The Flyers suffered a setback, club officials agreed, when Comcast-Spectacor reached an agreement yesterday to sell their AHL minor-league affiliate, the Phantoms, to the Brooks Group of Pittsburgh.
The setback has nothing to do with Brooks. It has everything to do with the fact that, after this season, the Flyers' top minor-league team will not practice in the same Voorhees facility as the Flyers - and won't play its games across the parking lot at the soon-to-close Wachovia Spectrum.
Having the two teams next to each other made it easy for general manager Paul Holmgren to scout the minor-league players and reduce travel expenses. The proximity also made it convenient to send players back and forth between the clubs.
"We will miss having them share the same sports complex and the same training facility, which was an incredible advantage to us," said Peter Luukko, the Comcast-Spectacor president.
"We had a convenient setup," Holmgren said. "Now we have to try to get another good setup."
Luukko called the sale "a very difficult decision for us to make. When we decided to close the Spectrum, we explored many alternatives for relocating the Phantoms, and this really became the best scenario. We looked locally very hard."
Atlantic City was one of the locations considered. "But we came to the conclusion there was no market there," Luukko said.
Before selling the Phantoms, Comcast-Spectacor also looked into building an arena in Cherry Hill.
Luukko would not reveal terms of the sale to the Brooks Group, which owns the Wheeling (W.Va.) Nailers of the ECHL and has ownership interests in the Pittsburgh Penguins, Pittsburgh Pirates and three minor-league baseball teams: the Altoona Curve (double A for the Pirates), the State College Spikes (single A for the Pirates) and the Myrtle Beach Pelicans (single A for the Atlanta Braves).
Rob Brooks, one of the new owners, said the Phantoms' "long-term plans" will be revealed in the next few weeks. Those plans are expected to include the team's location.
"We're going to go with them, wherever they want to put the team," said Luukko, adding that "the goal" was to have the franchise within two hours of Philadelphia.
Luukko said Lehigh Valley, which would have to build an arena, would be a viable spot for the Phantoms.
"That area is growing tremendously," he said, "and we have a lot of Flyers fans in that area, and I think it would be fantastic."
There is also a possibility that a current AHL franchise may sever ties with an NHL team and become available.
The Phantoms have been a Flyers affiliate since 1996, highlighting their Philadelphia tenure by winning the Calder Cup in 1998 (coached by Bill Barber) and 2005 (coached by John Stevens).
"The Phantoms far exceeded all of our expectations," Luukko said, adding that the team "will continue to be a tremendous asset to helping us develop future Flyers."
Stevens, who was a Phantoms captain and later their coach, said the announcement was "a little bit sad for me . . .. I got the start of my coaching here, and that franchise established such a great tradition in such a short time - and the fan base was tremendous. Both championship games were sold out, and it was as good of an atmosphere as you're going to find in the American Hockey League."
The Spectrum, where the Phantoms have played since their inaugural season, will be razed in the fall to make way for Philly Live, a retail, restaurant and entertainment complex.
Luukko said the "earliest" groundbreaking for Philly Live would be next February, and he acknowledged that the poor economy could slow the project.
"There's no way of knowing," he said.
Comcast-Spectacor manages several arenas and could manage the facility in which the Phantoms are relocated.
Luukko said it would be manageable if the Phantoms were located, say, 200 miles from Philadelphia.
"We've been affiliated in Portland, Maine, in the past, in Hershey, in the early days in Quebec City," said Luukko, who hopes the new owners keep the Phantoms name. "We were an anomaly" in having the club's minor-league team next door.