Thursday, November 3, 2016

Hershey ― Chocolate, Bears and the Arena

How old were you when you remember the first time you experienced something or ate a particular food? As a high school freshman, I remember eating cheesecake for the first time on an Easter break vacation in Fort Lauderdale. My grandfather told me I’d like it and I’ve been eating cheesecakes ever since, but like that first time, plain, not smothered in strawberries or cherries. I think my preference for a cheesecake without toppings, but creamy, heavy as a brick, sink-to-your-toes cheesecake dates to that first dessert eaten in the land of palm trees.

Hot chocolate always reminds me of hockey games in the Hershey Arena and the Hershey Bears. Their uniforms, you see, were chocolate brown. Five minutes outside town, the smell of chocolate permeates the car windows. The street lights are made to look like giant Hershey Kisses. As a child, I always wished I could have a Hershey Kiss that big. How appropriate the local hockey team is chocolate brown, the exact same shade as a Hershey bar?

My earliest memories of Hershey Arena was a hockey game and my Dad getting me hot chocolate between periods. The Hershey Arena had its own version of hot chocolate―not so milky and a bit watery―to this day that is how I like to make my hot chocolate―not the Swiss Miss, saturated, sweet version. I drank hot chocolate at the source. Anything else is just not hot chocolate. How appropriate to drink my first hot chocolate in the Hershey area―during a hockey game? Chocolate, for me, doesn’t get any better than that.

Of course, Hershey has its competition and detractors. The British moon over Cadbury and the Swiss and Europeans think Nestle is the best. I prefer American chocolate. The first chocolate tasted by Europeans was brought back over the pond from the Americas, so isn’t everyone else an imitator, or certainly a Johnny-come-lately? I also learned recently that Hershey, when he was developing his chocolate, kept it low sugar so that it retained a slightly bitter taste. That made it different than the European variety, distinctive and a taste that had to be acquired. He defined the taste of American chocolate.

My parents bought those bags of chocolate bean shells that Hershey sold and used them in our flowerbeds as mulch. As a kid, how great was that when it rained and your whole house and yard smelled like chocolate?

Playing those games at the Hershey Arena was special. For starters, the boards had Plexiglas. We were used to the smaller rinks with chain link fences above the boards. In our tiny rink in Reading, there was nothing but a pipe just above the boards. The rink was in a cinder block building that had once been a garage. The smallish windows in black iron frames were protected by Venetian blinds. In the heat of battle, during those Sunday night league wars, errant pucks found their way through the Venetian blinds. Considering that glass was cheap at the time, and those windows could not be larger than eight inches by ten inches, we must have destroyed a lot of glass because I remember reading the annual expense report and marveling at the $144.00 expense for the season in glass pane replacement.

(above) The rink today on Essex Street in Reading. The side windows have been cinder blocked in.

There was one game during the year set aside for fathers versus sons. The fathers were telling us the week leading up to the game that they had uniforms. I suppose it got into our heads that they must be good and we were a bit worried. At game time, the fathers came out in their “uniforms.” Our coach was wearing his red striped pajamas. The owner of the rink, short “Tuffy” McKellen, all 5’ of him, (he just made the 5’ minimum height requirement of the army and was assigned to the Military Policeyou’d think that’s where his name came from but the real reason was that he fought for his corner to sell newspapers and earned the name “Tuffy.”) was dressed in a Little Lord Fauntleroy suit complete with ridiculous hat. 

One friend’s dad wore diapers. Just diapers. I remember thinking what would happen when he got checked into the Venetian blinds.

The Hershey Arena games were also special because they were played before games of the AHL (American Hockey League) which was one level below the NHL and had the Buffalo Bisons, the Springfield (MA) Rifles, and the Quebec Aces. People were filing in for the NHL game and for once we had a crowd watching us play. The arena held more than 7,200 hockey fans although when our game ended there were probably only a few thousand in the stands. But it was a thrill to play in an arena with Plexiglas, real official NHL nets, and doors to the players’ bench.

Yankee fans remember the steepness of the seats in the upper deck of the old Yankee Stadium. I’d bet the seats in Hershey Arena were steeper. After our game we got to stay and watch the Bears play. I remember one of our team members spilling a Coke and it showered out about 10 rows. I never remember spilling any of that precious hot chocolate.

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