We arrived near Giant Center at about 5, too early to go into the arena. We saw an Applebees and decided to get some dinner. Little did we know we were essentially entering the Green Turtle of Hershey. Almost everyone was dressed in Bears or Capitals gear, getting a good meal in before the game. It made me feel less silly for wearing my Backstrom t-shirt to the game (I thought it would make me seem lame to wear Caps gear to a Bears game. I thought the local fans might resent me for it). After a classic 2-for-$20 meal, we headed to Giant Center, picked our tickets up at the box office, and ventured to our seats.
The building was packed, as it was a sellout. We were not one of the lucky fans to receive a free rally towel, which bummed me out a little bit, (I love rally towels. It's weird, I know, but they are fun to wave. I also love getting free things at games) but the energy was incredible. Like any other rink, Giant Center has its own traditions and cheers that are unknown to outsiders, such as me and ArmyBro. We tried to catch on to the cheers we could, and cheered our lungs out. Several things jumped out at me throughout the game, both about the experience and the players.
Make no mistake: Hershey loves this team. People were decked out head to toe in Bears gear. They are energetic and loyal. However, it seemed the crowd had not brushed up on the rules in a while. It may have just been the fans sitting around me, but they were unaware of particulars, such as icing, offsides, hand passing, roughing, and goalie interference in particular. The entire crowd booed with a roar every time a Bear fell to the ice. This isn't all that unusual, but it was more pronounced here. There was considerably more attention paid to the officials, whether it was warranted or not. Hockey is generally hard to officiate, and in the AHL there is only one referee, so maybe I'm being a little soft. But this was not terrible officiating, and it was FAR from the worst I've ever seen. The crowd was very quick to blame any team struggles on the refs and not the players.
Regarding the players, I got to see first hand just how good our Caps prospects are. Matthieu Perreault is a very, VERY good hockey player. This was the closest I had ever been to the ice during a pro hockey game, but I have never seen anyone stick handle like that. Ever. Only Nick Backstrom even comes close to his level of stick skills (Semin probably would, if he didn't make such bad decisions trying to play keep away from four defenders). He puts the puck exactly where he wants it to go, and has a soft touch that makes it almost effortless for his teammates. Jay Beagle is a scrappy, NHL-caliber forechecker who balances out Perreault's skill perfectly. They play great together, and obviously are very comfortable with each other on and off the ice.
Another player who really stood out was Chris Bourque. He had two of the Bears' 3 goals that night, including the game-winner in overtime. He has a fantastic combination of power and skill. The only reason he is not currently in the NHL, in my opinion, is his size. I watched the entire game wishing he was just a little bit bigger. He is small by any standard, and doesn't quite have the shifty-ness of Perreault or Brendan Morrison or Martin St. Louis to make up for it. His style requires a little bit more size that Bourque just doesn't have. He is still an incredible player, and every year he seems to be getting closer to making up for his shortcomings with his play.
Overall, it was an incredible experience. We are already talking about heading up for one of the games during the Calder Finals should the Bears advance. As a Caps fan, if you haven't gone yet, go. These guys are going to be intricate members of the Caps soon, and the future looks very, very bright.