most other minor league barns. They have a nice center ice video board for replays, etc. The crowd got into the game, and I enjoyed the on ice action as there were 3 decent scraps, and the Bears took a 5-3 win despite a couple of late Albany goals. About the only other downer was the canned post goal celebration played over the video board prompting the fans to cheer B-E-A-R-S, Bears, Bears, Bears! I have no problem with cheers or chants and the like, I just like things to be a little more spontaneous, or at least initiated by the fans. That is the old school hockey fan in me speaking. Overall with such a large crowd every night the atmosphere is a blast, and I would way rather attend a game here than a similar 10,000 seat building with 2500 fans scattered around the arena. For hockey fans catching a game at the GIANT Center is a good, no make that great, experience. From the awesomely constructed building to the great sight lines, to the packed house which makes a game here feel like an event rather than just a hockey game, this place is just plain fun. For arena purists like myself putting up with some of the modern trappings and peeves is a minor inconvenience. For most people they would much rather have it that way anyway. You can't argue with Hershey's success, and I am sure they will pack the house for a long time to come.
Other information about the Hershey Bears is available at: Bears home
Other information about the GIANT Center is available at: Arena home
More photos of the GIANT Center are available Here