The ‘Sweetest’ gig in the minor leagues
Zack Fisch and professional hockey are not in Kansas City anymore. The last team to represent the first-year Hershey Bears broadcaster’s native locality — the United League’s Outlaws — came and went when he was a mere 14 years old in 2004-05. Their predecessors, the International League’s Blades, started before Fisch was old enough to remember anything, then marred his memory bank by evaporating when he was 10.
Fast-forward a decade-plus, and Fisch is more understanding of those setbacks, not to mention inclined to count his blessings.
“I now know how much minor-league sports are a business,” he told Pucks and Recreation, “and at times, tough business decisions have to be made. It’s an unfortunate nature of this business that teams do come and go, and with that, so do some amazing people in this industry.
“I have seen friends lose jobs because a team they worked for folded or moved. While no one is immune to change, I have been very fortunate to have worked for the teams I have worked for.”
Considering their historical stature and the enviable stability that connotes, Fisch’s two employers through two seasons of calling pro hockey make an understatement of his remark. He spent 2015-16 with the ECHL’s South Carolina Stingrays, who will celebrate their 25th anniversary next year. Playing at the same Double-A level as the bygone UHL, the Stingrays are the longest living brand in their league.
This past season, Fisch was elevated to the AHL’s Bears, who will round out their eighth decade of operation next year. Playing at the same Triple-A level as the bygone IHL, the Bears are the longest living brand in all of minor-league hockey.
“While the Blades are long gone, it’s quite humbling to think that I am working at essentially the same level in the American Hockey League,” he said. “The level of play is top-notch, and I am lucky enough to work with the most historic franchise in the league.”
Native to Olathe, Kan., a suburb just across the Missouri state border, Fisch grew up an insatiable Heartland hockey enthusiast. As such, the Blades functioned like a fun uncle or family friend from the next county over.
Fisch went to games at Kemper Arena on a regular basis and played youth hockey in the Junior Blades program. On occasion, he combined those activities by joining his team for intermission mini-games. In one instance, he was even selected as the youth representative to lead the big Blades onto the ice for the main event.
Over their final four years of operation, the Blades and their league took on a terminal outlook. After peaking at 19 member clubs in 1996-97, the IHL lost teams exponentially over the next four seasons. It was down to 11 by 2000-01, and still more franchises were lingering in vain.
As a result, in a move reminiscent of the 1979 NHL-WHA merger, the late spring of 2001 saw the IHL’s few healthy franchises transfer to the AHL. The Blades could have been among them, theoretically, based on decent attendance figures. The trouble was they were owned by the same group, Richard DeVos and his family, as the league rival Grand Rapids Griffins and Orlando Solar Bears.
Because the AHL had a one-team policy for owners, the Michigan-based DeVoses needed to make a choice. The Griffins won out, and back in Olathe, 10-year-old Fisch was forced and “devastated” to watch the local news bulletins of the Blades’ demise.
Even today, he is preserving his first favorite team’s memory by keeping a jersey in the closet at his new home. It is a gesture worth more than nostalgia because in dying, the franchise later bequeathed a boost to his career, and a few perks still to come.
“Funny enough, the Blades helped me get my job in Hershey,” Fisch said. “Current VP of hockey operations Bryan Helmer played with the Blades during their final season, and his son Cade was actually born in Kansas City. I dropped a Blades reference during my interview with Hershey, and that was enough to get Bryan’s ears to perk up.”
In his field’s fraternity, the Bears broadcaster is not alone among those who used to frequent Kemper Arena. His childhood idol, Bob Kaser, called the Blades’ first 10 seasons before moving to the Griffins in 2000. He is still with the Grand Rapids franchise, and has won a combined three broadcaster-of-the-year awards from the two Triple-A leagues.
Being in separate conferences, the Bears and Griffins rarely cross paths, last doing so in 2005-06. However, Fisch has learned that Grand Rapids will be on Hershey’s docket for 2017-18, which will equal his first chance to meet Kaser.
“I am excited to get a chance to share stories about his time in Kansas City and thank him for being an influence in how I call a game all these years later,” he said.
Giant expectations in small places
In his effort to emulate Kaser and Hall of Fame Kansas City Royals announcer Denny Matthews, Fisch covered the short-lived Outlaws for a small-town paper while still a teen. Around the same time, he started venturing an hour west to his state capital to cover the Topeka Tarantulas of the Central League. It was there that he first saw a player-assistant coach named Troy Mann, who by 2009-10 had moved up to the AHL and is now in his third year as the Bears bench boss.
“That’s how small the hockey world is,” Fisch said.
With the exception of his first job out of college with the junior-level USHL’s Dubuque Fighting Saints in Iowa, Fisch has not experienced many small subsectors of the hockey world until now. His native city of Olathe has a population easily above fix figures. The same goes for North Charleston, S.C. where the locals enjoy Stingrays games at a 14,000-seat Coliseum. Neighboring Charleston checks in at over 130,000 residents.
The community at his alma mater, St. Cloud State University, boasts more than a combined 17,000 undergraduates, postgraduates, faculty and staff. Only one-third of that conglomeration can get into the Herb Brooks National Hockey Center on a given game night.
Hershey is a far numerical cry from each of those, although Fisch says Dubuque, where he met his wife, Krista, during his three-year run, had a similar feel. As a lifelong Iowan, Krista would find Hershey to her liking for that reason.
“Dubuque isn’t a huge city, and to us, Hershey is comparable,” Zack Fisch said. “Both towns are quaint, have some picturesque sights, and are rabid for hockey. The people here have made it a very easy adjustment. I met so many people who welcomed me to the area with open arms and gave me all sorts of tips and suggestions about the town and region.”
That region revolves around the Pennsylvania capital of Harrisburg, of which Hershey is basically a suburb. Harrisburg is a relatively small city in its own right with a population south of 50,000.
According to City Data, Hershey’s population spiked by 11.6 percent during the first decade of this century, but is still at a meager 14,257. With its 10,500 seating capacity, the Giant Center — which replaced the historic Hersheypark Arena as the Bears’ new home in 2002 — can accommodate more than two-thirds of the town’s residents.
On many game nights, it appears to be doing just that. In between, the team is a reliable topic for small talk among strangers in a town so small that the locals are barely strangers. In a community where season tickets have been passed down for two generations or more, tales from as far back as the 1950s are told first-, second- and third-hand.
“I often run into fans at the supermarket or while shopping,” Fisch said. “Everyone is so cordial and loves to talk hockey.”
The habitual hockey talk from Hershey’s residents has only amplified the sense of promotion and confirmed at least one common thread with the other franchises Fisch has worked for. In his first year at Dubuque, the Fighting Saints finished first in the USHL, then followed up by winning the 2013 Clark Cup, their second in three years. Their head coach, Jim Montgomery, subsequently moved to the University of Denver.
The Saints reached the semifinals in each of Fisch’s next two years in their booth. He left at the same time as second-year coach Matt Shaw, who joined Brad Berry’s staff at the University of North Dakota.
When he got to South Carolina, the Stingrays were coming off their fourth Kelly Cup Final in franchise history, and had fallen one win shy of their fourth championship. They went to the conference final in his presence, then reached the title round again this year.
“I love getting to work for a team that expects to be successful both on and off the ice,” Fisch said. “As a broadcaster and employee, it holds me to a high standard and makes me proud to put my passion toward a team that has already written so many chapters in the history books.
“From Dubuque to South Carolina to Hershey, I’ve landed in three organizations that are immersed in the community, are regular Cup contenders and are looked at as the gold standard in their respective leagues. If that doesn’t get you excited to come to work every day, I don’t know what will.”
Frantic and fanatical first impressions
With the Stingrays and Bears acting as Washington’s two development clubs, Fisch quickly formed a friendship with Capitals radio voice John Walton, who had called Hershey games for nine years before making his leap to The Show. Through that connection, much like the players he would soon cover, Fisch got a taste of preseason NHL action on Oct. 5 of last year.
Fittingly enough, the Caps were engaging the Blues at the Sprint Center in Kansas City. The St. Louis franchise’s effort to strengthen statewide support translated to a respectable mass of 11,781 at the 17,544-seat venue.
“That moment was a pinch-me moment,” Fisch said, “and something that I’ll never forget.”
The afterglow of the midweek homecoming soon gave way to a literal and figurative tempest. Fisch returned to South Carolina for the weekend when Hurricane Matthew slugged the state. And having been promoted to the AHL in late September, he was left with little time as it was to complete his relocation ahead of the Oct. 14 season opener in Rochester, N.Y.
Walton helped him in that process, and he ultimately accomplished all of the necessary preparation within his control. Lo and behold, by game night, Blue Cross Arena’s Ethernet feeder malfunctioned in the visitors’ booth. In turn, Fisch spent his debut describing a game between the Bears (the league’s oldest and most storied brand) and the Rochester Americans (the league’s second-oldest franchise at 61 years and counting) over his cell phone.
“We got on the air, but it made for a heck of a story,” he said.
The Bears shuffled to Binghamton the next night, then held their home opener Oct. 22. “From the day I set foot in the city and at the Giant Center, you could tell that Hershey was its own piece of Hockey Heaven,” Fisch said.
He had broken into the AHL through those two away games. He had a full week thereafter to focus on the home opener. He had the added tune-up from the preseason gig in his hometown. And he had heard plenty from his predecessor and mentor, Walton.
But then he settled in and actually watched 8,045 announced attendees file in put the Hershey hockey culture on full display. Referring to Walton, Fisch remarked, “I had high expectations based on his thoughts, and many others, and that night just blew them all out of the water.”
If he had any plans, even of the most deep-down nature, to take an impartial approach, those went the way of the expectations. The crowd punctuated the Star-Spangled Banner with “Go Bears!” They spelled out the team nickname New York Jets style in the wake of the first goal, bringing “an ear-to-ear grin” to Fisch’s face. And coming back from a commercial break, which only let the atmosphere sink in all the more, he was temporarily speechless.
“The Giant Center is a building like no other,” he said. “But it’s the Bears fans, many who have been coming to games their whole lives, who make this experience here so invigorating.”
Embracing with a Bear hug
Indeed, there is no place like Hershey. Not if you love chocolate, and not if you love minor-league hockey.
Fisch suspected as much on the latter while he was still in the Heartland, though he admits there is no substitute for in-person confirmation.
“I never got far enough east to see a Hershey Bears game in person, but I was very aware of the significance of the team,” he said. “I always held them, and the Fort Wayne Komets, to such a high standard as teams that had such a special history. As I started to work in hockey as I got older, I heard more and more just how special of a place Hershey was.”
To date, the Bears have won a record 11 Calder Cup championships. They have been to 23 finals, most recently last year. Despite multiple affiliation changes and the inevitable revolving door on both sides of the building, the Bears have been a relatively consistent contender.
Since 1997, they have only once gone more than five years without at least one trip to the AHL conference finals. During that stretch, they have made five Calder Cup Final appearances and won four titles. Walton called three of those championships, while his predecessor, future Tampa Bay Lightning voice Dave Mishkin, chronicled the 1997 run.
The Bears’ dominance at the gate is even more patent. They have topped the AHL’s attendance chart for 11 years running.
“Every team in hockey claims they have the best fans in the league,” Fisch said. “However, I can say with confidence that Hershey has the best fans in the AHL, hands down.”
“It’s a fan base, and most of all a community, that has love and passion for their team like no other place I’ve been. No matter how the team is playing, no matter the weather, these folks will be there night in and night out cheering on their Bears.”
Technically an unincorporated community self-titled after chocolatier Milton S. Hershey, the town makes the most out of ostensibly the least. Nearly every major establishment in its epicenter shares the name of the famed candy company. (The Bears are not the least of those examples, their name being a natural pun on the company’s signature product.)
The Giant Center is one of the few spots named after a separate entity, a chain of Pennsylvania grocery stores. But given the history of its tenant, it fits in more than it stands out.
The arena’s latest Stadium Journey review assesses, “this is one arena where you can make an entire vacation out of your trip for a hockey game. You could fill an entire week by spending a day or two at the amusement park, a day at the chocolate world, a day at the spa (complete with cocoa baths) and an evening at a Bears hockey game.”
With its theme park and boardwalk among the attractions in the shopping district, Hersheypark is like a real-life Wonder Wharf from Bob’s Burgers, but with more chocolate, less off-putting people and Bears hockey in lieu of Wonderdogs baseball. Perfect for a puck-centric sportscaster and a small-town product like Zack Fisch and Krista, respectively.
“Hershey is ‘The Sweetest Place on Earth,’ and it really is a fantastic place to call home,” said Fisch. “What Milton Hershey built here, all based around chocolate, is pretty impressive, and there are so many people committed to carrying on his legacy and making Hershey a destination. The people in Hershey have been so kind and welcoming, and that’s something that really stands out to me. The kindness and generosity of the people in the area is second to none.”
More than enough that he is willing to, for the first time in a long time, settle down and wait for his next elevation up the broadcasting ladder.
“Obviously, every player or broadcaster has the goal of getting to the NHL, and I’m no exception,” he said. “However, I’m not in any hurry for that to happen because of just how fantastic Hershey is. This is a place where I am looking forward to growing personally and professionally, and really making myself the person and broadcaster I want to be. I’m honored to be part of the Hershey community and a member of the Bears. Hershey is a special place.”