The Puck Stops Here

by Andrew Linker
Three games in three days, a weekend grind that erodes both the body and mind of everyone who plays pro hockey.

First, you are shoehorned into a bus traveling who knows where playing a game on a Friday night. Maybe win, maybe lose, but always getting bumps and bruises from a sport filled with errant elbows, slashing sticks and unforgiving dasher boards. And then there are those razor-sharp skates and pucks traveling upward of 90 mph.

Survive all that on Friday, and you can do it again in another game on Saturday and, yet again, on Sunday.

At 63, Doug Yingst is years removed from playing the game, but he still makes these maddening road trips, carrying with him not the bumps and bruises from the games played but rather the responsibilities of running the hockey team playing those games.

In this case, the Hershey Bears.

Yingst’s name is synonymous with that of the Bears. He is a soft-spoken man who, over the last 34 seasons, has been cultivating the image, finding the talent and celebrating the unparalleled successes of the American Hockey League’s oldest and most storied franchise.

Not for much longer, though.

Come season’s end, which for the Bears often is deep into the Calder Cup playoffs, Yingst will be gone, retiring from a career that started at the dawn of the Reagan White House years.

“It just came down to the point that I’m not seeing the family enough,” says Yingst, who has nine grandchildren with some living as close as Hummelstown and Palmyra but others living in Pittsburgh and Cleveland.

“Once the season starts, it’s seven days a week. I’m going to miss this – a lot – but I thought it was time. With the decades I’ve been here, it’s been long enough.”

In that time, Yingst has been part of four Calder Cup championships, tying him for the AHL record with several other executives. That group includes Hall of Famer Frank Mathers, the late, great Bears player, coach and, later, general manager who more than 30 years ago hired Yingst to work in sales and marketing.

Within a year, Yingst was the Bears’ publicity director. Not long after that, he became Mathers’ assistant GM. By 1998, he was the GM and team president.

Asking Yingst to pick a favorite moment from those championship teams is akin to asking him to pick a favorite among those nine grandchildren.

“That’s a tough question,” Yingst says. “I might get a little emotional here. …My best memory in this position would probably be…oh, this is tough…we’ve won so many times, we’ve had so many good players and coaches.”

He pauses to breathe.

Finally, Yingst settles on one moment: May 12, 1988, sitting next to Mathers, his mentor, while flying home from New Brunswick, Canada, after the Bears swept Fredericton in the Calder Cup finals.

“Frank was not a very emotional guy, but he was emotional at that time,” Yingst says. “Then, coming back to the airport at 2 o’clock in the morning and seeing the fans there. That memory always sticks with me, because of my relationship and respect for Frank.”

The memories of dealing with Hershey’s passionate fans also will stick with Yingst.

“They’re demanding but very respectful,” he says, “and unbelievably loyal.”

Loyalty, though, often is fleeting. Some fans love Yingst for the way he oversees the Bears. Some loathe him for the exact same thing. Comes with the job, he says.

For Yingst, all of the critiques – good and bad – are filtered through a spectrum that reflects the highs of his career, as well as the lows that include a near-fatal fall from the roof of his house in 2008, followed by a couple of other serious health scares.

Yingst likes to quote the words of Eleanor Roosevelt, who once said, “Great minds talk about ideas, average minds talk about events, small minds talk about people, miniscule minds talk about shoes.”

“Avoid the small minds,” he says with a smile. “So, when people walk by and say, ‘Yingst, you suck.’ I think, ‘You have a small mind, so I’m not going to bother.’”

He is too busy to bother anyway. There still are games to watch and players to scout. Yingst has done this with the Bears for three decades and is what he will continue to do for the rest of their season.

So Yingst prepares for yet another bus trip – “because I’m nuts,” he says – and his latest arduous stretch of three games in three days. He goes to evaluate players; not just his own, but also ones from the other teams whom he may try to acquire through trade or free agency.

This always has been part of Yingst’s long-term plan for the Bears, even though he now is a short-timer for them.

“It’s going fast for me,” he says. “You start counting the days. …We only have ‘X’ amount of games left, and then that’s it for me. The finish line is approaching, and I hope the finish line isn’t until (the playoffs end in) June.”