The move to Lehigh Valley wasn’t something out of the blue for the Phantoms’ brass.
After spending five years playing in Glen Falls, New York, the franchise found its new home in Allentown after originating in Pennsylvania as the Philadelphia Phantoms in 1996. Chris Porrecca, the Phantoms’ executive vice president, says the move to the Lehigh Valley was an eight-year process that began when ownership began studying the area.
It was evident then that the community would make the perfect fit. Now, in their second year in Allentown, it’s evident that their decision to call the area their home is paying off better than expected.
The franchise enjoyed its 11th standing-room only crowd in its last home game on Friday. It was also the sixth sellout in the past seven games. That streak may very well continue for the duration of the season, as the Phantoms are in the midst of a five-game winning streak that puts them at 22-21-3 and two points out of a playoff spot.
“We knew this was the best place to put a minor league hockey team franchise,” Porecca said. “I know we thought we were going to do well, but last year was a tremendous success for us and it was better than we anticipated.”
In its inaugural season, the team had the fourth-highest attendance with 8,163 fans with inner-state foe, Hershey, reigning supreme with an average of 9,791 fans. Halfway through this season, those numbers remain the same with a chance to surpass, especially if the club makes its first postseason in Allentown.
“When you do so well in year one, your expectations grow," Porecca said. “Our expectations are we’re going to do well here and continue to do well. The reception we’ve gotten has been tremendous. It bodes well for us as a team. It says a lot about the fan base in our area.”
The Lehigh Valley area in itself is a unique sports community, with the two most popular teams in the area being the Phantoms and the minor league affiliate of the Philadelphia Phillies, the Lehigh Valley IronPigs.
Nestled about 60 miles from Philadelphia, the area has fully embraced the minor league teams in the area, especially the Phantoms.
McKenzie Browne, 20, has grown up in the area and now attends college at Penn State-Lehigh Valley. She, like many of the locals, has become a regular for the Phantoms -- and IronPigs -- games.
“We’re so close to Philly, so everyone grew up here as a Philly fan,” Browne said. “Having the minor league teams here has only sparked that passion more. We’ve really turned it into our own sports town.”
Porecca and the Phantoms' brass have taken notice of that budding sports culture.
“With the Flyers' minor league team in town, it’s a showcase to everyone across the country that this is a great community,” Porecca said. “It’s a great place to live and to visit and experience.”
While the ties to the Flyers have a lot to do with the Phantoms' success in Year 2, another aspect that really brings it all together is the community-feel the organization provides.
On a select few nights, fans of the Phantoms can bring their own skates to the game and skate with the players afterwards. Then there’s the “Jersey Off Their Backs” night when fans can take home game-worn sweaters from the players.
Shayne Gostisbehere, who spent last season and a small portion of this season with the club before rising to stardom in Philadelphia, admits he was amazed at how passionate the fans were for a minor league team. The first-year player also would put PPL Center right there at the top of the list for best arena in the American Hockey League.
“The fans were awesome,” Gostisbehere recalls. “I think they sell out like every game no matter what day of the week it is. It was definitely cool to see the fans and how passionate they are for not just the Flyers, but for the Phantoms as well.”
Gostisbehere enjoyed all of the experiences he had in the community in his brief time there, such as going to season-ticket holders’ doors and handing them their passes as well as the blood drive the team participated in.
Through a season and a half, the Phantoms have really found the perfect formula in bringing together its players and the community. Behind that plan, the organization has set itself up for great success as the second half of season two commences.
“It’s what you hope for when you’re a minor league team," Porecca said. “You hope the support is tremendous. Our fan base and community are not minor league fans -- they’re major league sports fans. They’re major league in regards to how they come out to our games. They’re 100 percent invested.”