Monday, April 21, 2014

Glens Falls deserved better than the Flyers and Phantoms could give

The curtain has finally gone down on the five-year tenure of the Adirondack Phantoms.

Thanks to a 2-1 loss against the Hershey Bears at GIANT Center on Saturday night, the Phantoms completed the 2013-14 season with a 30-38-8 record.

A surprising 5,586 fans turned out at the Glens Falls Civic Center on Friday night for the club's home finale, a 3-2 overtime loss against the Bridgeport Sound Tigers.

It came less than three weeks after the club was officially eliminated from the playoff race, the first team in the AHL to attain that dubious distinction.

That sellout crowd, slightly more vocal and emotional than the other 148 which preceded it, deserved much better than they got. What's more, they deserve much better than what the American Hockey League is giving: vague hopes of another troubled franchise possibly relocating to a venue which suddenly has 38 open dates.

Things were already hitting the skids by the time the Brooks brothers purchased the Phantoms in 2008, uprooted them from the soon-to-be-demolished Spectrum and planted them five hours north. The in-game experience left a lot to be desired. What once was reminiscent of an earlier era in the NHL became watered down at the altar of family entertainment. Fan and media member alike were drawn more to the ominous black curtains cordoning off wide swaths of unsold seats, the continuous blare of between-action music culminating in the SpongeBob SquarePants theme song, but not to the on-ice product, which limped along near respectability.

Yes, the Phantoms played to primarily packed houses on Glen Street since 2009. That's to be expected after a region mad for the sport was forced to wait 10 years and wade through the morass of two United Hockey League franchises before gaining the prestige of the AHL once more. Yes, the community spirit was there. Check out this video of opening night from October of 2009:



What wasn't there was winning, and if not that, then interesting, hockey. That's a great way to waste a ton of good will and good faith.

Although they had one quarter of the time of their previous incarnation to ply their trade, Adirondack Mark II did nothing to erase the memory of the mighty Red Wings, owners of four Calder Cup championships, whose banners hang in the rafters as a stirring reminder. The Phantoms went through four head coaches, two messy firings and most glaringly, five seasons without a single playoff berth as a Flyers affiliate. It showed in the wild swings of average attendance over their time in upstate New York despite that support for the sport.


Like most other places on the professional hockey map, fans like hockey but love winning hockey even more. They're not shrinking violets up here, either. The average annual snowfall in the area is 68 inches per season and the roads are cleared exponentially better than in the Mid-Atlantic. You've gotta give them something to move for, and with the exceptionally brutal winter up and down the East Coast this year, those who did should win a medal for their efforts.

That's not to say the organization completely fell short. Those who worked at ground zero, the main front office staff: Executive Vice President Chris Porreca, Erik Hansen and Kevin Breen from the sales force, ticket maven Kevin Schildt, director of fun and community management Andrew Hill, broadcaster Bob Rotruck and in-game operations and marketing chief Chris Miller did all they could on a daily basis knowing they were acting against sands through the hourglass from Day One.

Anyone who took a trip north to see the Phantoms noted that they drew more than the Albany affiliates supported by the Hurricanes and Devils, and advertised better in the Capital District than the home clubs. 

It's in the hockey operations department where fault can be found. Heading off any potential fallout, Flyers GM Paul Holmgren gladly fell on his own sword there:

“The fact that they haven’t won, I think is more of a reflection of not enough skilled players,” he said. “That isn’t (Phantoms head coach) Terry (Murray’s) fault, that’s mine," Holmgren told the Post Star's Diana Nearhos. “When you’re trying to win on the National league level, sometimes you do things that come back to bite you."

The following notable Phantoms have hit the skids because the big club needed to boost itself: Jonathan Matsumoto, David Laliberte, Jared Ross, Patrick Maroon, Jon Kalinski, Mike Testwuide, Kevin Marshall, Harry Zolnierczyk, Matt Ford, Tom Sestito, Jon Sim, Shane Harper, and Matt Mangene. Add Kris Newbury, brought in for veteran leadership, then cast away, labeled a grumpy loner as a late-season exile once it was known the Phantoms had no future in the postseason.

“I don’t know what the number of players you’d like to see to be able to move on an annual basis to be NHL players,” said Murray, playing the good organizational soldier. “But I think if you can get a couple up there and knocking on the door and be very close to players who can stay there, then I think the organization is doing a good job of it.”

Forget any notions of them helping the Flyers in the short or long term. Their removal from the organization largely stripped minor-league fans of some decent and bankable AHL talent. Sure, everybody loves Zack FitzGerald for his good nature off the ice and his lunacy on it and Jason Akeson -- before his call-up to Philadelphia for the playoffs -- provided some badly needed speed and all-time leading scoring punch, but after that, who was left? The aforementioned instability behind the bench offered little solace.

But listening to the Flyers' brass, you'd think the issue was internal, rather than external, as evidenced by this passage:

"Words ranging from 'disappointing' (Murray and Holmgren) to 'discouraging' (Holmgren) to 'unacceptable' (Hextall) describe the Phantoms’ record. All three lamented the failure to develop a winning atmosphere. Hextall said the attitude needs to change, that players might be getting used to losing and starting to accept it. The attitude problem shows in the team’s inconsistency, as a group and as individuals. The level of play varies immensely from one night to the next. Murray often commented on his team 'not playing the full 60 minutes.'

Hextall said 'we got some guys that got to kick it up a notch. There’s players here right now that I think are better players then they’re showing us.' He used (Tye) McGinn as an example, saying he has to find a way to have an impact in every game. Overall, Hextall said, there are a lot of players who need to make their off-nights into average nights. McGinn is one who he thinks is going to be a good NHL player if he can find the consistency. 'I think you see a certain hunger in certain players and eventually they’ll figure it out.'"


Murray, while having efficiently taught his two clubs how to be defensively responsible, is more likely responsible for turning the Phantoms into a team which matches his laconic personality.  Having seen four games up close and a half-dozen others from the comfort of a TV screen in Murray's tenure, it wasn't hard to suss out. There was a veritable flood of college talent which came along in the last two weeks of the season, but that was only enough to provide a brief spark and give the fans something which can keep them warm should hockey not land here next year.

Nonetheless, unless you go to work every day with a pointy hat, colorful robe and magic wand, no mortal can squeeze blood from a stone. Perhaps the Flyers' front office should take a good look in the mirror at their talent evaluators and see that intangibles like work, effort and attitude aren't enough to overcome a clear talent gap and largely one-dimensional coaching against other farm teams whose parent clubs have a little more on the ball.

They won six in a row in October, then went 6-1-0 around the holidays. When the club might have needed a boost to at least pretend they were serious about a postseason berth, they came up with a 4-18-3 record from mid-January to mid-March and then embarked on a scoreless streak of 174:06, snapped finally in a 6-4 loss at Springfield on March 28 -- a game in which the Phantoms couldn't hold leads of 2-0 and 4-3 and gave up a trio of third-period goals. What are the odds that all of those players who were called out above decided to show their down side all at once?

And then, with an influx of talent like Shayne Gostisbehere, Kevin Goumas, Derek Whitmore, Tom Serratore and Tony Capobianco, they finally gave 
it the ol' college try and came up with a 5-2-2 April when nothing was on the line.

The Phantoms' lone season above .500 came three years back, when Joe Paterson's one full season at the helm produced a 37-35-4 record which was only good enough for fourth place in a competitive Northeast Division. Still, he was let go in a surprise move in May of 2012, as Holmgren cited a need for "a different direction." That was the last of two times it was mentioned, the first when Greg Gilbert was fired in 2010 in a decision Holmgren said "he felt responsible for as much as anybody."

As always in a disfunctional organization, the men who blame themselves most often survive to make the decisions, while the chess pieces constantly change position and location. Murray ends his tenure in Glens Falls with a 61-76-15 mark and is a heartbeat away from becoming the next Flyers head coach (again). It won't be long before these issues surface once the promise of a fresh start and the sheen of the new arena in Allentown has been muted.

Something similar occurred with the Red Wings two decades ago. Consigned to keeping up with the Joneses on the NHL level as as major-market clubs fueled hefty salary increases for top-level talent, Detroit forgot all about player development as the 90s progressed. Though Adirondack made the playoffs in each of their final seven seasons in town, they didn't win a postseason series for the final five and dipped from 45 wins in in 1993-94 to a mere 21 in their final campaign of 1998-99. 

The Flames organization, which has eyes for the region, doesn't exactly have a track record of faithful service to the towns in which they place farm clubs. Since 2003, Calgary's kids have had to play in Saint John, NB, Omaha, NE, Moline, IL, Abbotsford, AB and now there's another potential swing all the way across the continent and back into the USA.

And the people of Glens Falls, Hudson Falls, Fort Edward and points beyond are forced to play the waiting game. Again. After years of not knowing if the Brookses were going to have their arena in the Lehigh Valley finished and see their latest heroes abscond to better environs. 

 "Our players are going to love the Lehigh Valley," said Jim Brooks to the Morning Call in a piece last year. "We've been waiting a long time, so we're pretty excited about what's coming."

Now that it's actually come to fruition, it's hard not to see the opportunity one of the best NHL franchises missed in a solid hockey environment.
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