BY: COLLIN SCHUCK
Seldom say Philadelphia is a hockey town. Most often, the city bleeds green and red. But in smaller pockets of the greater Philadelphia area from South Jersey beyond Doylestown and into the Pocono Mountains, a glimmer of orange and black flickers through the cracks. The early 1990s was a blossoming time for a new crop of fans to arise, myself included.
From my childhood, I was immersed in hockey through family ties. My mother babysat the kids of former Flyers center Terry Crisp during the run of both Stanley Cup titles in 1974 and 1975. My father was an avid fan who also sold programs at the notorious Veterans Stadium just down the road. Both cousins played ice hockey in high school. Even my brother and I took to the hard wood for floor hockey. My earliest memory is opening presents in the old wooden rocking chair in my family room on my fourth birthday, but as far as sports it turns to hockey games. Whether it be visiting the confines of the Spectrum or (former) CoreStates Center (now known as the Wells Fargo Center), or watching National Hockey Night on ESPN with my father and brother. We would view Flyers games when money permitted, but when they became too expensive during the “Legion of Doom” era, we’d visit the Spectrum to see the Phantoms.
With a family of three boys and a fun, loving mother, the dynamic was that of thrill-seekers. The Jersey Shore couldn’t maintain our taste for excitement, but three hours to our west held our glory: Hershey Park. Also introduced by my parents, this became a yearly destination for our family. Nestled just outside of Hershey, P.A., the character of the area and the town grew on me, becoming one of my favorite destinations outside of Philadelphia overtop of the reigning child culture champion, Walt Disney World. While we never viewed a Hershey Bears game, the Giant Center always lingered just beyond our reach.
The Phantoms left after the 2008-09 season, as did I for my collegiate studies. I returned to the area in the Phantoms’ final season in the Adirondacks, and as I entered the hockey industry full-time, the Phantoms moved back to the Philadelphia area in the same capacity. When I reported to Corpus Christi to embark on my career, I come to find out that my two favorite childhood cities both offer homes for two former IceRays players.
Almost poetic, in a sense.
Philadelphia had come to know and love minor professional hockey for 13 years from 1996 to 2009 with the purchase of the Philadelphia Phantoms in the American Hockey League before their inaugural season. Ten of their 13 seasons resulted in Calder Cup Playoff appearances with two championships in 1998 and 2005 in their only two chances. Players like Mike Richards, Jeff Carter, Patrick Sharp, Joni Pitkanen, Antero Nittymaki, and R.J. Umberger progressed right across the street from the parent club. When the Spectrum was shut down following the 2009 season, the Phantoms were forced to relocate to the cooler confines of Glens Falls, N.Y., and from that moment the greater Philadelphia area hungered for their city’s team.
For five seasons, the Phantoms failed to record a playoff berth and above a third place finish in divisional standings. The Glens Falls Civic Center was their new home, but the sour taste in the mouth hinted at a march back south to where the team is considered home by its fanbase. The Phantoms appeared back in Philadelphia three times in their five years away. They played two games from the Wells Fargo Center, the home of the Philadelphia Flyers, once in 2009 and again in 2011. Two months later in March 2011, plans were made for the Phantoms to move to Allentown, Penn., about 60 miles northwest of Philadelphia up I-476. With the dawn of a return on the horizon, one final appearance would preview the welcoming back to the area: the 2012 Outdoor Classic at Citizens Bank Park. The game still holds the AHL attendance record with 45,653 fans, which more than doubles the previous record of 21,673 from the previous season.
The stage was set for their inaugural season at the PPL Center on October 1, 2014 with a pre-season game against the Hershey Bears.
The Phantoms and Bears have an intertwined history with the Philadelphia Flyers. The Bears were the affiliate of the Flyers for 12 seasons (1984-96) leading up to the purchase of the Phantoms franchise. The AHL’s oldest franchise brought home a Calder Cup in 1987-88 for the Flyers as well as a host of players who began their careers in Chocolatetown, including current Flyers General Manager and former goaltender Ron Hextall. After the Phantoms took over the affiliation, the Bears bounced with the Colorado Avalanche until 2005 when they would return to the Washington Capitals. The Phantoms and Bears met in the aforementioned 2012 Outdoor Classic, where the Phantoms took a 4-3 overtime win.
The two would continue to share an unintentional twist with the addition of two goaltenders from the Corpus Christi IceRays. In 2012, the Philadelphia Flyers selected Anthony Stolarz (’11-’12) in the second round of the NHL Entry Draft. At that same point, Pheonix Copley (’10-’11) just finished his sole year in the United States Hockey League with Tri-City and Des Moines. The two would play two seasons at a higher level: Copley at NCAA Division I Michigan Tech and Stolarz with the London Knights of the Ontario Hockey League. After Copley’s second season, he signed with the South Carolina Stingrays of the ECHL, an affiliate of the Washington Capitals. He would sign with the Capitals and report to the Hershey Bears.
And thus continues the thread.
NEW AND CONTINUED BEGINNINGS
After visiting the PPL Center two days earlier as a member of the media–I also witnessed the fastest three goals (21 seconds) in the 79-year AHL history–I entered the arena for the first time as a childhood observer. The PPL Center is a 8,500-seat arena that marks the largest in the region and a perfect venue for a minor professional hockey team. The entire arena is brightly lit and colored with large open spaces and walkways, creating a feeling of spaciousness despite being locked in downtown Allentown. The arena provides a wide array of amenities from healthier offerings to area favorites such as Chickie’s and Pete’s Crab House and Sports Bar. Most importantly, there is no bad seat in the house.
I took my seat right behind the net in the 200-level of the Phantoms attacking zone, hoping to get a better view of developing plays from above and a nod to the seats I searched for as a child. I had come not only to see the PPL Center with my own eyes but also in the hopes of an IceRays dream lineup in this game between the Phantoms and Bears: Stolarz vs. Copley. With an injury on the Flyers earlier in the day, word traveled swiftly that Stolarz would become to primary netminder for the Lehigh Valley Phantoms for the foreseeable future, but the Bears camp remained quiet in terms of possible starting goaltenders. While I hoped for the dream to come, I had a sense that Phil Grubauer would be awarded the nod over the former IceRay. I watched intently as the Bears entered the ice for warm-ups.
Grubauer was first out of the tunnel. Barring a catastrophic meltdown, Copley wasn’t going to play.
However I still searched for the chocolate number 30 to skate onto the ice and catch a glimpse of the history that precedes me while I had the opportunity being so far away from both franchises while in Texas. For those 15 minutes, I could see two young players with the fruits of their labor on display in the level just under any hockey player’s ultimate ambition. Even without the hype, the potential shown in that small frame of time warmed the innards of my core.
After warm-ups, the arena dimmed awaiting the arrival of starting lineups. Only a few minutes later, the video board displayed the home side’s own pump up video to get the crowd prepared for the game at hand. The Phantoms began introductions with the five skaters in front of Stolarz. Just after the final skater was announced, the photo of Stolarz appeared with his name and number on the video board as the Public Address Announcer walked him onto the ice with the help of the in-arena spotlight:
“…and in goal…number 35…Anthony STOOOOOOOLARZ!”
Following the playing of the Star Spangled Banner, the lights flashed on, both teams took to their respective benches and the game was underway.
From the observations of Wednesday’s game, it was clear that the Phantoms often start the game with little shots toward net, taking a more defensive mindset through the entirety of the opening period. The Bears outshot the Phantoms 16-1, creating a lot of havoc for Stolarz and the Phantoms defensive core. From the first save made on the night, the confidence exuded from the 20-year-old goaltender. Peering into his mask from the opposite end of the ice, no play jolted his eyes, always focused on the puck and the movement of the Bears offensive core. Post-to-post slides were swift, precise, and extremely fluid. Though one of the youngest players on the ice, his action and body language showed the poise of a seasoned veteran.
While his hardest task in terms of shots attempts would remain behind him, the chances created by Hershey continued to grow in quality. With a play toward the midway mark of the second period, the Bears nearly drew Stolarz away from the point of attack, snapping a pass from right circle to left circle for a one-time shot from the dot. Stolarz could sense the play developing, sliding to his right to cut off the angle.
Stolarz lunged his 6-foot-6 frame back toward his left side, fully extending his left-handed glove toward where he came to snare a rocket of a shot and stop the Bears from recording the first goal of the game. The crowd roared in adulation. Stolarz seemed unphased, grabbing a quick squirt of water from the bottle atop his net and taking his usual stance.
Shot after shot came the way of Stolarz throughout the rest of the night, and every time the Bears thought they had an answer, Stolarz countered with a stop. Phantoms right-winger Jason Akeson scored both goals on the night (a breakaway shorthanded goal in the second period and an empty net goal in the third period) to seal the win.
Stolarz stopped all 32 shots he faced, earning his second career shutout and his third-straight victory. He improved to a .500 record for the first time thanks to his strong stretch of games. His effort rewarded him as the game’s first star of the night over the game’s lone goal-scorer.
As I rose from my seat and embarked on the drive back to New Jersey, I couldn’t help but wonder how the game’s events would have fared with Pheonix Copley starting in net for the Bears. Two former IceRays dueling it out as they did in the first pre-season bout between the Philadelphia Flyers and Washington Capitals. That matchup will have to wait for another day, but with the track that these two netminders are showing early in their careers, there’s no doubt that they will battle against one another in games and seasons to come.
As my years in the industry progress along with theirs, I can take pride and excitement not only seeing two promising young goaltenders moving their way in cities close to my heart but also knowing the organization that helped to produce and expose their talents continues that tradition with the skaters that call the American Bank Center home.
Collin Schuck is the Director of Broadcasting & Media Relations for the Corpus Christi IceRays. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @CollinDSchuck.