Preserving the tradition in Glens Falls

Courtesy of BSH

Glens Falls, New York is a great little town, and a great little hockey town with a long tradition of welcoming those who play and those who support the sport.

That’s why some of us inveterate hockey nerds who would ordinarily have nothing else to do on a stormy weekend, would drive five hours into the teeth of the snow belt, then stay an extra night because they didn’t want to chance a 10-hour drive back through what is considered by locals to be “light” snow.

But the hamlet located just South and East of the Adirondack Mountains which is home to nearly 15,000 residents is no longer an American Hockey League-level location. I hate to say it. I had to say it. ‘Cause it’s unfortunately true. But that in now way means that hockey can’t flourish here once the NHL’s Triple-A club leaves.

The sands in the hourglass are roughly two-thirds full on the wrong end. The new Phantoms arena is slowly taking shape in an empty, rectangular plot of land in Allentown, PA, which promises a larger fan base in a smaller radius with which to draw from and most importantly, much larger seating capacity.

On Friday night, in a 4-2 loss to the Providence Bruins, the Adirondack Phantoms drew 4,542. That may seem like a tiny crowd, but since the Glens Falls Civic Center holds only just over 4,800, their takeaway was almost 95 percent capacity. However, that ranks fourth-lowest of the 30 current AHL clubs.

When Adirondack entered the league for the 1979-80 season, the league had contracted into smaller markets as larger ones were slowly assumed into the NHL or were no longer viable. There were only 10 clubs, none located further south than Hershey, PA and none further west than Syracuse. By the time of the Red Wings’ third and final Calder Cup win in 1992, the league expanded to 15 teams and extended its footprint from Baltimore to St. John’s Newfoundland.

But by the edge of the new Millennium, after 20 years serving the area, the league had begun the first steps towards linking up more directly with individual NHL franchises. In addition, cities like Philadelphia, Cincinnati, Hartford and Louisville had entered the picture, playing in arenas that were at or near the old-standard NHL capacities. Adirondack’s attendance figures shrunk to under 3,500 per game, worst in its 20-year residency.

So you have to wonder why the Brooks Brothers, of all potential markets not touched by the minor-league experience, wanted to plant the Phantoms in Glens Falls given the economic climate of the league in 2009. In the 10 years between franchise admissions, the AHL exploded into a 29-team behemoth where all but one NHL club had a single-affiliation agreement. Norfolk, Winnipeg, Toronto, Houston, San Antonio, Chicago, Dallas-Fort Worth all joined the landscape in bigger and better and newer arenas. Any time spent in Warren County would be the worst kind of tease.

Average attendance this season is negligibly higher than in 1999 — still not over 3,500 — but compared to the support in Hershey (top overall at 9,261 fans per night) Providence (third overall with 6,991 playing at its smaller downtown arena) and even the new St. John’s franchise (6,287), it’s a losing battle. And when the Phantoms leave for the Lehigh Valley after next season, what then?

The threat of AHL hockey leaving Glens Falls existed as far back as 1986, as in a piece from the Schenectady Gazette from September 20 of that year revealed that with attendance dropping to 4,000 per game, there was the distinct possibility that the Wings could have left town and landed 45 miles to the south in Albany. The article stated that the club lost almost $500,000 — and this was in the wake of the team’s second Calder Cup triumph the previous Spring. That’s incredible, but in just seven short years from the time Mike Ilitch purchased the franchise, the season-ticket base had eroded from 3,900 to 2,400.

Albany eventually got its team, though it wasn’t a relocated Adirondack club, rather the Capital District Islanders who took the ice in 1990. They begat the River Rats as the primary affiliate for New Jersey, who later begat the Albany Devils, who play in the Times Union Center presently and are the Phantoms’ closest geographic rival.

No matter what kind of hockey fills the brick-laden edifice on Glen Street, there’s been an interesting dynamic, exposed in a Times Union article from this past July, quoting the arena’s GM, Bob Belber:

“I was watching TV one day and saw this story. The mayor of Glens Falls and the business leaders are out trying to sell more season tickets despite their team going to Allentown. Hearing that their count is up to about 1,600, and knowing that the River Rats’ season-ticket number is up to about 1,000, 1,100, it’s under where the Glens Falls number was. We need to make sure we sell more season tickets in this market to keep the Devils here on a long-term basis.”

After the Wings were declared inactive and then later moved to San Antonio in 2002, there was little interest from potential high-level minor-league suitors.

Ignored by the AHL and ECHL, the doomed United Hockey League eventually came calling in the name of the IceHawks in 1999. They later became the Frostbite (owned in part by ESPN’s Steve Levy and former Adk. Wing Barry Melrose) before falling off the radar for good in 2006 after being unable to secure a lease at the Civic Center.

The IceHawks only advanced past the first round once in their first five seasons, then the Frostbite won a combined 94 games but failed to win a single postseason round. Owing to the low level of the on-ice product and the low-budget approach to the game experience, the former never drew more than 3,200 per game and the latter never cracked the 3,000-per-night barrier.

With 1 1/2 years to go, it’s anyone’s guess how the locals will respond with season-ticket demand and per-game attendance. Last season’s 4,631 average was the highest of the four seasons thus far and while the years ending with even numbers have been kinder to the Phantoms, the odd-numbered years haven’t been.

That should be of little consequence to a league like the ECHL, which completely lacks a footprint in the Northeast quadrant of the United States. Its northern-most franchise is located in Elmira, New York, on the Southern Tier, and 234 miles away from Glens Falls. After an attempt at placing a franchise in Burlington, Vermont was aborted in the last decade, a team here, any team, would be a perfect fit for continuity’s sake.

The economics of the region are working better than those of Johnstown, Burlington and even Utica, which has been surprisingly left off the E’s radar for years. In any case, Utica and Glens Falls have a little bit more in common than Wheeling with Trenton and Reading, and could make a nice five-team division that stretches North rather than West.

By comparison, the Phantoms’ current average attendance would be in the low-middle range for the ECHL but once again, playing in a smaller venue would still draw attention as one of the highest overall percentages of capacity.

Plus, residents in these small towns know the game. Teams change, names change, parent clubs come and go. But they’re most attracted by the game, not by affiliation, and are aware of the boon a team presents to the town itself. It’s hardly fair to let the fandom wait an indeterminate period of time after the Phantoms leave before another team takes up residence.

“I just enjoy having hockey, and it boosts the economy and brings people out on a Friday and Saturday night. It brings people into downtown,” said Kathryn Dingman, a Glens Falls resident who is a special-education teacher, to the Philadelphia Inquirer on December 1.

If you bring it, they will come. And they will be better than Albany at going, which deserves its own more permanent reward.