November 3, 2017 - Allentown, Pennsylvania
The history of big time hockey in the Allentown area is a short one. Despite being one of the larger cities on the east coast, and having a vibrant economy over the last several decades unlike the time portrayed in the Billy Joel song, there has never been a pro hockey team in Allentown until the opening of the PPL Center in downtown Allentown in 2014. A false start that went as far as a team name and logo for a supposed UHL franchise known as the Lehigh Valley Xtreme in the 2000's only teased local fans who were forced to wait for a team, and arena of their own. Overall it is hard to describe Allentown as a "hockey town", but fans have flocked to watch the AHL's relocated Phantoms since the opening of this state of the art venue. Located in the heart of downtown, steps away from the Soldiers and Sailors Monument, this arena was part of a downtown revitalization project to renovate the area known as the Hamilton Mall. Having lived in the Lehigh Valley outskirts in the towns of Wind Gap and Tatamy after graduating college, the thought of pro hockey back then was unthinkable as there was no venue suitable to house such an undertaking. The PPL Center has a modern look, with a large glass lobby and signage bearing the public utility company name. A small courtyard sits in front of the main entrance on the corner of Hamilton and 7th street. The rest of the building blends in with its surroundings, as the lower level has tan concrete walls and red brick upper levels. Street level finds storefronts for local businesses including various stores, a medical provider, and a Tim Horton's. A hotel is attached as well. If you walk all the way around the block you will find a historical marker on the side of the building advising this was the site of a war hospital from the past. The building is a great example of a modern arena that fits in with its surroundings. The Phantoms have drawn very well since coming to town, and this Friday night contest was sold out but tickets were secured online before the game for $21 plus fees for an upper level seat. Downtown Allentown is still not the nicest place to visit, with a gritty inner city feel to it, but with the arena in place downtown seems to be having a bit of a renaissance with new dining options directly around the arena. Hockey fans in Allentown waited a long time for a team to call their own, with many hardcore fans taking the trip to Hershey, or even Reading to get their hockey fix. The PPL Center is off to a strong early success, and will likely continue to be a host for AHL hockey for decades to come. Securing the Flyers affiliation, and the recognizable name of the Phantoms, who used to play an hour away at the Spectrum, was a recipe for success.
Fans assemble outside the PPL Center on game night well before the doors open. Attendees are greeted with the usual hassle of going through metal detectors, and then, upon entering, find themselves on the main concourse which runs above the lower seating bowl. The ice and seating bowl are below ground level, and the open concourse gives a view of the ice from several spots, including on one end. The concourse does not go all the way around as it is closed off in the center ice club section separating the "special people" from the average arena goer. A wide variety of concessions are set up on the concourse, but with frequent sellout crowds navigating at intermission can be difficult due to the sheer volume of people. The concourse does include a large Phantoms team merchandise shop, as well as a smaller stand just inside the main entrance. The seating is arranged in an asymmetrical layout, with lower bowl seating all the way around made up of 20 rows of seats, and upper level seating on one side and one end. The other side of the ice features 3 tiers of luxury suites including the club level restaurant. Seating is dark gray and all seats are padded. Lighting is kept rather low, giving the arena a rather dark feel to it. The flat ceiling features open ductwork and gray beams. A large modern video board sits at center ice and is among the best in minor league hockey. Sight lines are good, and those who wish to stand can do so along the one end above the lower seating bowl. With a capacity of just over 9,000 with standees this PPL Center is a large building. With big crowds for Phantoms games the place has the feel of a mini-NHL venue. Phantoms Calder Cups banners hang from the ceiling, and the arena and fans have wholeheartedly embraced the team's history as a franchise dating back to the days when they played to large crowds at the Spectrum in Philadelphia. The PPL Center is certainly a great example of a modern arena, as most first time visitors come away remarking how nice and modern the place is. It is that indeed, although the bottlenecks from the closed off concourse in the club section seem like they should have been avoidable. Fans looking to experience hockey in a comfortable and modern environment will enjoy the PPL Center.
The game day presentation at the PPL Center for a Phantoms game is modern, commercialized and a bit over the top, but filled with entertainment. The pregame introductions feature an elaborate combination of a video board show, lasers, and fire. It gets the crowd pumped for the action ahead, although the cheesy element of having the ice crew all come out onto the ice and do a song and dance number while they slide along the ice is a bit much. The PA announcer is also rather overly dramatic, and it seems cities which are more recent to adopt hockey have no sense of the vibe that a traditional PA announcer's presentation can give. The atmosphere, at least for this game against rival Wilkes-Barre/ Scranton, was electric. The fans are vocal and supportive and the "Let's Go Phantoms" chant was frequently heard. Advertisements are plentiful on the video board and throughout the arena, although we do want to recognize the good job the arena has done in showcasing local businesses. The concourse features displays from local companies, including Martin Guitars, Just Born Candies, which makes Peeps, Air Products and others. The local products are interwoven with the game presentation in a seamless way, including the zamboni which features a large yellow Peep on the front. Also the goal horn and display when the Phantoms score is one of the best we have seen. Mack Truck is headquartered in the Lehigh Valley, and if you look closely in the rafters you will see a Mack truck nose mounted above the ice, and when the team scores the truck horn blows and smoke comes out of the stacks of the truck. This would be cool on its own, but when factoring in the local presence of Mack it makes it even more special. Intermission is filled with a bunch of on-ice fan contests, fan zamboni rides, and entertainment as is the norm with the AHL in nearly every city. Although the area has no hockey history to speak of prior to the Phantoms arrival a few seasons ago, they do a great job incorporating the history of the Philadelphia, and Adirondack Phantoms, and calling it their own. A large painted mural sits on the wall on the main concourse paying tribute to the past Calder Cup teams, and the players who went on to star for the Flyers. The arena truly feels like a home for the Phantoms, and a huge percentage of the crowd wears Phantoms jerseys or other gear to the games. A large contingent of WBS Pens fans and a tight game made for a great atmosphere. The contest, which found the Penguins winning 6-5 in a shootout, lasted 3 hours but the fans all seemed to enjoy the action, as well as the venue itself. Just 10 years ago the idea that there would be an AHL team in Allentown, let alone the idea of the team selling out frequently would have been unheard of. The Phantoms, and the PPL Center have brought a bit of a resurgence to Allentown, and, although with a new arena comes some of the factors that inevitably tick off hockey purists, the fans in Allentown, and the arena itself have a good thing going. We came away from the PPL Center impressed with the entire experience, and this arena is a great example of a modern hockey venue, and is one that will likely be replicated in other cities.