It’s hard to believe that when the Hershey Bears open the 2021-22 campaign it will be their 21st season in the Giant Center.
The two individuals who were instrumental in getting the project underway, J. Bruce McKinney and Doug Yingst, agreed to sit down and discuss the lengthy process that had to take place to leave the Hersheypark Arena for a new facility.
The first hockey game played in the Hershey Sports Arena was November 15, 1938 that ended with Hershey defeating Providence 2-1. The final game on May 3, 2002 was a Calder Cup playoff 7-1 loss to Houston.
The Giant Center, located just west of the “Old Barn” had its initial game played on October 19, 2002, and that was a 4-1 victory over Rochester with Cail MacLean scoring the first goal in the second period.
That season, attendance surpassed the 300,000-plus level for the first time, a figure that was missed just once over the next 17 seasons, until the COVID-19 pandemic shortened the last two seasons.
McKinney, a Milton Hershey School and Dickinson College graduate, had several jobs before returning to the area at the Hershey Chocolate Company, before he joined Hershey Entertainment and Resort Company and retired as Chairman of the Board CEO.
Yingst, a Palmyra High School graduate, started with the Bears as the Director of Sales and advanced to Promotions Publicity and Marketing Director, Assistant General Manager-Director of Hockey Operations, then Manager and was President & General Manager when he retired in 2016.
“Our decision to build a new arena probably started in the mid-90s,” said McKinney. “We were looking at trying to renovate the old arena, but we would’ve needed to spend multiple millions to put in air conditioning, change the exits, the concourse, really just about everything. It was a case of if you changed just one thing to meet the code standards you must update everything.
“The determination was made, because of the increased size of the hockey crowds and the other entertainment shows,” continued McKinney. “With the lack of air conditioning, we were unable to have shows in the summer. Our timing to do it was disrupted because of the financial situation of the company. We were not ready to build a new arena having come out of divesting numerous outside-of-Hershey properties.”
“It was challenging, and I have to say it was with mixed emotions, because Hersheypark Arena is so famous,” said Yingst. “Mr. McKinney did surveys and studies about putting suites in, but in the end it just wasn’t going to work. The other part was the shows wanted places that had 10,000-plus seats with air conditioning.
“Things did start to change and I flew to Atlanta to see how they handled their club seats, but their setup was at the end of the building, not where the club seats were,” Yingst added. “We wanted to have our club seats and lounge area where they ended up.”
McKinney indicated that he wanted to replicate the sight lines of the old building, but was told things were so far out of the present codes that it was not possible to accomplish that.
“At that point I said to give us absolutely the best sight lines possible plus provide for some standing room because we had a number of season ticket holders who would come to the games, put their coats over the rail, and stand there for every game,” said McKinney.
Once the decision was made to at least look into a new building the first item on the agenda was where it would be.
“I took many long drives looking for land in Derry Township and Dauphin County,” McKinney said. “Along Route 743 there was some land out where the warehouses are now north of Palmyra, but in the end it was decided the best place was adjacent to the Hersheypark parking lot. That way we didn’t have to replicate a lot of parking, plus we already owned the land which helped make the major decision of where it would be located. From there we went into the building and financing of it.”
By this time the need for a new building was accepted by almost everybody. The Hershey Bears felt it was necessary and HERCO management felt it was a must thing, and the HERCO board at that time was very supportive of investigating where it would be and how much it would cost.
The planning was positioned to do what was needed to be done because the funding of the project was going to be extremely important. The unanswered questions included how much support would come from Derry Township, Dauphin County and the state and our own resources. Once the site decision was made, talks started with architects.
“At that point I met with Gary Green, who was with an architectural firm, and who was also the Hershey coach briefly (1979-80/6-7-1), and later with Tom Brogan and John Payne who were extremely important to us to help build it and determine the total cost and how it would be funded,” McKinney said. “That all came together over a two-year period.
“I remember saying one of the things we may want to consider is a Dauphin County Hotel Tax which would affect us the most directly because of Hotel Hershey, Hershey Lodge and other properties,” continued McKinney. “We knew Dauphin County was interested in such a tax for not just a new arena, but other travel and tourism events. When I met with the county commissioners they said you realize that what you want us to do is tax you, to which I said yes because we felt there was a greater good for the whole area, not just Hershey.”
The projected time table for completion was 18 months from the groundbreaking ceremony and during that time there were still many areas that had to be discussed and plans altered, according to Yingst.
“We talked about how to have a hall of fame that would have a restaurant in conjunction with the AHL because league President Dave Andrews was in favor of Hershey as the ideal place to have an AHL Hall of Fame,” Yingst stated. “The questions were would they want a separate building or put it where the gift shop is now and there was also thought given to having it where the offices are now and they would be relocated but neither one worked out.”
Asked about how he felt about what was accomplished, Yingst said, “I really think the project overachieved because of the immediate success of the Giant Center, and the appeal it had to the fans, was unbelievable. The support the team got from the community was more than anticipated.
“The Bears became very successful, winning the Calder Cup in 2006 with our attendance almost better than Washington’s at that time,” added Yingst. “When our affiliation with Colorado ended in 2005, we had seven NHL teams interested in coming here. The decision to go with the Capitals had everything to do with proximity and a lot to do with the communication I had with George McPhee, because we both wanted to win and develop players, not just develop players, so it was an exciting time.”
“This was a dream for a lot of people,” said McKinney. “We have a legacy asset called the Hershey Bears and we have a responsibility to make certain that they are given the facilities that equals their skills and the fan’s interest. It has been proven because of the Giant Center we increased our attendance, and to the best of my knowledge, are still considered the premier hockey team in the AHL, plus the building is considered to be a premier building, thanks to everyone who worked on it.
“The Bears have been here since Mr. Hershey’s days in the 1930s and we have a responsibility to make certain that the team is provided with the best facility for them,” added McKinney. “I think it has been an outstanding investment on the part of the state thanks to Governor (Tom) Ridge, on the part of Dauphin County and Derry Township. There were a lot of other good people who were involved and it is a stellar achievement of the company to be able to say with pride we are the responsible management team of the Giant Center.”
“The need for the extra seats was immediately evident, even more so when the Bears won three Calder Cups in the first decade of the Giant Center,” said Yingst. “The fans in Hershey are second to none taking great pride in the franchise and are a huge part in the club’s success. “