The Phantoms are coming home

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.