The last time the Hershey Bears played a regular season AHL game in Washington, D.C., Harry Truman was the guy whose mail was sent to the White House, 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.
More than 60 years later, the Bears are back in town. Hershey heads to the District on Thursday to take on the Norfolk Admirals in the 2012 Washington AHL Showcase.
Thursday’s game pits a pair of teams that are seeking to start an upward climb of the AHL standings ladder. Hershey stands 12th among the 15 teams in the AHL’s Eastern Conference while Norfolk is 14th. The Bears are three points behind eighth-place Portland for the final available playoff spot in the conference while Norfolk trails Portland by four points.
“For me it’s my first opportunity to play at the Verizon Center,” says Hershey forward Garrett Mitchell, “and I’m very excited about the opportunity. I’m sure most of the guys are excited for the same reasons.
“It’s an opportunity we’ve been given and we’ve got to make the most of it. It comes down to, it’s the same game we were going to play whether it was played here or in Norfolk. We’re excited for the opportunity that we get to play [at Verizon Center], but, at the same time, we need the two points.”
Hershey and Norfolk will be hooking up for the third time in nine days. The Bears took a 5-2 decision from the Admirals in Norfolk last Wednesday, and the Ads returned the favor by beating the Bears in their own barn by a 5-1 count on Saturday.
“Overall it wasn’t a great game for us tonight,” said Bears defenseman Cameron Schilling after Saturday’s loss. “We had a little winning streak there; we just came out a little flat, didn’t have our offense going or anything. I think we just need to regroup here and just focus on them. Luckily, we get to play them again on Thursday there. It’ll be a good game, a rematch.”
Players on both sides are amped to be playing in an NHL barn in front of a sellout crowd of more than 18,000 fans.
“Yeah, it’ll be good,” says Schilling. “A lot of guys haven’t played in [Washington], including myself. It’ll be a great experience you know, playing in front of that many people, and being able to go down to the city and check it out. I think we’re coming in the night before. It should be a good experience. Hopefully, we can pull out a win there.
“I’m pretty excited,” says Bears defenseman Tomas Kundratek, who got into a handful of games with the Capitals last season. “I think every guy is excited for the crowd there. We’ll do our best, and we want to win there.”
Kundratek scored Hershey’s only goal in Saturday’s loss. He is one of half a dozen Bears players who have skated in all 21 of the team’s games to date this season, and he is fourth on the team in scoring with 13 points (six goals, seven assists). Kundratek is tied for second on the team in goals.
Goaltender Braden Holtby, who backstopped the Capitals for all 14 games of Washington’s 2012 Stanley Cup playoff run, is almost certain to get the call in goal for Hershey.
For the Bears, Thursday’s game will mark the first time they’ve played in the District since 1949.
Back in 1948-49, the Bears and the Washington Lions were among the six teams in the AHL’s Eastern Division. The Bears finished second in the division that season and lost a seven-game series in the Calder Cup final series against the Providence Reds.
Washington posted an anemic 11-53-4 record, easily the worst mark in the 12-team circuit that season. The Frank Beisler-coached Lions scored 179 goals, fewest in the league. They allowed 401, second most in the loop. That season marked the end of AHL hockey in the District.
After a two-year absence, there was a Washington Lions entry in the Eastern League for 1951-52. That ’51-52 team withdrew from the league on Jan. 15, 1952 because of poor attendance. The Lions had played just 36 of their 66 scheduled games when they ceased operations at that point.
The last time a minor league hockey team called Washington home was in 1959-60 when the Washington Presidents of the Eastern Hockey League played in the District at Uline Arena. The EHL was an eight-team circuit that played a 64-game slate that season.
The 1959-60 Presidents finished last in the South Division, trailing Johnstown, Charlotte and Greensboro. The North Division consisted of Clinton, New Haven, Philadelphia and New York.
Pro hockey was absent from the District from 1960 until 1997, when the Capitals moved downtown from their suburban Maryland home. The first-ever NHL game was played at Verizon Center (née MCI Center) on Dec. 5, 1997.