Are You Ready for Some Hockey?

Are You Ready for Some Hockey?

By J.F. Pirro

Lehigh Valley Phantoms Coming 2014

Although temporary, the offices of the soon-to-be Lehigh Valley Phantoms are buzzing with energy. Stepping off the elevator, you can immediately feel the enthusiasm of things to come at the new hockey arena – PPL Center at 7th and Hamilton streets in Allentown. That represents the future.

But in displays lining the hallways, the minor league team also looks to the past – an American Hockey League record attendance of 45,635 on Jan. 6, 2012 in a game vs. Hershey, two Calder Cups in 13 seasons as the Philadelphia Phantoms and story-photo boards that highlight alumni, eventual Flyers’ stars Claude Giroux, Danny Briere, Mike Richards and others. One wall mural behind a row of four stadium seats lets guests sit for a photo-opportunity as though they are sitting on the Phantom’s bench.

One office window reveals the ongoing arena-complex construction. Rob Brooks presses a button that lifts an automatic shade onto the scene, then another button to initiate a big-screen video preview that takes you inside the arena with panoramic computer-simulated images. Brooks, along with his brother Jim is a co-owner and president of the Phantoms.

Scheduled to open in the fall of 2014, the current five-acre construction site forces vehicle traffic to narrow and slow to one lane approaching Center Square and the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument. Brooks says it forces drivers to take notice of what’s to come. Intentionally, Jim’s office doesn’t face the site. “He says he wouldn’t ever get anything done,” Rob explains.

Before the demolition, the buildings there were a hodge-podge of occasional first-floor retail shops, but mostly abandoned offices, particularly upstairs. “There were still shag carpets and typewriters, vestiges of the 1960s – just as it was left,” Rob says.

More than just a hockey arena, the massive project is intended to spark a rebirth of downtown Allentown, resulting in a “whole brand new Allentown,” as Phantoms vice president of corporate partnerships Dennis Begley puts it. (Editor’s note: Look for more on the rebirth of downtown Allentown in future issues.)

Every venture this size needs an anchor tenant, and that’s certainly the Phantoms, the AHL affiliate of the NHL Flyers, but the PPL Center will be a multi-purpose venue. It will seat 8,500 people for hockey (2,400 season tickets are already sold) and 10,000 for concerts, college and high school sporting events and graduations, trade shows and family programs like Disney on Ice and the Harlem Globetrotters. Over 150 uses and 200 events a year are anticipated.

From the start, the project has had the political, financial and legal backing to attract other developers, and the family’s evident 30-year commitment to playing here – Jim has already moved his family to Emmaus – is proving every bit a catalyst. Event days figure to generate 300 new arena jobs. Some 3,000 new jobs could come with residual, surrounding development. As Rob, a marketing master, says, “Revitalization really takes something big. The bigger the better, and we just love our project. It feels good.”

The Brooks family is accustomed to success. Pittsburgh natives, Robert Brooks, the brothers’ father, began investing in sports teams in the early 1990s when the Pittsburgh Pirates threatened to leave the city. Brooks, a former executive with Westinghouse Air Brake Co., joined the local effort to buy and keep the team in Pittsburgh and build PNC Park, not because he loved baseball, Rob says, but because “he loved Pittsburgh.” A few years later, he used the same rationale to get involved when NHL great Mario Lemieux put an ownership group together to keep hockey’s Penguins in Pittsburgh. Of late, he’s stretched his geographic (and business) interest as part of the ownership group of the Texas Rangers.

Rob and Jim – and their sister Karyn Brooks, a school teacher in Pittsburgh who is a silent owner of the Phantoms, grew up loving sports, more so than their father, though Rob admits, “He likes sports a little bit more these days.”

The family also owns the State College (PA) Spikes, a St. Louis Cardinals’ Class A team and the Myrtle Beach (SC) Pelicans, a Class A Texas Ranger’s team. The family recently sold the Pirates Class AA team, the Altoona (PA) Curve.

Stepping off the elevator, you can immediately feel the enthusiasm of things to come at the new hockey arena.

Both brothers were working in different industries when Jim, a CPA, was attracted to the success of the Penguins’ AHL team in Wilkes Barre and the revival that team brought to its depressed host city. “We set out to find the next best minor league hockey city,” Rob says.

Feasibility studies, even pre-Lehigh Valley Iron Pigs, led them here. The AHL already had success stories in Pennsylvania: Wilkes Barre, Philadelphia (when it had the Phantoms) and Hershey, a 75-year-old institution and now-affiliate of the Washington Capitals, but the Brooks family never thought the Flyers’ affiliate was doable. Then, five years ago Peter Luukko, president & COO of Comcast-Spectacor , the company that owns the Flyers, called. The Brooks family bought the team even though its home, the venerable Philadelphia Spectrum, was scheduled for demolition. For the last five seasons, the team – currently the Adirondack Phantoms – has resided in Glen Falls, N.Y.

The success of the Iron Pigs is a doubtful-to-successful model the Brooks family has studied. “What their success has done is given confidence to this community that it does deserve its own sports teams – even those at the highest level before the big leagues,” Rob says.

For more, visit or call 610.224.GOAL (4625).

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