Press Box: Hershey Bears and Harrisburg Heat

One team rarely has made such a structural change during its storied history. The other has embraced change as a constant, although that change neither has been good on the field nor profitable at the box office.

With that, we give you the Hershey Bears and the Harrisburg Heat. Two sports franchises separated by only 15 miles that could not be more different.

The first, with the exception of the National Hockey League’s Original Six, is the oldest team in pro hockey and easily the most decorated franchise in minor league hockey history.

The second, over its first four seasons, has been the worst team in a perennially cash-poor indoor soccer league forever teetering on the abyss of bankruptcy.

For both, their 2016-17 seasons bring drastic change.

For the first time in 34 championship-filled seasons, the Bears will be without Doug Yingst as their team president, general manager and talent procurer.

And, for the first time since their rebirth in 2012, the Heat believe they have a chance to succeed.

Yingst’s retirement from the Bears was prompted more by the chocolate conglomerate’s retirement policy than his desire to step down as one of the most influential power brokers in the American Hockey League.

He has been replaced by Bryan Helmer, who has gone from being the Bears’ captain on the ice to assistant coach to now running the organization.

Helmer’s job became easier before it even started, thanks to the return of head coach Troy Mann and the core of a Hershey team that last season reached the Calder Cup finals.

The Heat’s foundation? Not so good since reviving the brand after a decade-long absence.  The original Heat, the one from the early 1990s to the dawn of the new millennium, were talented, competitive and often filled most of the 7,300 seats at the State Farm Show’s Large Arena.

Since their return in 2012, the Heat have gone from mediocre to staggeringly bad, losing 58 of 71 games as they plummeted from a 6-10 record in their first season to 4-12 to 2-18 and, finally, last season to 1-18.

Their attendance has been just as bad, especially after moving before their third season from the smallish, but intimate 2,200-seat Equine Arena at the State Farm Show Complex to the facility’s Large Arena, where more than 80 percent of those 7,300 seats routinely went unused on game days.

The Heat’s players were woefully underpaid, as well, typically getting between $100 and $200 per game with no health insurance in a sport where injuries are commonplace. On at least one occasion, management asked them to play games without being paid at all.

They promise change in Season Five, starting with a new owner and a new attitude toward fielding a competitive team.
Out as owner is John Wilsbach, the longtime play-by-play broadcaster who three years ago took over the Heat to keep them from folding after just one season.

“My greater goal was to find a new owner who had the financial strength and resources to make the Heat a stronger entity on and off the field,” Wilsbach said.

Enter Carl Delmont, CEO of Maryland-based Freedmont Mortgage who says he has those resources to return the Heat to the level of success they enjoyed in a previous life.

“John has been chief cook and bottle washer for three seasons,” Delmont said after taking over the team in June. “What he did was incredible, but there was a ceiling of what he could do.”

That ceiling was money.

Despite a dogged determination to make the Heat viable in the Major Arena Soccer League, Wilsbach was constrained by the MASL’s miserly business model of spending as little as possible on players and hoping fans did not notice their talent-challenged team had little chance of winning. Enough of that, Delmont said.
“Rather than focus on the past,” he said, “let’s focus on the future.”

Delmont said the future includes full-time, salaried players rather than the weekend-warrior operation the Heat had been running.
Players, he said, will practice five days per week – just like the league’s elite teams – rather than meeting twice a week for late-night practices at an unheated facility in suburban Harrisburg.

“We want to turn this around and make sure we put a good product on the field,” Delmont said.
He hopes, of course, that leads to bigger crowds.

“We’re going to expand,” Delmont said of a fan base mostly dormant since the original Heat folded in 2003. “We want people from all over Pennsylvania.”

The Bears have had that for years, regularly filling the 10,000-seat Giant Center while making their annual run at another championship.
For now, the Heat remain a work in progress.

Delmont’s first move was to retain the venerable Wilsbach as his announcer. He then re-signed workmanlike defender and four-year holdover Brad Kerstetter and named longtime indoor soccer all-star Denison Cabral as the coach.

While the Bears have brought back much of their talent from last season, the Heat have been going international, signing players from England to Brazil to Cuba – far different than their previous approach of filling the roster with low-cost players from local colleges.
“I know (Delmont) will do everything he can to bring the club to where it was years ago,” said Val Teixeira, the Heat’s captain for the last two seasons. “I know he has the resources, the connections and the heart to do it.”