THE BUILDING that housed the hockey games that taught Philadelphia fans about the sport hosted its final regular-season game last night. And the Phantoms made it a happy goodbye as they held on to beat the Hershey Bears, 5-2.
It was a terrific send-off in every way, not only for the 42-year-old building, but for the Phantoms, the Flyers' 13-year AHL affiliate, who have called the Spectrum home since 1996. They were bought by a Pittsburgh group in February. It is still to be determined where they will play next season.
Last night, tailgaters were in full party mode 2 1/2 hours before the game. Lou Nolan was at the microphone, former Flyers great and Phantoms head coach Bill Barber was in the building, and each of the 17,380 seats had a butt attached. It was like old times, even if the home team wore purple and orange instead of orange and black.
It didn't hurt the atmosphere when, less than 2 minutes into the game, Phantom Josh Gratton and the Bears' Grant McNeill squared off at center ice for a 2-minute fight that featured plenty of airball haymakers and ended with each patting the other on the head in admiration (Dave Schultz, where are you?). That seemed to further energize the already-charged contingent, and the Phantoms rode that rush to take a 3-0 lead to end the first period.
"There's a lot of special moments and great history here," Barber said before the game in a narrow hallway near the locker rooms. "I was one of the fortunate guys that experienced a championship here both at the NHL level with a Stanley Cup and also the Calder Cup in 1998. A lot of special times happened here, from the Stanley Cup [a 1-0 win over the Boston Bruins in 1974], the Russians came in, All-Star games. I couldn't have been any happier than being here in Philadelphia, starting my career here and finishing my career here as a player and . . . great times."
Great times for countless thousands of fans and many, many players. Only in a city with the blue-collar ethic and sports knowledge of Philadelphia could former Phantoms tough-guy Frank Bialowas become a member of the team's Hall of Fame.
"When I got traded here I thought it was gonna [stink], being right across the street from the Flyers," he said. "I was wondering who was going to come watch us. Then when the first game came, and I was standing at the blue line and the squirrels were spinning [pointing to his head] and I thought 'Let's just have some fun.' So I started beating everyone up and the fans went crazy."
Which then led to perhaps the night's best line: "Where else do you get put in the Hall of Fame for being an idiot?"
Making the evening better for the fans was the dominating win. The Phantoms got two first-period power-play goals 2 minutes, 32 seconds apart late in the first from Rob Sirianni, who recorded a hat trick with an empty-net goal. The win, along with the Binghamton Senators loss to Norfolk, clinched a playoff berth for the Phantoms. The Binghamton score produced one of the night's loudest roars. So there could be another game at the place. A Phantoms playoff game could be played at the Wachovia Center.
"I think we were ready to play. The fact that the ramifications of the game in the standings and all, it was a big night in a lot of ways," coach John Paddock said. "With the standings and our race to get into the playoffs, it really didn't allow me to think about our time in this building. When you see 17,000-plus in here, you feed off that."
For some in attendance, their Spectrum hockey memories begin with Phantoms stalwarts Bialowis, Neil Little and John Slaney, all of whom were there. They don't remember the roof blowing off that first year, or the Ed Van Impe hit that sent the Soviets to the locker room in protest, or the Rick MacLeish goal that won that first Cup. Many others remember those memorable events, and they are the ones who had a special appreciation for the commemorative banner unfurled before the game. It read:
April 10, 2009
Good Night and Good Hockey.
Somewhere, the late Flyers broadcaster Gene Hart looked down on the old place and flashed a smile. Those who don't know Hart probably won't miss the Spectrum as much as those who do.
"It's hard to see the team and the building go," said Bob Petti, of Riverside, N.J., who had Phantoms season tickets for all 13 seasons. "I had a chance a few years ago not to renew my tickets, but I wanted to keep coming."
His daughter, Alexis, laughed.
"It's funny he kept them, because my mom hates hockey." *