Glens Falls making its case

by Bob Rotruck || AHL On The Beat Archive

It was an amazing opportunity and one that doesn’t come along every day. It’s not often a city receives a second chance after losing a proud and beloved sports franchise. And it’s also not common to learn of a team without any home at all willing to explore available opportunities. But that’s how the Philadelphia Phantoms hockey team and the community of Glens Falls, N.Y., became acquainted and it’s a merger that has worked for the Adirondack Phantoms for five successful seasons.

Now area fans are anxious to learn what the future holds. Will another team take the reins from the Phantoms for 2014-15? Four-and-a-half seasons after this project began, almost 600,000 total fans have filled the seats of the Glens Falls Civic Center. The community has made a rather compelling case they they are deserving of all the attention as well as a future permanent team.

The story begins in March, 2009. Rob and Jim Brooks, having recently purchased the Phantoms, would no longer be able to use the old Spectrum in Philadelphia, which was targeted for demolition to make way for a new entertainment center. The Brookses’ plan from the very beginning was to build an exciting new arena in Allentown, Pa., and bring the American Hockey League to the Lehigh Valley.

But that was not going to happen immediately. What to do with the team in the meantime? Find a new location only to pull the team out a few years later? Maybe even go dark until their new arena was ready and the time was right to bring the Phantoms out of hibernation? These were tough questions and the new Phantoms owners had many factors to consider.

The Brookses learned of a proud community of hockey die-hards in upstate New York, an area of fans that had previously shown rabid support for their former team. For 20 seasons from 1979 through 1999, the Adirondack Red Wings rocked the Glens Falls Civic Center and the community cheered them on through four Calder Cup championships. At one time, Glens Falls was considered one of the premier destinations in the American Hockey League. The city was itching for that coveted second chance.

Mayor Jack Diamond offered an intriguing proposal: Bring the Phantoms to Glens Falls. Stay as long as you need. Allow our fans to prove that they can support an AHL team and that the product truly can succeed here. The Adirondack Red Wings not only won four Calder Cups but they featured their own Who’s Who of hockey names that included the likes of Barry Melrose, Bill Dineen, Pete Mahovlich, Glenn Merkosky and Dave Strader among others. This wasn’t just an ordinary franchise that had occasional spurts of success and popularity. The Red Wings were a huge deal for this small town and the area was crazy about them. Mayor Diamond was convinced they could make the magic happen again.

"When we heard that the Phantoms were leaving Philadelphia, we immediately reached out to the new ownership, Rob and Jim Brooks, to tell them about Glens Falls," Mayor Diamond remembered. "We told them our story. I think that one big reason they came here five years ago was the history."

Rob and Jim Brooks were listening. They were intrigued by the idea of helping a community reestablish themselves as a viable market for a hockey franchise. That season, Glens Falls was hosting a handful of Albany River Rats home games, so the new Phantoms owners traveled to the area to check out a community and fan base which they had yet to experience in person.

"When we bought the team, we didn’t have a place to play at the time," Rob Brooks said. "We got calls from a lot of different cities that had arenas that didn’t have a team. But this one stood out. The mayor told us, ‘We just want a chance. We want a chance to help build a model and show the hockey world what we can do.’ And when we came to one of the River Rats games here, it was electric. It was a sold-out game and Jim and I felt it. We were wowed. And we immediately wanted to work on a plan to help the Adirondacks get a team again."

There wasn’t much time to lose. The upcoming season was fast approaching. The plans were quickly arranged. Tickets were sold and corporate partners were brought on board. Glens Falls was abuzz for their new AHL team. On Oct. 3, 2009, the brand-new "Adirondack Phantoms" made their official debut to an overflow crowd of 5,411 jamming into the 4,800-seat Glens Falls Civic Center.

And the fans have kept coming. Nearly 600,000 of them in total in the team’s five seasons in the North Country. Not bad for a city with a population just shy of 15,000, easily the smallest in the American Hockey League.

Downtown Glens Falls has been alive again. Pregame buzz and people-traffic have been a huge boost to area businesses. Even non-hockey fans have turned out in droves and welcomed the affordable family entertainment option now available through the cold and snowy winter months of the North Country. This new era of the American Hockey League in Glens Falls continues to be a triumph.

But what is in store for the future? Will all the pieces come together for the ideal matchup next season?

"We are hoping the Phantoms have the opportunity to return to Glens Falls next season," said Jim Brooks. "To bring everything full-circle and to see the Lehigh Valley Phantoms against an Adirondack new team next year, and to know we were able to help make that happen — that would be great."

Indeed, it could happen. Other teams are paying attention. The league is noticing. But whether it actually will happen is the most commonly heard question around the Glens Falls community and perhaps throughout the league. The answer is: Nobody knows. But one thing that is known is that the consistent, strong support for this team in Glens Falls — even in their last season — has been impressive. That includes two wild and borderline-deafening crowds of well over 4,000 just in the past couple weeks.

The Glens Falls Civic Center can get awfully loud. It has quickly developed a reputation as one of the most difficult environments for any visiting team. The crowd can play a huge factor. It’s an exciting place to experience a game.

"I think it goes back to the community," Phantoms executive vice president Chris Porreca said. "If the fans can come out and show the support for us or whatever team is here in the future then the AHL will take notice. Other owners are paying attention. They’re talking to Rob and Jim Brooks about it."

Now halfway through the team’s schedule of home games, the plan for the remaining portion of the Phantoms’ final season in Glens Falls remains rather simple: keep at it.

"The community is putting the right foot forward and doing the right things to try and lure another team," Porreca said. "We’re doing our part. We’re putting on these games and doing promotions and we’re continuing to do things to get people to come out to the games. We need to continue this and we have another half-season to prove that this truly is one of the best AHL markets."

This season, the city is celebrating its 25th year in the American Hockey League: 20 years of the Adirondack Red Wings and now five seasons with the Adirondack Phantoms. Twenty-five seasons is a rich history.

And it’s something which only nine other current AHL markets can claim. Whether there will be a 26th season for the AHL in Glens Falls remains to be seen but city officials are hard at work doing everything they can in their continued efforts to make that happen and attract a new team. They are working with American Hockey League President and CEO David Andrews and are talking with other teams.

"We are looking for a seamless transition," Mayor Diamond said. "We are fully committed to having the American Hockey League in Glens Falls for 2014-2015. I’m excited about our opportunities here. We’re getting out there and telling them about the rich hockey history of Glens Falls and the opportunities that Glens Falls brings."