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End of an era tonight: Phantoms' finale in Philly

PETER LUUKKO still can remember the reaction he received from peers after Comcast-Spectacor announced it had purchased an AHL franchise to skate in the Spectrum, back in 1996.

PETER LUUKKO still can remember the reaction he received from peers after Comcast-Spectacor announced it had purchased an AHL franchise to skate in the Spectrum, back in 1996.

"People thought that we were out of our minds," Luukko recalled. "To put a team just 100 yards across the parking lot from the Flyers, an established NHL team, they thought we were nuts."

And tonight, as the Phantoms square off against Hershey in their final regular-season game 13 years later, Luukko would probably like to give the naysayers a poignant: "I told you so.''

But the Comcast-Spectacor COO doesn't need to say a word.

The Phantoms, the Flyers' AHL affiliate, speak for themselves in the form of two Calder Cups and multiple attendance records. With the Spectrum scheduled to be closed in September, the Phantoms were sold to a Pittsburgh group in February. It has yet to be determined where the team will play next season.

"I had always thought that they were different," Luukko said. "The Phantoms had a different price point. Tickets started at just $10, our competition at the time were things like the movies or a show.

"More than a fantastic marketing idea, it was an opportunity for fans to grow with the future Flyers."

In fact, Luukko knew early on that the fledgling franchise would be a success - not on the ice, but in popularity with the fans.

"Before every Flyers game, Lou Nolan announces the additions and scratches to the lineup," Luukko said. "It is a brief announcement - it's no big deal. He announced that Vinnie Prospal was called up from the Phantoms and the fans cheered.

"Normally, if a player was called up from Hershey [the Flyers' previous AHL affiliate], the fans would have no idea. But they knew that Prospal was leading the league in scoring."

It is fitting, then, that tonight's Phantoms game is a sellout. The game, featuring recently recalled defenseman Luca Sbisa, is the Phantoms' 21st sellout at the Spectrum since their inception; it is also their first in 9 years.

Hand-in-hand with the attendance figures was winning. The Phantoms netted a still franchise-best 111 points to capture the AHL's regular-season title in their first season.

It was no surprise that within two seasons, the Phantoms already had captured their first Calder Cup by dispatching the St. John's Flames, 6-1, on a warm June night in front of 17,380 rabid fans.

"They really piggybacked on the tradition of the Flyers," said Flyers coach John Stevens, who was a defenseman on that Calder Cup winning team, then was head coach of the 2005 champions. "Playing in the old Spectrum, with Bill Barber coaching and Bob Clarke as the general manager, we had a rugged and tough team. The fans welcomed that style of play with open arms.

"No, I didn't have any hesitations coming to the Flyers' organization. I was drafted by them [in 1983] and I was glad that they wanted me to be here. The Flyers' organization brought in a very veteran team right away and it helped build such a strong tradition in a short amount of time.

"They set the bar in the American League for years and years. It was a big-league experience playing in the minor leagues."

Luukko sees a guy like Stevens - who spent two full seasons playing, two as an assistant coach and six as head coach - as the face of the franchise.

"He was the first captain of the team and that last season he was basically a player-assistant coach," Luukko said. "Then for him to work his way up to head coach and win the Calder Cup is special."

"I spent a good part of my career there," Stevens said. "My family was with me. It meant a lot of things to a lot of players. I would have liked for them to stay here, I have so many good memories."

The two Calder Cups - with the second coming during the NHL lockout - gave the franchise recognition. But to Luukko, it was the atmosphere that defined it.

"That was the thing about Billy Barber as the head coach," Luukko said, "the team was so accessible. It was very important for him to make everyone feel a part of it. From the parking lot attendant to the ticket takers to the fans to the maintenance people - everyone was a part of the team.

"Long after the game [in 1998], it was one big party on the concourse. That was everybody's Cup.

"I'm sad that it is the end of an era. It was a lot of fun for all of us." *