04/08/2009 - As seen in the game program Jeff Fishbein, BEARS Staff Writer PHILADELPHIA — When my generation came of age, there weren't too many places like the Spectrum. In fact, with a smaller concert schedule here in Hershey, no campus-based arenas like Penn State's Bryce Jordan Center or Lehigh's Stabler Arena, you had to go to Philadelphia if you wanted to see a show. Of course, the facility already was home to two great professional sports teams back then, one of which had won the Stanley Cup less than 10 years after being admitted to the National Hockey League through expansion. But it was 1976, America's bicentennial year, when the Spectrum truly earned it's moniker as America's Showplace. It began with one of the biggest wins ever by an American Hockey team, when just 11 days in to the new year, the Flyers became the first NHL club to defeat the Soviet Red Army team (and not in a close game — the final was 4-1). In that banner year, the Spectrum became the first venue — and remains the only one — to host both the NHL and NBA All-Star games. The NCAA's Final Four was played that spring in the building, as were the Flyers' home games during the Stanley Cup finals. That year's Final Four was the first won by a brash, fiery coach who would go on to become one of the legends of the game: Bobby Knight. Could there be a bigger sports year for one facility? Knight would come back to win another NCAA title here, in 1981. The Flyers, who had been in the finals three straight seasons at that point, winning in 1974, hosted three more seasons of finals before moving across the street. The 76ers made it to the NBA finals four times while they were in this building, which hosted two NBA and two NHL ALL-Star games total. There were numerous lesser college games and tournaments, including three East Regionals, one of which gave fans in the Spectrum the chance to see Duke's Christian Laettner oust Kentucky with his famous buzzer-beater. And that's just the sports. It was America's Showplace because everything came to the Spectrum — concerts of every musical flavor, ice shows, comedy shows, even stage shows. In fact, the facility was designed to hold a center stage that could be used for "in the round" performances, or as a mid-stage with a portion of the arena blocked off. Hollywood used it as the site for Rocky's famous fights with Apollo Creed, which actually were filmed elsewhere. But the fictional Philadelphian had to win here, and his statue — the one that now stands astride the art museum steps also made famous by Stallone's character — once graced the grounds here, along with artists' renderings of singer Kate Smith, "Dr. J" Julius Erving, and Gary Dornhoefer, one of the many HERSHEY BEARS who went on to play hockey in the Spectrum, depicting his overtime goal against the Minnesota North Stars in the 1973 Stanley Cup playoffs. As a music hall, the Spectrum's most famous — if not most popular — tenant has to be the Grateful Dead, which performed to 53 consecutive sold out houses, a record both for the facility and the band. Appropriately, the remaining members of the band are returning here in May for a pair of shows. But it's sports that brought the Spectrum to life, and sports that have kept it alive. Despite that, there was a near quarter-century drought between hockey championships won here, from the Flyers to their adopted American Hockey League franchise, the Phantoms, which took over this sheet of ice in 1996. The AHL club won its first Calder Cup in the Spectrum with a 6-1 win over St. John in 1998. The Flyers were the only major league team to clinch a title in the building, when they won the 1974 Stanley Cup with a 1-0 victory over Boston. The Sixers won the NBA title while this was their home, in 1983. The building is the last of the "old" sports complex sites to host a championship still standing; Veterans Stadium, which was four years younger than the Spectrum, was demolished in 2004. No team has been closer to the Phantoms than Hershey, and that statement doesn't reflect their close proximity along the Pennsylvania Turnpike. The original Phantoms were the HERSHEY BEARS a season prior, as Philadelphia had been Hershey's parent club prior to the establishment of the new AHL team. Dozens of BEARS went from Hershey to the Spectrum during the 11-year affiliation. Every coach the Phantoms have known has had some tie to the BEARS, as have numerous players. Most recently, Boyd Kane won Calder Cups with both Philadelphia (2005) and Hershey (2006); current BEAR Darren Reid was a Phantom before he came here to play and former BEAR Danny Syvret is a Phantom. The road to the Spectrum's demise has been arduous, with questions remaining over what will happen to the Phantoms, who have been sold. It was last July that Comcast-Spectacor chairman Ed Snider, who built the Spectrum, told the media, "We're at a point with the Spectrum where a lot of money would have to be put into it, to bring it up to snuff with all of the modern technology. We couldn't justify the investment. It's had its day." Snider's protege, Peter Lukko, said, "The tightness of the building, it's kind of funny, is what made it special at the time and what led to us having to build another arena because times change and you need the revenues in today's sports." Fans sometimes forget that sports is a business, and without profit there can be no team, no wins, no championships. Snider, who won the expansion franchise that brought top-level professional hockey to Pennsylvania first, could be said to have engineered one of the great recent rivalries in BEARS history by keeping "his" old barn open and filling it with the Phantoms. The two teams have met more than 150 times in the 12-1/2 years the Phantoms have existed, making Hershey their most frequent opponent. Perhaps that's why it's so appropriate that, after looking at the schedule, the AHL, the Phantoms, the BEARS and even the Norfolk Admirals worked together to come up with a closing weekend more suitable for the grand history of AHL hockey in the City of Brotherly Love. On Friday, April 10, the Phantoms will host the BEARS in the last regular-season game at the Spectrum, with a 7:05 PM start. "We wanted to give the Spectrum the respect it deserves and bid it a proper hockey farewell," Phantoms vice president Mike Thornton said in a press release announcing the schedule change. The Phantoms were to play at home again Sunday. And, if the team fails to make the playoffs — the club is fifth in the standings, six points out at this writing — this will be the final hockey game ever on Spectrum ice. A night later, back here at GIANT Center, would then be the team's last game ever.
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