Spectrum Memories: A view from above

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 fifth in the series of Spectrum Memories.

As I’ve established in previous posts, I was a nosebleed dweller at the Spectrum throughout my youth. That was the deal if my parents were going to front the tickets for a whole season.

Still, there were precious few times I was able to break away from the huddled masses on the third level and join the remainder of the oxygenated class.

One of those came courtesy of some of the best gifts I’ve ever recieved at Christmas: the Flyers Santa Sack.

Back in the day, it was simple — two tickets to an upcoming Flyers game against a lesser opponent, a pen, pencil, stickers and a signed puck. It probably cost $40 with the tickets accounting for roughly three-quarters of that.

Every year at the Holidays, I get the jump on the Santa Sack commercial and right before the announcer reveals the price, the smart-ass in me bellows ”Starting at just one thousand dollars.”

Admit it, it’s not too far off. But I digest.

The first time I scored second-level seats was in 1986. We’d just moved into the two floors above my dad’s office a couple months before (so I guess that makes it second grade), and on Christmas Day, a Santa Sack graced my pile of presents.

Anyway, at that time mid-level tickets were like gold bars to us…$18 each! Didn’t matter that the organ-eye-zation chose to hook us up with a cold January Tuesday night date with the last-place New Jersey Devils.

After my first two forays down Broad Street involved last-row balcony views, it was a shock to be somewhere close to the action. Mark Howe, as was his custom back then, was almost able to hit our section to the left of center ice with a practice puck, on the fly, from near the boards.

I still think that’s pretty damn impressive, and I haven’t seen anyone else get close.

That first period featured a lot of action, a lot of fighting, but no goals. I do recall that the noise of the sellout crowd was so much more vivid and alive, like a wall or a wave, for each outburst. It was almost vicious the way they cheered against every opposing player after the whistle.

I had no recollection of this until I looked it up, but apparently the Devils led after two periods before the Flyers woke up and won the game. It wasn’t a classic victory for a team that won 53 games that year, but what did I know?

Given that it was a school night too, my eight-year-old behind was draggin’ (though not as bad as that episode of the Simpsons where Bart fakes his “loss of vitality” and goes totally horizontal and limp on Marge) and I probably acted like a wet noodle walking out of the arena. I bet I was zonked out in the car before we made it out of the parking lot.

I still have that Santa Sack, hidden somewhere in my parents’ house, probably overtaken with a quarter-century of dust and crust. Someday I’m going to hang it above my fireplace. When I get a fireplace instead of a space heater, that is.

The second, and final time I got to taste how the other two-thirds lived came roughly six weeks after the PAUL MUST GO! incident.

Somehow, my dad got a hold of two tickets from whatever hospital he was working for, and they were plentiful from what I gather because it was during those five torturous years out of the playoffs.

This was another Tuesday night, but the opponent was the Chicago Blackhawks, who were seething under the yoke of ex-Flyers head coach Mike Keenan after being eliminated in the first round the year before by the fourth-place Minnesota North Stars.

So, on one bench you had Steve Larmer, Jeremy Roenick, Michel Goulet, Chris Chelios. The Flyers’ side featured such luminaries as Brad Jones, Andrei Lomakin, Kerry Huffman and Claude Boivin.

Instant blowout, right?

Not hardly.

Apparently, Ron Hextall gave it one of his best performances during his three years of injury-riddled wilderness before going to Quebec. He stopped 33-of-34 shots, and for one night, the boos subsided, replaced by cheers and the odd partial standing ovation as Hexy turned away waves of ‘Hawks chances in the first and third periods.

Dave Brown scored in the second period and I could feel the second level shake with the sudden explosion of noise that accompanied the goal output of any fighter. It’s still fresh in my mind as a unique experience that only being in attendance at RFK Stadium during a Redskins playoff game could match in terms of pure feel.

I couldn’t tell you who or how Chicago tied the game, but they did, and overtime didn’t solve anything either.

The most memorable part of the night came just as we settled into our seats prior to faceoff. The guy sitting next to me leaned over as if to ask anyone within earshot who the starting goalie was for the Blackhawks.

I then spoke two words I definitely never said before, but that would come to haunt me and thousands of Flyer fans in the next decade…tapping him on the shoulder, I blurted out “Dominik Hasek.”

He gave me a quizzical look. He’d soon find out. We’d all soon find out.

But back in 1992, he was just a bench jockey fresh from Czechoslovakia, waiting for his rare chance to sub for Ed Belfour, who was Martin Brodeur before Brodeur became Brodeur by playing 70-something games a year.

This was what was once called a satisfying point. A tie against a team that held a clear talent advantage. In a statistical oddity, both clubs tied all three of their games that season, 1-1 and 1-1 at the Spectrum and 4-4 at Chicago Stadium.

Imagine that, “fans of the game who love shootouts because ties are un-American” or some such nonsense — both teams got a point and played to the max for 65 minutes and people who paid were satisfied with the outcome. I think they’d be up in arms in Columbus after that.

A half-decade later, the Flyers improved and my family’s financial situation improved, but we never again sat anywhere but in the upper levels while the Flyers played in the Spectrum.

The Phantoms were a different matter, and they were so popular right out of the gate it took several MORE years before I gained a coveted spot where I wasn’t scraping the catwalks.