It’s been 58 years since Bob Artese’s father took him to a Ramblers game at West Philadelphia’s Arena and ignited a sizzling fervor for hockey.
He’s 67 now. He’s had a good life, a steady job – two, in fact – and a nice house on a quiet street in Delaware County. And except when the Flyers lose, he and Alexis, his wife of 32 years, are happy.
- Loyal fans are getting older, so Flyers are chasing millennials with rage rooms, cocktail bars and Gritty
- Sensory-friendly room allows autistic Flyers fans to enjoy the game but get away from the craziness
- Flyers’ overall attendance is not at capacity, but new area at Wells Fargo Center has become popular with fans — especially millennials
Sometimes though, in those rare moments when he’s not obsessing over hockey, Artese wonders how different it might have been if they’d had children.
The basement of his Springfield home might be cluttered with toys, not paneled with hockey dasher boards and festooned with NHL team sweaters. He’d probably have missed many of the 2,000-plus games he has attended as a 50-year Flyers season-ticket holder.
He likely wouldn’t have traveled as often to games in Washington, New York, Pittsburgh, Wilkes-Barre, Reading, or Allentown. There wouldn’t have been time to skate with retired legends. And seasons like 2009-10, when he went to 111 Flyers and Phantoms games, would never have happened.
“But we waited too long,” Artese admitted recently. “We wanted to get a house before we raised a family. We got the house, but with so much hockey, we never really settled down and had kids. We planned our lives around hockey. That’s what we loved.”
In their 53rd season, the Flyers are at an interesting transition point. With lures like an edgy mascot, a technology-charged ambience at games, and a sky-high lounge where fans can drink, mingle, and, oh yeah, watch hockey, the team is aggressively targeting millennials, many of whom desire a broader social experience.
At the same time, the core of loyal supporters who discovered the Flyers as young men and women in the 1960s and 1970s and stuck with them through the Cups and downs is aging fast.
No one represents this graying demographic as well as Artese, a self-made hockey nut who bought his first two season tickets – at $3.25 a game -- in 1970 with money earned as a Wyeth Laboratories janitor. He has witnessed it all -- the championship parades, a 12-0 loss to Chicago, the Russians and the Bullies. He even caught a stray puck, tipped into the stands during a Flyers-Devils clash at the Spectrum.
“A couple days later,” Artese recalled, “my wife said, `Where’s the puck?’ I said I used it.”
Though it has been 24 years since the Flyers abandoned their original Spectrum home for what is now called the Wells Fargo Center, Artese vividly recalls those glory days. The fan base might not have been as deep as those of the Eagles and Phillies, but a close-knit community of 17,007 continuously filled the arena.
“I’d know everybody seated around me, what they did, where they worked,” Artese said. “Between periods we’d all talk hockey or our personal lives.”
When he renewed his seats for the 1996 move to the current arena, they were behind a goal. He and Alexis hated them. They incessantly bugged the Flyers’ ticket manager until he moved them to Row 1, Section 211, in the second tier, just above the blue line.
“I can see the whole ice. I don’t miss anything,” he said. “At the end, all you saw were players coming toward you or leaving.”
They’ve formed friendships with arena guards and vendors, and on their birthdays, the Arteses often bring cupcakes. “Everyone is so friendly,” he said.
After a half-century, he’s seeing veteran fans drift away for health or financial reasons, and nearly every night he‘s encountering new faces in neighboring seats.
“Now people are so busy, or maybe the tickets are so expensive, that they might go to three, four games a year and sell the rest,” he said. “The last few years I usually don’t know who’s sitting next to me. You don’t have that die-hard hockey fan anymore.
"It’s entertainment for these people. And the Flyers do a good job catering to that. But me, I wouldn’t care if they didn’t have a scoreboard. Just give me the game. That’s all I care about.”
The son of a Philadelphia accountant, Artese found that his early exposure to the Eastern Hockey League’s Ramblers triggered something deep.
“I fell in love,” he said of that 1962 experience. “The ice. The color. The sounds. The hitting. That was the beginning.”
Soon he was a Ramblers regular, a Hockey News subscriber, a member of the Lansdowne Ramblers, a pioneering youth team that used the EHL team’s old equipment but had virtually no opponents.
“We’d skate against ourselves lots of times,” Artese said.
In the mid-‘60s, his life changed when he read that the NHL was expanding and putting a team in Philadelphia. Artese was 15 in that inaugural 1967-68 season. He traveled to the Spectrum as often as possible and a year later bought an 18-game plan. Then in 1970, he got a driver’s license and two full-season tickets, Row 8, Section 27.
“At first a couple of buddies went with me,” he said. “But when I met my future wife a few years later, she became as crazy as me.”
Their shared passion for the sport exploded. When the Flyers were off or out of town, they went to NHL games in other East Coast cities, minor-league ones in several smaller Pennsylvania towns. They supported the Phantoms and the short-lived Philadelphia Blazers of the 1970s.
Walking his dog one day, Artese met Andre Lacroix, a Flyers star who’d moved onto his street. They became friends, and when the rival World Hockey Association came to Philly, Artese bought tickets. When the NHL players jumping to the fledgling Blazers -- Lacroix, Bernie Parent, Derek Sanderson, and others -- were initially prevented from attending training camp in Quebec, they conducted their own in South Jersey. Needing bodies, Lacroix asked Artese to join them.
“That was a blast,” he said.
Several Flyers from their ‘70s heyday lived in nearby Media. When Artese’s rink had a three-hour open window on Sunday mornings, he invited Joe and Jim Watson, Ed Van Impe, Don Saleski, and other retired Flyers to play. The pickup games became a ritual.
A rare low point in Artese’s love affair came in February 1968, when wind blew a hole in the Spectrum roof.
“There was a lot of litigation and rumors,” he said. “I wondered if the Flyers were going to leave. That was a panic situation.”
In 2014, a fan in his aisle decided to give up two seats. Artese bought them. He and his wife sell the tickets – at face value, $96 each -- to about 30 of the 44 home games.
“The others we give away to people who might never have been to a hockey game,” he said. “Or at the ice rink, I’ll give them to maybe the kid who’s player of week or a goalie who had a shutout. Their eyes light up.”
The Arteses have a game-day ritual. They hurry home from work, feed the dogs, put on team sweatshirts or jackets. They always arrive at the arena by 6, eat a quick dinner, then hustle to their seats in time for warm-ups. Depending on the game, the rides home can be challenging.
“On the nights they lose,” he said, “the two of us will fight. Fortunately, there haven’t been too many fights this year.”
Artese hopes to retire soon from his job as Springfield Township’s electrician. But he plans to keep working at the rink and, as if there ever was a question, keep going to Flyers games.