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Phares Zimmerman, 90, a Hershey Bears season ticket holder since 1940, may be the most faithful fan, but he is not without competition. For the past six years straight, the Bears have led all AHL teams in attendance. (CHRIS KNIGHT for the Globe and mail)
Phares Zimmerman, 90, a Hershey Bears season ticket holder since 1940, may be the most faithful fan, but he is not without competition. For the past six years straight, the Bears have led all AHL teams in attendance. (CHRIS KNIGHT for the Globe and mail)

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Hockey night in Hershey: minor league hockey with major league fans Add to ...

Phares Zimmerman is in his post-Second World War battle gear: veteran’s ball cap locked tight to his wispy white hair, cane at the ready, team jersey adjusted as carefully as if it were formal wear. Which in a way it is, if you happen to be 90 and about to be honoured at centre ice as the Hershey Bears’ longest-serving season-ticket holder.

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Sixty-five straight seasons, but it would have been a good many more but for that detour that put him in the Battle of the Bulge and four months in hospital with frostbitten feet.

It is home-opener weekend in Hershey, Pa., Saturday night against the Rochester Americans, Sunday late afternoon against the Binghamton Senators. There is a high school marching band to greet the fans and two mobile clinics for those who would rather give blood than see blood, though the reaction to two rounds of fisticuffs against the Americans would suggest the crowd of nearly 10,000 is at least split on the question.

Zimmerman is far from the only one arriving with the help of a cane. Some use walkers. It is an older crowd than would be seen at NHL games, when those games are on, and one answer is price ($20 for excellent seats at Hershey’s Giant Arena, $18 if you buy in advance), but it is not the only answer. Long-term loyalty counts as well. During a 15-minute scoreboard journey to salute the 75th anniversary of what is surely the minor leagues’ most successful franchise, the applause and cheers are just as much for grainy black-and-white footage of long-ago games as it will be later for the introduction of this year’s version of the Hershey Bears.

Phares Zimmerman was there for all 11 Calder Cup victories, the first in 1947 after he returned from four years serving with the 924th Field Artillery.

He was 18 when he attended his first American Hockey League game in 1940, two years after the team had started up.

He was living in nearby Pembroke and “I kept reading in the papers about this game. I figured I’d go see what it’s all about.”

He couldn’t talk any of his friends into going to this strange, unknown game, so he went alone. “And I like it.”

He went often right up until he was drafted. A military driver, he was among the thousands of troops sent to the Ardennes, along the Western Front, when Germany began its great offensive in mid-December of 1944. The six-week battle would become the bloodiest of the war – roughly 100,000 casualties on each side, some 35,000 in total killed – but Zimmerman would be in hospitals in Belgium and Paris while it was waged. He had frozen his feet while sleeping on the ground in the lead-up to the fighting.

In four months of recuperation, he had plenty of time to think about getting home. “We never got newspapers over there,” he says, “but I’d often think of how they were doing.”

He returned, married Betty and, beginning in 1948, became a lifelong season-ticket holder, faithfully attending each home game and many away games. Betty died tragically of a blood clot in 1958, at the same time losing the baby she was carrying. A dozen years later, he married again, and he and Vi spent 37 years together, never missing a game at the old Hersheypark Arena before moving on to the new Giant Arena. Six years ago, Vi died, and for a while the fan they all call “Zimmie” thought his days cheering his team on were over.

“He was going to give up the tickets,” says grandson John Salter, who attends each home game with his grandfather. “We told him, ‘This is your life,’ so he decided to keep going.”

Phares Zimmerman may be the most faithful fan, but he is not without competition. For the past six years straight, the Hershey Bears have led all AHL teams in attendance, averaging around 10,000 fans a game, an impressive turnout in a town with a population of 15,000.

Games are festive occasions, the fans lining up to file in as much as two hours before game time, most of them wearing Bears jerseys and sweatshirts.

There is Phares Zimmerman, the marching band and, in a welcome flashback to an earlier time before arenas killed fan wit by blasting loud music, still the leather-lunged fan in the stands.

“You suck, Banfield!” he roars down at referee David Banfield just before the anthem.

“You still suck, Banfield!” he roars at the end of the anthem, to the delight of the crowd.

“Of course I know who it is,” says team president Doug Yingst, while refusing to name the man behind the shouts. “Everyone knows who it is.”

Yingst has been with the club 31 years and says the Hershey fans are as sophisticated and savvy about the game as any fans anywhere, Canada included.

“To our fans here, this is the NHL,” he says. “Obviously, Philadelphia’s close, Washington’s close, and they have the opportunity to go if they want, but to us, this is the NHL. The city puts pressure on these young guys. Our fans are very assertive and very demanding. It’s 10,000 demanding fans who understand the game.”

That suits the Washington Capitals, the NHL team affiliated with the Bears, just fine.

“This is Hockey Night in Hershey,” says George McPhee, the general manager of the Capitals, who took in his farm team’s home opener. “This is real hockey. Every game is an event in Hershey.”

The franchise’s great success and the fans’ hockey sophistication, McPhee says, pay off when players who excel at the AHL level are called up to the NHL team.

“They are in a market of their own here,” he says. “And they’re the big fish in a little pond. They are expected to be pros here, on the ice and off the ice, and the demands are great. They expect them to win here. The great thing is that it’s a fabulous hockey market that’s 1:45 from Washington. Our fans can come up and watch games and their fans can come down and watch our games.”

There are few familiar names on this year’s roster: goaltender Braden Holtby, who has played games with the Capitals, likely the most recognizable. But the fans wear jerseys with “Potulny” and “Kalinski” and “Schilling” on the backs and cheer for them as if they are superstars – and in Hershey they are.

There have been larger stars here, perhaps none so great as Winnipeg native Frank Mathers, who is on the cover of this night’s program ($3), whose No. 3 hangs from the rafters, who played, coached and managed Hershey after a brief stint with the Toronto Maple Leafs and who is in the AHL Hall of Fame as a player and the NHL Hall of Fame as a builder.

“He was my favourite,” Phares Zimmerman says. “Always came and talked to me, every game.”

“He was my father,” says J.D. Mathers, who owns a popular restaurant, The Warwick, in nearby Hummelstown and attends every home game, often with his son, Derek, the legend’s grandson. Now 20 and a huge hockey fan, Derek Mathers has never been to an NHL game. The AHL in Hershey is enough.

J.D. Mathers says the secret to the franchise’s success is simple: “We always have good teams.” But he also credits the Hershey family with building the first rink in this unique “company town” and for supporting the team from the very start.

“For many years,” Mathers says, “it was the only game in town – and in many ways still is.”

“Before Mr. Hershey passed away,” adds Phares Zimmerman, recalling Milton Hershey, the manufacturer and philanthropist who died in 1945, “he told people he was going to go after an NHL franchise. He even had a place picked out across the road where he’d put up a new NHL arena.”

An NHL franchise? he is asked. In a town that wouldn’t even have enough people to fill it? Would it have worked?

“Oh sure it would have. In Hershey? For sure.”

Throughout 2012-13 Roy MacGregor will examine the game, from house league to World Juniors, from the Women’s World Championship in Ottawa next spring to a Thursday night beer league.

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