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Celebrating the Spectrum: A Night of Emotion, Nostalgia, and Victory

by Al Alven / Philadelphia Flyers

(Philadelphia, PA) - With a glimmer in his eye and an unmistakable hint of bittersweet sadness in his voice, Bill Barber held court in the most revered of Philadelphia’s hockey haunts for perhaps the last time.

Speaking to a small gathering of reporters outside the Phantoms’ locker room an hour before the final regular season game in the 42-year history of the Spectrum, the all-time Flyer great and Hockey Hall-of-Famer reflected on what the building has meant to him.

“This is where it all started. For the Flyers, for me. For everything that is hockey in this town and this area,” he said. “This is the beginning, the history. I’m one of the very fortunate few who got to experience Stanley Cup-winning seasons here, a Calder Cup title, the game against the Russians, the 35-game unbeaten streak…
A banner is raised to the Spectrum rafters commemorating the Phantoms' final regular season game there. (Len Redkoles/Flyers Photos)

“Wow. So many memories. I don’t know that I’ve ever thought this day would come, although it was probably in the back of my mind somewhere. I’m going to miss this place more than I can put into words.

“But, tonight…we say goodbye to a dear, old friend.”

And, in grand, magical fashion, the Phantoms did just that. On Friday night, before the 21st sellout crowd in the 13-year history of the AHL franchise, the team not only closed out its final regular season with a 5-2 win over the archrival Hershey Bears, but clinched a playoff spot in the process.

Rob Sirianni earned first star honors by recording a hat trick, while Jonathan Matsumoto and Jonathon Kalinski also scored for the team. Goaltender Scott Munroe earned the win with 20 saves on 22 shots, improving to 31-19-4 on the season.

“Up until that final buzzer, my focus was on the game and the task at hand,” said Phantoms head coach John Paddock, a former Flyers player and NHL coach who has garnered many Spectrum memories over the years, as a member of home and visiting teams.

“Once it was over, I guess it all kind of sunk in. It was very emotional. There was a lot going on tonight, and for our players to remain focused and get the job done against one of the top teams in the league in Hershey was impressive. It was nice to close this chapter with a win, for the players and the fans.”

For the businesslike Paddock, attention now shifts to life after the regular season. The Phantoms will play the Bears, the East Division champs, in the first round of the playoffs, with at least two more games to be played on Spectrum ice.

But with no guarantee of this before Friday night’s contest, the focus was on honoring the history of the building and what it has meant to so many with regard to the past, present, and future of the Flyers organization.

A touching ceremony prior to the opening faceoff saw each member of the current Phantoms roster introduced, and the 35 individuals who held season tickets for the 13-year duration of the franchise honored.

Tribute was then paid to several of the most important figures in team history, including Barber, who coached the team to the first of its two Calder Cup wins in 1997-98, longtime public address announcer Keith Jones, and Frank Miceli, the longtime Chief Operating Officer of the team until this past October.

Next, a handful of the Phantoms’ greatest players were introduced, starting with Boyd Kane, the current team captain and the man who wore the “C” when the team won its second AHL title in 2004-05; John Slaney, the all-time leading scorer among defensemen in team and league history; Frank “The Animal” Bialowas, the long-haired, wild-eyed brawler who is one of the most popular players in team history.

And, finally, Neil Little, the Phantoms’ all-time leader in just about every goaltending category and the only player from both championship teams. Little skated out carrying the Calder Cup, which drew a thunderous ovation from the 17,380 in attendance.

Lauren Hart then drew the pre-game festivities to a close with a heartfelt rendition of the Star Spangled Banner.

“That was something else, the whole thing,” said Munroe, who credits Little, now the Phantoms’ goaltending coach, with his development over the past three seasons. “To see Neil skate out with the Calder Cup and pass it around to his former teammates, with the fans going wild… that was special.

“For us to win this game, it was so important. Not just to secure a playoff spot - don’t get me wrong, that was big. But to win in front of these fans, who are so passionate in this building, with so much history here. It’s been an honor for me to play here and to be a part of this.”
Frank "The Animal" Bialowas raises the Calder Cup in a postgame ceremony. (Len Redkoles/Flyers Photos)

Sirianni, the on-ice star of the evening, agreed. Sitting, exhausted, at his locker room stall after the Phantoms participated in the traditional “Shirts off our Backs” game-worn jersey giveaway after the game, the soft-spoken Edmonton native tried to put his evening in perspective.

“What can I say? To win tonight and close out the Spectrum the way we did, with the atmosphere out there. That was an instant career highlight. That’s something I’ll remember forever.”

Josh Gratton, who led the Phantoms in penalty minutes with 265 during the Calder Cup-winning season of 2005-06 and returned this year for a second stint with the team, understands better than anyone how teams have been able to feed off of emotional responses from the Spectrum faithful.

Just 1:58 into Friday night’s game, he took on and bested Hershey tough guy Grant McNeil in a wild brawl. On his way to the penalty box, he pumped his hands in the air as the Spectrum became unglued.

“I wanted to get the fans into it, but of course, they were already into it from the opening faceoff,” explained Gratton. “But it just got crazier and crazier [after the fights], and I think we took control from that point on. We made it 3-0, and we can thank the fans for always playing their role.

“I think that’s the thing I’m going to miss the most about the Spectrum. The fan support has always been great. They understand effort and how to give a team home ice advantage. You hear the stories about the old days, but this is still a scary place to play in.”

Everyone, it seemed, had a memory to share, a personal reflection, or a thought on just what it was that made the Spectrum such a special place to play in.

Little is a flag bearer for the post-Flyers years at the Spectrum, having played for the Phantoms in eight of their 13 seasons, while serving the last two behind the bench as a coach.

“When I think about the Spectrum, I think of a place I have called home for a long time now,” he said. “Geez, I remember first coming here, knowing the history of the Flyers and the building. The names like Bobby Clarke and Bernie Parent. And, Billy was our coach, so we had a legend right there in our midst.

“Winning the two Calder Cups with very different teams is my favorite memory. The first team was made up of scrappy veterans, minor league guys mostly. The second one had a lot of guys you see on the Flyers today, who are the future.”

Bialowas recalled being traded to Philadelphia from the Washington Capitals organization, prior to the Phantoms inaugural season of 1996-97.

“I’ll be completely honest here,” he said, with a mischievous grin. “When I heard about [the trade], I was less than enthusiastic. I thought, there’s no way this can work. With the Flyers playing across the parking lot, who’s even going to care about us?

“When I skated out for the first game, I saw about 2,500 fans in the stands and I’m thinking, this is gonna suck!”

Everyone within earshot burst out into laugher, some not even sure what Bialowas was referring to. The crowd around him, consisting of media, longtime season ticket holders, and team/league officials, quickly grew as he continued on…

“I decided to have fun with it. I remember the little squirrel running around in my head, thinking I’m just going to go out there, play my game, beat people up, and see what happens. And the fans, man, they fell in love with our team. They kept coming out, attendance kept going up. It was great.

“I wasn’t sure about it at first, but this became the best place I’ve ever played, and Philly became my home. This is a blue collar town, and the Spectrum reflected that. It’s not about the violence, it’s about putting in a hard-working, honest effort every night.

“I hate to see this place go, because I remember so many good times here. It’s a shame that it has to come to this, but I understand progress, too.”

Miceli, a South Philly native, admitted to not being sure what to expect when Comcast-Spectacor chairman Ed Snider made the decision to create an AHL team to play at the Spectrum after the Flyers moved into the Wachovia Center for the 1996-97 season.

But, as COO of the Phantoms, the team thrived under his watch, quickly establishing itself as one of the premier AHL franchises in terms of on-ice success and attendance. The Phantoms led the league in attendance in each of their first six seasons, peaking at an AHL-record average of 12,002 fans per game in 1998-99.

“I thought the idea was a little crazy, actually, but what a ride it turned out to be,” he recalled. “The fans made it work. The Spectrum was basically able to live on for 13 more seasons after the Flyers moved across the parking lot, and a whole new generation of fans had the chance to experience hockey in this great building.

“I think about that first season. We only had Billy Barber to market as the face of the team, really. And then, along comes Frank Bialowas. Now, I would be lying if I said I even knew what he looked like when we traded for him. But in he came, with his hair down to his waist, looking like a wildman.

“Frank did so much to help create a character and an identity for the team that year. The fans started coming out in big numbers. The huge rivalry we developed with Hershey was big as well. The second year, we won the Calder Cup in front of a sell-out crowd. It was incredible.”
I remember the little squirrel running around in my head, thinking I’m just going to go out there, play my game, beat people up, and see what happens. And the fans, man, they fell in love with our team." - Frank Bialowas

In October of 2008, Miceli left the organization to become the Senior Vice President of Sales and Marketing for Spurs Sports & Entertainment in San Antonio, Texas. But, his heart will never leave Philadelphia, or the Spectrum.

“As a Philly native, the Spectrum is part of the fabric of the city to me,” he said. “It’s such a landmark. I remember cheering on the Flyers as a kid and later on, having my kids playing around in my office in the building, while I worked. Such great memories that I will always hold near and dear to my heart.

“I’ll never forget this place.”

Friday night’s festivities gave many in attendance one final opportunity to honor the legacy of the Spectrum. But, for some of the Phantoms’ youngest players, it was a rare chance to create lasting memories in one of hockey’s most historic buildings.

James van Riemsdyk, the Flyers second overall draft selection in 2007, signed with the organization after his collegiate season at New Hampshire ended two weeks ago. He joined the Phantoms and had the opportunity to play in three games at the Spectrum, all big wins for the home team.

“It’s been an incredible experience,” explained the promising 19-year-old forward. “To have the chance to come to Philly and play my first games in the organization in a building with so much history, it’s been great. The fans are so loud and passionate. I can understand why other teams were always so afraid to play here.”

Fellow 19-year-old Luca Sbisa returned to Philadelphia in time to play for the Phantoms on Friday night, after his Lethbridge Hurricanes were eliminated from the WHL playoffs last week. Sbisa appeared in 39 games with the Flyers earlier in the year, and also suited up for the NHL team against the Phantoms in an exhibition at the Spectrum in early October.

“I have heard so many great things about the Spectrum, and I’m really glad I have had the chance to play here a few times,” he said. “Hopefully, we can play for a few more weeks into the playoffs. But, I love playing here. It’s smaller than the Wachovia Center, of course, and the fans seem so close.
The Phantoms take a victory lap after the 5-2 win over the Hershey Bears. (Len Redkoles/Flyers Photos)

“I can tell how special the Spectrum is to the Flyers organization and the fans.”

At the conclusion of Friday night’s game, the entire Phantoms team gathered at center ice. The players stood in a circle and raised their sticks in the air as a salute to the fans, then rounded the rink in a victory lap.

It was not merely an emotional cap to the evening’s events, but one of the final tributes to the legacy of a building that has been synonymous with hockey in Philadelphia for over four decades.

Earlier in the evening, Amedeo Grassia, a lifelong South Philly resident and one of the 35 Phantoms 13-year season ticket holders, waited in the lower level press area before taking part in the pre-game ceremony. At his side was his 10-year-old son, Amedeo Jr. His 14-year-old daughter, Devon, was also in attendance.

“It’s one of the things I’ve enjoyed most, having the chance to pass the Spectrum experience on to my kids,” Grassia explained. “My son, he’s been coming down here with me all of his life. And my daughter has been coming since she was one.

“For them to experience the same things I experienced here has been really special. Just like I saw the Flyers winning their championships, they were with me when the Phantoms won, and got to be a part of all the craziness. Those are experiences I’m so glad we were able to have together.”

Moments later, in the hallway adjacent to the press room, Barber offered some last-minute thoughts before heading out to the ice to be introduced to the Spectrum fans for likely the final time.

“Man, this one tonight might be a tough one to get through,” he said, holding back tears. “It’s difficult to say goodbye to a place you are so familiar with and a place that means so much to you. I don’t know if I’ll be able to be here when they tear the building down, but I’d like to be. I’d like to pay tribute one more time, as many chances as I can get.

“This place means that much to me, and to so many others. It will be missed, but we‘ll always have the memories that we created here together.”
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