Canadian Football League

Friday, February 11, 2005

Former Canadian Football League Player Mourned

HERSHEY — He wanted to become a dentist. A few rides on the roller coaster at Hersheypark convinced him to stay in hockey.
The hockey world is forever grateful for that roller coaster. And today, that hockey world mourns Frank Mathers.
The man who became synonymous with the Hershey Bears, who was the embodiment of the American Hockey League's oldest and most-storied franchise, died Wednesday night. He was 80.
"Frank is, and always will be, Mr. Hershey Bears Hockey," said Doug Yingst, president and general manager of the Bears. "His character, dignity and class stand alone. Frank epitomized the very best in hockey and in life."
Mathers became a part of the Bears in 1956 when then-general manager and club president John Sollenberger convinced him to stay in hockey.
Mathers had spent the previous eight seasons playing for the Pittsburgh Hornets, getting called up to the Toronto Maple Leafs on several occasions, but when the Hornets folded following the 1955-56 season, he thought he was ready to give up hockey for dentistry.
Sollenberger, with the help of the fateful roller coaster ride, and by convincing Mathers' wife, Pat, of the benefits of continuing his career in Hershey, talked Mathers out of dentistry. The story is Sollenberger got on the ride with Mathers and didn't let him off until Mathers agreed to stay.
Mathers joined the Bears as a player-coach. For the next 35 years, as a player, as a coach, a general manager and as team president, Mathers was the Hershey Bears. And more.
"I had the privilege of serving on the (AHL) Board (of Governors) with Frank for a number of years, and he was a tremendous example in the way he conducted business," said David Andrews, president and CEO of the AHL. "The entire league is deeply saddened by the loss of one of our true legends. He left an indelible mark on the Hershey Bears and on our league as a whole, and he will be truly missed. His career as a player, a coach and a manager is unmatched.
"There's passion for the sport that Frank had that carries on, but it's a sad day in our league."
Andrews said the league will honor Mathers at its annual All-Star Game on Monday, observing a moment of silence at the All-Star luncheon and commemorating his life prior to the start of the game in Manchester, N.H.
"For over 32 years, he was the best I ever met in the game of hockey," said Mike Emrick, one of the premier broadcasters in hockey. "There might be 500 tied for second, but there's no doubt about who was first. I never met anybody like him."
The players who played with him, or for him, the men whose lives were, at least in part, shaped under his management, agreed.
"Frank was a very easy-going and flexible guy to play for as a coach and a pleasure to be with as a player," said Willie Marshall, who played with Mathers in both Pittsburgh and Hershey, and later for him after Mathers retired as a player to become a full-time coach.
"He was a real gentleman," said Obie O'Brien, who also played with Mathers and for him. "He was a great player, and in today's game, he'd be a superstar."
To Yingst, who began his career with the Bears in the public relations office in 1981, working with Mathers off the ice meant just as much.
"If it wasn't for Frank, I wouldn't be here," Yingst said. "For me, Frank was a father, a tutor, a brother, a mentor. I'm sure he had a lot to do, a lot to say in the process when I got hired. To me, there's people, then there's Frank."
A five-time AHL All-Star as a defenseman with the Hornets, Mathers also played in the 1949 NHL All-Star game while a member of the Toronto Maple Leafs.
When he joined the Bears, who had missed the playoffs the previous two seasons, he almost immediately turned the team around. Hershey was back in the playoffs in 1957, and Mathers guided the team to back-to-back Calder Cup championships in 1958 and 1959.
In his 35 years in Hershey, Mathers had a hand in six of the eight AHL titles won by the Bears. He also coached them to the 1969 title, and oversaw championships as the general manager in 1974, 1980 and 1988.
"He's an example I wish I could live up to," said John Paddock, who coached the 1988 Calder Cup championship squad, recognized as the AHL's all-time greatest team after winning 50 games in the regular season, then sweeping through the playoffs with a perfect 12-0 record. "I think he was the kind of man who gets the utmost respect from everyone who knows him."
Born in Winnipeg, Manitoba, on March 29, 1924, Mathers actually began his career as a professional athlete with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers of the Canadian Football League.
He spent the 1942 season as a halfback with the Bombers, then, following service as a pilot in the Canadian Air Force during World War II, spent the 1945 season with Winnipeg, as well.
Then Mathers turned to hockey, and it proved a perfect fit. He started his professional career with the Hornets, beginning a 12-year AHL stint that saw him score 407 points on 67 goals and 340 assists in 799 games.
Mathers also played in 23 games with the Maple Leafs. He was named to the AHL All-Star team five consecutive years while playing for the Hornets, and for a sixth time while playing for the Bears.
As a coach, Mathers compiled a 610-513-134 record, making him just one of two men to win 600 games in the AHL.
Mathers was named to the All-AHL Team during the league's 50th anniversary celebration in 1985-86. He won the Lester Patrick Award for outstanding service to hockey in the United States in 1987.
Five years later, he was elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame, one of just two men enshrined primarily for AHL accomplishments.
A private family memorial service will be held today. In lieu of flowers, donations can be made in Mathers' name to Hospice of Central Pennsylvania, 1701 Linglestown Road, Harrisburg, 17110.


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