How would you like to sit down to lunch with a group of friends, and the coach and other front office staff from your favorite team?
What sports fan wouldn’t — and you can count me among that crowd. That’s why I was excited to have the chance to dine with Hershey Bears coach Bob Woods, general manager Doug Yingst, communications director and radio announcer John Walton, and the season ticket sales manager, Bob Ancharski. Oh, and 10 friends, including Lewistown residents Bob Marker and Chris Earnest, who were partly responsible for my being there.
It was the outcome of a contest the Bears offered last year; points were scored through referrals of new customers — including the aforementioned Mifflin County pair. I have to admit to some surprise at the way things went.
First and foremost was the availability — most of these people did not have to come at all (only the coach was obligated), but chose to do so. And they didn’t dine and dash, they were patient and courteous and tried to answer every question thrown at them.
More shocking to me was the candor of their answers. Who would expect a professional sports team’s general manager to admit outright that a particular player on the previous year’s roster failed to deliver — or that a fan favorite was perhaps not as good on the ice as we thought he looked from the stands?
I guess I shouldn’t be surprised when it comes to Yingst, whom I’ve had the pleasure of interviewing previously. He doesn’t make excuses, he doesn’t promise what can’t be delivered — he just does his best to keep the tradition of strong hockey in Hershey alive in a system that has changed drastically since he became an American Hockey League executive.
He was honest in his admission that signing fan favorites gets more difficult when those players achieve veteran status — as two did this year — especially if they are unlikely to get a “two-way” contract, which includes an NHL component.
Walton was honest in a way that reminded me of former Penn State radio voice Fran Fisher, who freely admitted he was not calling the same game we were watching. Fisher noted that the radio guy tends to be predictive as the play moves downfield — and is speaking to the fans of that team, not to a neutral audience.
It’s the same for Walton, who has to keep up with a fast-paced game with constant line changes, not to mention the number of players who come through a minor-league locker room over the course of a season. Hershey has dressed more than 50 players in each of the past two campaigns, several of whom wear recycled numbers.
The veteran broadcaster laughingly concedes it’s impossible, and that he may be guessing who he sees on the ice when he gives the name. Truth be told, though, Walton does an excellent job, and he must be clairvoyant, because he rarely identifies the wrong guy.
Ancharski is funny in a different way. He doesn’t fit the mold as a salesman, yet he’s filled Giant Center with record crowds each of the past two seasons. It doesn’t hurt that Yingst has given him such a saleable product, but Ancharski’s willingness to do whatever he can to try and please every customer is why the season-ticket base in Hershey is among the largest in the league.
And Woods? Well, when he wasn’t the victim of good-natured ribbing from Walton and Yingst over the early exit from the playoffs this year, he was being peppered with questions about technique, scouting, strategy and his own playing days in Hershey, Johnstown and Mississippi.
He and I enjoyed talking about last year’s Grey Cup champion Saskatchewan Roughriders, who he’s been rooting for since he grew up there. I love the Canadian game — and actually know one of the players on that team, whom I covered when he was in high school — and it’s nice for me to have another CFL fan available to talk to who understands.
Plus, it helped him forget that, unlike the last two years, we were still playing hockey at this time.
Jeff Fishbein is Sentinel sports editor. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.