Phantoms, arena to spark rebirth in Lehigh Valley

by Bob Rotruck || AHL On The Beat Archive

It has been a long time in the making. The beginning of a new era for the Phantoms hockey team has fans in the Lehigh Valley itching to welcome the American Hockey League to the region.

Even though construction is ongoing and the fans are still six months away from seeing the debut of the brand new Lehigh Valley Phantoms at the PPL Center, the excitement level is through the roof. And the region’s first ever professional hockey games are just around the corner.

The spectacular new building in downtown Allentown, Pa., will have a seating capacity of 8,700 for Lehigh Valley Phantoms games in the AHL and will be able to welcome over 10,000 customers for concerts as well as trade shows and other events. Anyone regularly passing by the construction site has been witness to the rapid progress being made by the 380-person construction crew as the project grows closer and closer to completion.

The opening date for the arena is drawing near. Last Thursday, the PPL Center officially announced that a concert with the Eagles on September 12 will be their first event to mark their official grand opening.

Shortly after that, the Lehigh Valley Phantoms will be off and running. And the sports fans of the area can’t wait. Season tickets for the Phantoms have been flying at an impressive clip. More than 3,000 full-season ticket packages have been sold already with fans signing up for three-year or five-year commitments. And there is a wait list of another 2,000 fans all ready to put their money down for mini-plans once the Phantoms open the selling on those.

“You talk to everybody and they just can’t wait for hockey to get here,” said Phantoms vice president of ticket sales Erik Hansen. “And they can’t wait for the arena to be completed and also for the other events.”

Beginning almost 24 months ago, Hansen was selling season-ticket commitments to fans who wanted to be among the first to get on board. This was before the team had even begun advertising in the area. If you were to order your season tickets today, you might not get your first preference.

“The seats are going very quickly,” Hansen said. “So many people are calling up now and want center ice and on an aisle… Don’t have that left. Glass seats… Don’t have that left. There’s not a bad seat in the house but some people are looking for something specific and we might not have it anymore. We sell more and more season tickets every day.”

The area is hungry and ready for its own hockey team. And there are also many Philadelphia Phantoms fans who are viewing the beginning of the Lehigh Valley Phantoms’ era as a return of the team to Pennsylvania, and that is true as well. The Philadelphia Phantoms began in 1996 as an expansion franchise and delighted fans at the Spectrum for 13 seasons, winning two Calder Cups while shattering a variety of the league’s attendance records.

When the announcement was made of the impending demolition of the Spectrum and that the 2008-09 season would be the team’s last there, in stepped brothers Rob and Jim Brooks. With big plans and lots of work to do, the new owners’ dream of bringing a grand venue to the Lehigh Valley — including a new hockey team — was finally taking off. But in a way, it was also just beginning.

First, they brought the Phantoms to Glens Falls, N.Y., to play as the Adirondack Phantoms for five seasons. The team set up shop in their new home in upstate New York at the same time all of the planning and development and construction of the PPL Center in Allentown was finding its stride.

The arrival of the Phantoms in Glens Falls gave the die-hard hockey community there an opportunity to show their love of the sport and their ability to support an AHL team again, even if they knew the arrangement was a temporary one.

Today, with the soon-to-be-completed $177-million venue in Allentown, the Phantoms will be close to the Philadelphia market again, just a little over an hour away from where they used to play at the Spectrum. But make no mistake, this is the Lehigh Valley’s team. There is a tangible anticipation and excitement in the air and everyone in Allentown and the surrounding communities is sensing it. That is not just about their own new team, but also for the spectacular new facility that is a major part of the rebuilding and rebranding of downtown Allentown.

“People are kind of walking around with a bit more pride and with their chests out a little bit more,” Hansen said. “It’s an attitude of being happy that we live in the Lehigh Valley and that this is our team. This is what we have. This is our product. This is what we represent.”

A project like this doesn’t just happen on a whim. It had actually been years in the making even before Rob and Jim Brooks purchased the Phantoms franchise in 2009.

“We started on this project about nine years ago, it’s going on 10 years actually,” Jim Brooks said. “It was actually more about putting a venue in the Lehigh Valley, one of these big, multi-purpose facilities. We knew that in order to have a venue we always had in the back of our mind that a hockey team would be great. After that it was figuring out what league would be the best fit.”

In fact, when the Brookses started analyzing their idea, they envisioned a team that would be going head-to-head against the Philadelphia Phantoms as well as the Hershey Bears and Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins. Their hypothetical new Lehigh Valley team would be located perfectly in the middle of a triangle of some of the strongest franchises in the American Hockey League. They didn’t know what team they might eventually be able to bring to the Lehigh Valley, but they knew the location would be tailor-made for some killer rivalries.

Then, as the facility in the Lehigh Valley continued to gain momentum, the Brooks brothers were approached by the Philadelphia Flyers, who were contemplating closing the Spectrum and subsequently selling their AHL franchise.

It was pretty incredible how perfectly all of the pieces were falling into place.

“Not only did we have our team that we needed as our main tenant,” Jim Brooks said, “we had it in the greatest hockey rink outside the National Hockey League. We had an affiliation with the local market’s favorite NHL team. And not only that, we had existing brand identity coming from the Phantoms from their tenure in Philadelphia. It was definitely an easy decision.

“And having the Phantoms played a major role in being able to finalize the funding and everything that was needed for this arena.”

But this project has since taken on an even bigger life of its own. It’s not just about bringing a hockey team and a sparkling new venue to the region anymore. It is a part of a huge half-billion-dollar investment in the whole block which will also include an eight-story office building fully leased out to the Lehigh Valley Health Network, as well as a luxurious 180-room Renaissance hotel by Marriott.

“The focus of our vision has changed over these nine years,” Jim Brooks said. “Now it’s not just about the big multi-purpose venue. It’s about using the arena as the catalyst for the redevelopment of the third-largest city in the state. And to see the level of development in downtown Allentown is the most rewarding part of this project.”

But it’s the Lehigh Valley Phantoms who will be the primary tenant for the PPL Center. And the game experience and dazzling new building will certainly be something to behold. The state-of-the-art facility will be loaded with modern amenities and first-class touches everywhere you turn. Every seat is a padded, cloth seat. There will be 30 luxury and VIP suites, six upscale party suites, and over 1,000 club seats. Some of the suites will actually be at ice level and will include a parking space in the garage right on the other side of the door from where the fans will be enjoying the game. In the corner will be a 200-person bar area overlooking the game where a large gathering of fans can enjoy every Phantoms goal as well as their own party atmosphere. The main entrance will feature an open-concourse feel that Jim Brooks says is being modeled somewhat like Pittsburgh’s Consol Energy Center.

“It’s really taking a lot of today’s modern-style NHL facilities and condensing it into an American Hockey League venue,” Jim Brooks said.

The list continues of all the impressive touches and details of the arena experience. It’s not just about a hockey game at the PPL Center: Fans will find entertainment and fun everywhere they turn, and the fun isn’t just isolated to the inside of the building. On ground level running along a main retail district on Hamilton Street will be three restaurants that will be open to the public all year, not just on event days. That stretch will include a well-known cafe/bakery, a popular and huge sports-restaurant/bar franchise measuring 9,000 square feet, and a special-concept restaurant featuring coal-fired-oven pizza as part of a more upscale/casual dining experience.

It’s all coming and the area is ready. It has been virtually impossible for anyone in the region not to notice what must seem to them like a breakneck pace of the whole project. The corner of Seventh and Hamilton was a large block of mostly dirt and rubble about a year ago. Currently, that same block features big buildings with shiny new windows that almost look like they are ready to be occupied right now. It’s starting to take on the sparkle that will soon become a permanent feature of downtown Allentown.

“People are just so eager to come out and to get this building ready,” Hansen said. “They realize that it’s real now. Over the past year it’s been kind of like ‘the building that everyone’s talking about.’ But now you can actually see it. The windows are in. It’s here and people can’t wait.”