Like teams in most every other sport, minor league hockey clubs get an equal number of home and away games, but the Phantoms can be forgiven if they feel like they've been on a four-year road trip.
Since being chased by a wrecking ball from the Spectrum in Philadelphia in 2009, the Flyers' top affiliate has been playing in Glens Falls, N.Y. Sure, the team's been embraced by a small yet dedicated fan base, but the Phantoms always knew New York was just a stopover. They just didn't realize it would take this long.
Beginning in 2014, the Phantoms will call downtown Allentown's new PPL Center home — a relocation that will be five years and $177 million in the making.
"Our players are going to love the Lehigh Valley," said Jim Brooks, who co-owns the Phantoms with his brother, Rob. "We've been waiting a long time, so we're pretty excited about what's coming."
To be fair, Brooks said what is currently the Adirondack Phantoms have never considered Glens Falls a stopover. In fact, Brooks said he's indebted to the city for allowing him to keep the team running.
The Phantoms had built a healthy Philly fan base while playing at the Spectrum since 1996, so when the Brooks Group bought the team in 2009, Brooks was prepared to shut the team down for three years, while Allentown built its arena.
Several cities offered to host the Phantoms, including Roanoke, Va., but each wanted a chance to convince the team to stay. Brooks said he preferred scattering the Flyers' minor leaguers among other teams, rather than stringing along another city's fans.
"We decided we'd rather go dark than mislead the fans of another city," said Brooks, who has moved his family from Pittsburgh to Lower Macungie Township so he can operate the Phantoms full time. "We knew we were going to Allentown."
That's when Glens Falls Mayor Jack Diamond made an unusual pitch: Come to Glens Mills, be upfront about the arrangement being temporary even as you sell season tickets, and give the city a chance to prove it deserves someone else's franchise.
As a result, the Philadelphia Phantoms became the Adirondack Phantoms and never missed a game. The Phantoms play in the American Hockey League, one step down from the National Hockey League.
For their part, the Phantoms players, who this year have included Flyers players Zac Rinaldo, Sean Couturier and Brayden Schenn, have avoided getting caught up in the franchise's recent bout of venue-hopping, according to Bob Rotruck, Phantoms media relations director and the radio voice of the team.
"Knowing these guys, some of them probably don't even know they'll be moving to Allentown next year," Rotruck said. "Most of these guys don't look much past the next game."
And the city of Glens Falls has made it easy for them. When overambitious hopes to have Allentown's arena open by 2012 didn't materialize, Glens Falls not only signed the Phantoms for 2012-13 but also agreed to keep 2013-14 open in case arena still wasn't ready. As it turned out, a legal challenge to the downtown taxing district delayed construction by more than three months, pushing the opening date back another year.
So the Phantoms will keep playing at the 4,800-seat Glens Falls Civic Center through the 2013-14 season, until they morph into the Lehigh Valley Phantoms and open their inaugural season in Allentown in October 2014.
When that happens, the relatively small crew of 14 people — not including the roster of roughly 35 players and coaches — that run the Phantoms will bulge to roughly 75 full-time and 300 part-time workers.
Unlike in Glens Falls, where the Phantoms are essentially tenants, team officials will be running the hockey squad, an 8,500-seat arena, a sports bar, a restaurant and a team apparel shop. They'll need to hire everything from managers to ticket takers to concession workers to maintenance staff.
Not only will the team be in the heart of the Flyers market — an unusual luxury that most American Hockey League teams don't have — but being just 60 miles from Philadelphia makes player and coach movement between the teams easier.
And there's room to grow, Rob Brooks said. Initially, the arena is expected to be busy 140 to 150 nights per year, Brooks said. In addition to the more than 40 Phantoms home games — usually on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays — there will be family shows, concerts and trade shows. But the Phantoms will also be looking for a secondary tenant to share the building, such as a professional lacrosse, arena football or minor league basketball team.
That could keep the building busy more than 200 nights a year and require more full- and part-time workers.
But the first priority is getting the most expensive minor league hockey arena in American history built so the puck can drop for the Phantoms' 2014-15 hockey season in Allentown. The state-of-the-art downtown complex will have nearly twice the capacity, club boxes, a sports bar, a restaurant and a merchandise store and a 600-plus space parking deck. And it will be able to handle as many as 10,000 people for concerts.
It will be attached to a 180-room hotel on Seventh Street, and an eight-story office building housing a Lehigh Valley Health Network sports fitness center, where team players can train and rehabilitate from injury.
Players making an average of $85,000 a year will be spending the eight-month season — from September to May — in the Lehigh Valley, but Brooks said with the future now set, he's hoping even that will grow.
"With the way this area is growing, and with everything happening here in Allentown," Rob Brooks said, "I wouldn't be surprised to see a lot of these players make the Lehigh Valley their home year-round."
One thing that won't be a barrier is uncertainty about where they'll be playing.
"Well, we've signed a deal for 29 years, plus an option for two 10-year extensions," Jim Brooks said. "So, I'm thinking we're good for the next 49 years."
Phantoms road to Allentown
February 2009 — Comcast Spectacor agrees to sell the Phantoms to the Brooks Group of Pittsburgh.
April 2009 — The Phantoms play their final regular season home game at the Spectrum in Philadelphia, ending a 13-year run at the Spectrum.
July 2009 — The Brooks Group chooses Allentown's Lehigh Riverfront over south Bethlehem as the place to build an arena for its new team.
November 2009 — Crews begin demolishing the 18,000-seat Spectrum, a Philadelphia institution since 1967, to make room for a shopping and entertainment center.
June 2010 — Mayor Ed Pawlowski acknowledges that the arena cannot be ready in time for the 2012 season. September 2013 is the new target date for opening.
March 2011 — Allentown announces that the arena will be built downtown, rather than the waterfront.
September 2012 — City officials acknowledge the arena won't be ready for 2013. Set their sights on 2014.
November 2012 — Owners announce team will be named "Lehigh Valley Phantoms."
February 2013 — The arena is named "PPL Center" after the regional power company.
August 2014 — Phantoms are scheduled to take possession of their new home, the PPL Center.
Source: The Morning Call archivesCopyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun