Bears 62, Manchester 1. Ditka with 14 hat tricks.
I’m Bill Swerski and with me as always are the Super Fans.
I’m back from spending the holiday weekend in Manchester where the Hershey Bears finished off the Manchester Monarchs in the AHL’s Eastern Conference final series. The Bears made quick work of the Monarchs, ousting them in a four-game sweep while outscoring them 18-5. The Bears held Manchester scoreless at even strength for a stretch of more than three games during the series, and they never trailed in any of the four games.
Next up: the Hamilton Bulldogs in the Calder Cup finals as the Bears attempt to become the first AHL team ever to win eight consecutive playoff series on their way to winning back-to-back titles. In the days of smaller leagues, fewer rounds and fewer wins were required to get through the playoffs. The Bears have won seven straight series, posting a 28-7 record in the process. Three of the losses came in overtime, and Hershey has needed seven games to dispose of an opponent just once in those seven sets. Three have been sweeps.
I’m a big champion of hockey in Hershey. The experience is a great one, from the time you walk into the building to the time you leave. The Bears have been around for almost 70 years now, and they’ve got a terrific fan base that rocks a wonderful new building. I’ve always encouraged people to make the trip up to see the Bears play in Hershey, especially at this time of year. You can’t beat the value and it really is one of the great hockey experiences you can have. Every true hockey fan should see the Bears play in Hershey at some point. They’re like the Green Bay Packers of the AHL, a small market team that thrives with a passionate following.
How passionate? So passionate that they travel well, more so than any other team I’ve seen in the AHL. The Bears opened this year’s road playoff run in Glens Falls, NY with Sunday, Monday and Wednesday games. A decent-sized group of fans made its way to upstate New York for all three games, and others took in the first two. Many stayed at the same hotel where the team stayed, and we often encountered them in the lobby and on the streets.
I was in Moscow during the East Division final series with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, but I know from last spring’s series that these two teams both bring a lot of fans to the other’s arena. It makes for quite a wild atmosphere, especially during the playoffs.
I was amazed by the number of Bears fans in Manchester this past weekend (three busloads, I’m told). As I was lining up at BWI to board the plane to Manchester, I was greeted by the familiar faces of Dee, Michelle and Peggy, three Caps season ticket holders who decided to spend their holiday weekend with the Bears. When I got off the plane in Manchester, I met (Carl) Cramer, Kelly and Lynda, three more Bears fans who came up to New England hoping to see Hershey earn a second straight Calder Cup final berth.
After the Bears knocked the Monarchs out on Saturday, I headed back to the hotel hoping to get something to eat before the kitchen closed. I slipped into the hotel lounge and grabbed a quiet booth. But before anyone could bring me a menu, there were Dee, Michelle and Peggy waving me over to join them. And on my way to their table, I was stopped by another table full of Bears fans who wanted to say hello.
Since Game 5 was slated for Sunday and I had no way of knowing whether it would be necessary or not (it obviously wasn’t), I booked an early Monday departure. So I had all of Sunday to spend in Manchester and it surrounding areas, as did many of the Bears fans who made the trip. It was great for me; my lifelong buddy Tex — the best man at my wedding — lives in nearby Portsmouth. We had a great day together catching up on old times. We spent the afternoon in Nashua watching an independent league baseball game between the Nashua Pride and the (Lynn, Mass.-based) North Shore Spirit.
After the game, Tex and I headed back to Manchester. We wandered into a nice Irish pub where we watched the end of the Red Sox-Texas game (brought back memories of the many Sundays of my early youth spent watching the Sox, though not from Irish pubs) and had a good meal. It was getting dark outside and we had switched to coffee when in wandered Cramer, Kelly and Lynda. They bought us a drink and we snapped some photos and shared a few laughs before going off into the night. (If I had any technical inclinations, I’d post the photo Cramer e-mailed me after we got back.) I’ll get you back in Hamilton, folks. They’re making the trip up, as I’m sure many others are.
Monday morning, I stood at the baggage carousel at BWI waiting for my garment bag to come around. I heard a voice say, “No confidence in the sweep, eh?” I turned and there was Ralph, a Bears fan I first met last June in Milwaukee when we were both in town to watch the Bears win the Calder Cup in Brew Town. I explained that the extra day in Manchester bought me some time with a good friend, and he mentioned that he had spent Sunday with his daughter, who now lives in New Hampshire. Ralph is heading up to Hamilton next week, too.
Bears fans. They’re everywhere. They will sell out the Giant Center for Games 1 and 2 this Friday and Saturday respectively, and I will be jealous of them. It kills me to miss them, but I will be in Toronto this weekend for the NHL draft combine, something I’ve never covered and have always wanted to cover. I’d hoped there wouldn’t be a conflict, but alas, I’ll miss the first three games of the final series.
So have fun. Yell loud. Enjoy the hockey. And when the B-U-L-L-S-*-*-T chant is necessary, make it happen. I’ll be watching on the B2, and wishing I was there with you all. I’ll see you in Hamilton next Wed.
Da Bears, Da Bears, Da Bears, Da Bears …