Phantoms: New Home, New Hope — A Closer Look at the Phantoms’ Struggles in Adirondack

The Phantoms’ lack of success in Adirondack is because of several factors, as Tim McManus, former Phantoms beat reporter for the Post-Star, discusses. (Photo courtesy of masslive.com)

Tim McManus covered the Phantoms for The Post-Star during their first three seasons in Adirondack (2009-2010 to 2011-2012). In that time, he witnessed a team struggling to adjust to its new surroundings and a different way of life, going from the bustling Philadelphia to the quiet Glens Falls, NY. The Phantoms have failed to find much success while in their temporary home in Adirondack, and Tim was able to give some great insight as to why that is, including the Flyers organization’s role in the Phantoms’ struggles.

The Phantoms have struggled to find success during their time in Glens Falls. Is there anything specific that can be attributed to, or are there numerous issues?

The Flyers have shown little interest in doing what’s necessary to put a winning product on the ice. Sure, they’d like to win, but it’s just not a priority. If they have a handful of guys they can call up to the Flyers and contribute, then they’re satisfied. To win at the AHL level, you either have to be willing to invest heavily in AHL veterans and or have a lot of great young players on their way up at the same time, like the Phantoms in 2005, or the Binghamton Senators in 2011. The Flyers don’t operate that way. They gave up many of their top draft picks in trades and left the Phantoms with unsigned college free agents. A few of those signings worked out, but take a look at some of the recent rosters and see how many of those guys aren’t even playing in North America anymore. When you combine a barren system with an organization who’d prefer to develop young, borderline NHL players rather than invest in top-shelf AHL talent who can also be NHL depth guys, you have a recipe for the on-ice disaster you’ve seen the last four years. This really dates back to the end of the Philadelphia run. The Phantoms haven’t won a playoff game since 2008.

Did the team have trouble acclimating to its new surroundings in their inaugural season?

I think so. On paper, the Phantoms first team in Glens Falls looked pretty good. They took a playoff team — albeit one that had made a first-round exit — and added some really nice veteran free agents. But a lot of those guys were used to the beautiful facilities in Voorhees and having a major arena like the Spectrum and never got used to the much more AHL-typical setup in Glens Falls. They went from one of the most modern facilities to perhaps the oldest. Anecdotally, I think a lot of players struggled with that transition — more so than the rookies or guys who came from other teams — and when things started going south on-ice, it helped tear it all apart.

What was the attendance like during that first season in Glens Falls? Did you get a sense that the community was supporting the new team in the area?

Attendance peaked in the first year at a little less than 4,000 per game average, which has always been the benchmark for making this work financially in Glens Falls. It has gone steadily downhill since, and it’s pretty obvious that has a direct correlation to all the last-place finishes and playoff misses.

Did the Phantoms’ struggles affect attendance? If so, do you think that then had an effect on the team’s performance, since they were losing support?

The Phantoms owners are on record saying they don’t think winning is a factor in minor league sports. That betrays, and not for the first time, their lack of understanding of how Glens Falls works. What they’re trying to say in general, and there’s quite a bit of truth to it, is that you need to draw the casual, non-hardcore hockey fan in order to be a successful market. Entertain them during the game, have a great mascot, schedule a bunch of giveaways, and those people will be happy and may not even know the final score. Their thinking is, you’ll always have your 2,000 odd hardcore hockey fans no matter what, it’s the casual fans that make or break you. But Glens Falls is a different market than most. In an older, dated arena without a lot of the modern amenities, it’s impossible to produce in-game entertainment on the level you’d see at a Flyers game or in Hershey or Wilkes-Barre. The hockey has to be the star. And there are less casual fans to reach in Glens Falls to begin with because it’s a smaller metropolitan area. What the owners have failed to understand from the start is that winning matters more in Glens Falls than most places because of its history. The Adirondack Red Wings were one of the league’s pre-eminent franchises. They went to the playoffs in every one of their 20 seasons, ending in 1998. They won four Calder Cups. It was such a point of pride to the entire community that they were this little town beating up the big boys. Many of those former Red Wings players and coaches still live and work in the area. To try and sell a fan base accustomed to that level of success on this bumbling level of hockey is an insult. These people know good hockey, and the Flyers haven’t shown them anything like it.

Did this have an effect on their performance? No. It’s been a thin roster for years.

Do you think that, because Glens Falls is just a temporary home for the team, they never fully immersed themselves in the community?

There has always been a subset of the fan base in Glens Falls who hasn’t been willing to accept the Phantoms because of their short-term status, who view them as carpet baggers. These people frustrate me greatly. Look, I understand it sucks to give your heart to a team that is going to rip it out by moving in a few years. If you decide, hey, I can’t invest in this team emotionally because I’m going to end up hurt, I can’t blame you. But those people need to understand that mentality will cost them the chance to have another team. Future franchises are going to judge them on attendance. They’re not going to look and say, oh well, attendance was down because the Phantoms were terrible and people just couldn’t commit because it was a temporary team. They’re just going to look at the bottom line. That has put people there in an unenviable spot: do you keep paying for a subpar product in the hopes — nothing guaranteed — that it will help convince another team to move there? I think fans forget how unlikely it was for a team to move there. There was virtually no chatter about it when I started work there in 2007. There wasn’t hockey of any level at that time. As much as I love it there, Adirondack is sort of a fringe AHL market that needs a lot of things to go right to make financial sense. The belle of the ball was never going with us. Stable, well-run organizations don’t just pick up stakes and move to Glens Falls. You’re always going to attract desperate teams without a lot of other options, like the Phantoms.

The team performed well in a permanent home in Philadelphia. Once the team moves to Allentown permanently, do you think they will have a more successful run?

It really depends on whether the Flyers decide to make a commitment. That matters more than where they play. I’d like to think the Phantoms owners — who have no say on the hockey side — will demand more. They’ve spent quite a bit of money and time to get built a model AHL arena in Allentown. They are going to want it filled with a quality team. The team will probably get a honeymoon there for a year or two no matter what, but I can’t imagine the owners having a high tolerance for the kind of product the Flyers have given Glens Falls. If the Flyers do buckle down and produce a great team for Allentown — and there are some promising signs, like putting Ron Hextall in charge and signing guys like Kris Newbury and Yann Danis — it will be bittersweet for me because I couldn’t stop myself from thinking, why didn’t Glens Falls deserve that?