The game marked the last time the Flyers will appear in their storied old home, which is slated to be demolished next fall. A sellout crowd of 17,077 watched the minor-league Phantoms skate to a 4-2 victory over the parent club.
The Flyers last played an NHL game here in 1996 before moving across the street to the Wachovia Center and leaving their former home to their new AHL affiliate. Both teams won championships on Spectrum ice. The Flyers defeated the Boston Bruins 1-0 in Game 6 of the 1974 Stanley Cup Final. The Phantoms won their first Calder Cup here in 1998. Seven years later, they won the 2005 Calder Cup at the Wachovia Center with a team that included current Flyers Mike Richards, Randy Jones, Riley Cote, Jeff Carter, and goalie Antero Niittymaki, the MVP of those playoffs.
On Tuesday, the Phantoms played a ringer — Niittymaki, now the Flyers' backup goalie, who was making his first start since returning from surgery. Although the game at times resembled a no-contact scrimmage between the varsity and the JV, which it was, the Flyers made sure Niittymaki saw quality NHL shots.
"I thought Nitty played great," Flyers coach John Stevens said. "His strength has always been his lateral mobility and tonight he was strong in the net."
He looked good against Danny Briere's shot from 15 feet in the slot at 12:32 of the first period and again soon after on a rebound try by Mike Knuble. He stole a goal off Knuble's stick at 6:10 of the second period when he was down on his back in his crease and appeared to use his blocker to deflect the point-blank shot wide of the net.
Briere won a behind-the-net battle on Niittymaki's right side and fired a pass in front of the crease that Simon Gagne one-timed for a goal from 20 feet. Mike Richards' hard work down low helped set up the goal at 12:11 of the middle period.
Marty Biron was perfect on seven first-period shots, none very tough, but fell victim to the Flyers' defense's inability to clear a loose puck after Sean Curry's shot from the point. Jared Ross shoveled the puck into the net at 17:12 after he and Patrick Maroon both had swipes at it.
The Phantoms applied sustained pressure against the line of Richards, Briere and Gagne and scored on Maroon's tap-in of a rebound of Nate Guenin's point shot at 9:07 of the third period to make it 2-1.
The Phantoms again applied sustained pressure before Claude Giroux, the Flyers' No. 1 draft pick in 2006, tapped in a short pass through the crease from Jonathan Matsumoto at 14:11 for a 3-1 lead.
The Flyers came right back with a goal from Scottie Upshall at 15:08 to make it 3-2. They brought the fans to their feet with 43.7 seconds left when it appeared that Jeff Carter scored — but referee Ryan Fraser, son of longtime NHL referee Kerry Fraser, ruled that Carter knocked the puck into the net with his arm.
The Phantoms made it 4-2 when Andreas Nodl tapped in an empty-netter with 18 seconds left.
What the night really showed was that Philadelphia is quite the hockey town.
The Spectrum, which cost $7 million to build and opened in 1967, was the original home to the Flyers, who played there for 29 seasons. But that changed when the $210 million Wachovia Center opened its doors in August 1996. Instead of leveling the old barn then, the Flyers purchased an American Hockey League franchise in December 1995. That team, the Phantoms, began play in 1996-97 at the Spectrum under coach and Hockey Hall of Famer Bill Barber.
"I just made sure the players were aware what kind of honor and privilege it was to play in the Spectrum and that we needed to carry on the tradition as a minor-league team that's associated with the Flyers," Barber told NHL.com. "That included effort, commitment and being able to pay the price to win."
"If Philadelphia is not the most passionate sports town in North America, I don't know what is," Flyers General Manager Paul Holmgren said. "It's a blue-collar town and they want to see hard work and effort and I think if you give them that, you'll be OK. But they're very passionate and the mood of Philadelphia is dictated by the success of their sports teams. It's interesting because, as a player, it pushes you to your limits, but in a good way."
Hockey Hall of Famer and former Flyers captain Bob Clarke agrees.
"Philadelphia is the No. 1 professional hockey town in this country," said Clarke, now the Flyers' senior vice president. "We sold out our building since the beginning of the '70s and the Phantoms even draw like crazy. No city comes close to Philadelphia in supporting professional hockey."
Holmgren, who was the Flyers' director of player personnel at the time, remembers the scene at the Spectrum.
"It was pretty wild, and the fact we closed out the series in the Spectrum was pretty neat," Holmgren said. "It was a raucous crowd and the celebration afterwards spilled over into the parking lot and streets. It was a major championship for a minor-league team and was pretty cool. Our championship in '05 was even better because we had over 20,000 fans packed in the Wachovia Center and there was a huge spotlight on that series, and the final game in particular."
Stevens captained the 1998 Phantoms title team and coached the 2005 titlists.
"I came here in '96 when they brought the Phantoms to Philadelphia and there were so many links to the tradition of the Flyers that we were able to piggy-back on," Stevens said. "First, we're playing in the actual Spectrum where it all began, Bill Barber was our coach and Bob Clarke was the general manager. They even brought (Hockey Hall of Fame broadcaster) Gene Hart back out of retirement to do our games on television. Everywhere you turned there were links to the past and (the Phantoms) had a really good, rugged team back then so we really jumped on the coat-tails of the tradition that had been established long before in the Spectrum.
"We were leaders in attendance every year and the fans just accepted us with open arms, so I think the Phantoms and Flyers really worked well together. You know, Philly is a great sports town — not just for hockey, but all sports — and I think the recognition and fan support this city shows has enabled the hockey clubs to function the way they have all these years."
Having the Flyers and Phantoms within close proximity certainly had its benefits.
"Obviously the greatest benefit of having two teams playing so close to one another was having players accessible for recalls," Flyers Assistant GM Barry Hanrahan said. "Over the course of a season players do get injured, and the 23-man roster never stays to where it's set at on opening day. So that benefit alone was tremendous, but more importantly I think just to have them training in the same facility (Flyers Skate Zone in Voorhees, N.J.), where all players were essentially under the watchful eye of the general manager, director of hockey operations and director of player personnel on a daily basis, was tremendous."
Sharing the same training facility presented young prospects an opportunity to practice like the pros.
"I remember when Mike Richards and Jeff Carter were with the Phantoms and they came to the training facility over the summer and watched how Mark Recchi and John LeClair would prepare," Holmgren said. "Here are Hall of Fame-caliber players working their butt off and doing what they need to do to stay in shape for the upcoming season. That certainly leaves an impression on a young kid. And even today, a guy like Phantoms defenseman Mike Ratchuk, who we're really high on, gets to watch Kimmo Timonen work out and practice. It's like being a fan, where you can see your favorite players every day."
"On top of that, all the injuries were basically taken care of by the same doctors, rehabilitation therapists and strength coaches, and when you needed a player, he was just down the hall. It kept everyone under one roof, whereas in other places you wouldn't be able to watch your prospects. Here, we're fortunate because we can watch and monitor each player's progress throughout the whole year."
Keeping the NHL team and AHL affiliate close by also had economic advantages.
"I think from a cost standpoint, it's important to know that if you need a player, you can get him in here as soon as possible and avoid wasting a day of travel, which would delay his availability for practice or even suiting up for that night's game," Hanrahan said.
According to Hanrahan, once a player is recalled he is essentially on the NHL roster and being paid. Whether the player is practicing with the club or flying into town, he still counts on the salary cap.
"So if a player has the flu and we're left shorthanded, all we need to do is walk 30 or 40 feet down the hall and call up a player so long as we have the cap space," Hanrahan said. "You can always call up a player, make the transaction and then reassign him after 5 p.m. the next day or however long you want to keep the player."
It remains to be seen where the Phantoms will relocate after the upcoming season, but it appears the Flyers will do everything within their power to make sure the team remains nearby.
"There have been some preliminary talks, but we still have logistics to work out," Hanrahan said. "As we get into the season, our management will move forward and try to get a definitive place for where they'll be next season."
What seems certain is the Spectrum will be replaced by an entertainment district that will include a hotel, restaurants, shops and, according to Flyers Chairman Ed Snider, "the world's biggest and best sports bar."
"It'll be called 'Philly Live,' and while we're still in need of the permits from the city, it should be an exciting destination point for all sports fans," Snider said. "And it won't be solely for the people who come to the football, baseball, hockey and basketball games, either. We feel people without a ticket to an event will come just as they would into Center City (Philadelphia) to go to a restaurant to have some fun. It'll be a wonderful destination spot and we're looking forward to the next phase in that development."
Contact Mike Morreale at email@example.com.