Spectrum memories: The matinee plan

“To celebrate my 25th year of hockey fandom, I will occasionally step into the way-back machine and write about events in the Flyers’ past. For the balance of the season, I will be dipping into the well to ruminate about some things related to my love of the Philadelphia Flyers, and in general about the fan experience as a youngster. This is the first in the series of Spectrum Memories.”

It’s been 15 years, but my memories of attending Flyers games at the Spectrum are still fresh in my mind.

From the good years, to the lean ones, and back to good, I was able to witness a sizable chunk of history from my perch in the nosebleed seats in the third deck.  They were always upper-level seats, because it would always take me forever to decide what season ticket plan I wanted when the pamphlet arrived at the house some time in mid-August. We’d always end up with the matinee plan, because my parents were big into school nights being school nights, and weekends being for fun.

For the better part of 12 years, Flyers tickets were something to be earned, treasured, and enjoyed. The experience of being crammed into the brown sardine can with 17,000 other rabid fans is something I hope doesn’t fade with time.

It was a great place to be on Saturday and Sunday afternoons during the worst six months of the year, weather-wise – and taught me lessons every bit as valuable as the ones I endured throughout school.

It was a matter of survival most days, given the crushing nature of the concourse before the game and between periods. The rules were simple if you wanted to get to the bathroom, the merchandise kiosks or to the food lines: keep your head up, your wallet in your pocket, your elbows extended, your hatred of the Oilers, Rangers and Devils apparent, and your voice crisp and clear when some idiot in front of you prevented the line from moving forward.

The first time I ventured into the soon-to-be demolished arena on Pattison Avenue, I was seven years old and accompanied by my grandfather. I left with a Drake’s Cakes gym bag. The last time, I was 18 years old and strolled out of the stadium with some good friends from high school and a sense of hope for the near future.

I banged on the heating vents in the last row of seats in time with the original “Let’s Go Fly-ers!” chant, caught a puck standing on the first-level landing flipped casually into the crowd by Mark Howe. Cheered like a madman at every fight the Flyers won, felt the electricity after the National Anthem during the First Gulf War, and booed until my throat was sore at Don Koharski and the Flyers themselves when they lost to scrubs like Toronto and Hartford.

Over parts of 12 seasons, my attendance record was 13-11-1. I’m glad my presence was able to have an overall positive impact on the Orange and Black, though I attended a significant portion of games in that Dark Age after Mike Keenan’s success and before the Legion of Doom.

To tell the truth, if it wasn’t for that unexpected burst the Flyers made to the Eastern Conference Finals in 1995, I never would have had a final go-around at the old barn in its final year of NHL hockey. Call me a pessimist, but after seeing what the team had become during their five-year absence from the playoffs between 1989 and 1994, I wasn’t too eager to invest. More to the point, neither was my dad, who always fronted the money.

And the next season, millionaires and billionaires squabbling over money robbed me and countless thousands of half a season.

Thankfully, hockey extended to June forced me to re-evaluate my stance, which led to a senior-year gift of matinee plan tickets once more.

So, they can tear the roof off the sucker — or the walls, and the seats, and the scoreboard, the ice, the bathroom stalls and give away the banners. But the essence and spirit will always be there. I’ll still be able to hear the Pelle chant, the A****** chant, Lou Nolan’s faithful introduction to the fans, and the roar of the crowd from six blocks away when something good happened inside, echoing through my mind.