GLENS FALLS Friday was a night of mixed signals for me.
The last time I watched a pro hockey game at the Glens Falls Civic Center, the home team was the Adirondack Red Wings, as it had been for 20 seasons, until 1999.
The first thing that caught your eye to the right as you crossed the bridge over the Hudson River on Route 9 was the huge telltale plume of steam coming off the Finch Pruyn paper factory. Then you saw the solid red-brick Civic Center, synonymous with the Red Wings and the symbol of the city’s fervent hockey fans.
It remains so, even though the team jerseys, in all their various incarnations designed for max merchandise sales by a team that was never going to stay, ever, are orange and black.
Are . . . were . . . never to be again.
It was a foreign sight for these eyes, all these shiny, happy people in Adirondack Phantoms gear modeled after the parent club Philadelphia Flyers. Their identity as hockey fans, above all, stood out, though.
The Phantoms played their final home game on Friday, losing in overtime to Bridgeport, and played their final game of the season at Hershey on Saturday. The Phantoms’ legacy in Glens Falls will be this — four seasons without making the playoffs and one more thrown in for good measure because the new building in Allentown, Pa., wasn’t quite ready.
Five lame ducks on a frozen pond.
What they leave behind are true fans who deserve better than they got, who ignored the temporary status of this relocated AHL team and supported it because, well, they just like to buy tickets to watch good hockey, a quality ingrained in them when the Red Wings came to town in 1979.
The Phantoms went through all the motions to bid farewell and thanks to the fans, but, really, whatever investment they had in Glens Falls will boil down to those shirts and tickets. To be fair, everyone knew up front that the Phantoms were just making a pit stop.
“It’s a bittersweet feeling, but it’s a celebration,” Phantoms co-president Rob Brooks said. “Five years went fast. It seems like yesterday that the community welcomed us.
“They’re hockey fans. They’re fun. They know their hockey, they get loud and it’s a great hockey community.”
It wasn’t always such.
I called my friend Mike Kane, the dean of the Adirondack Red Wings history department, to check on a detail about the 1989 Calder Cup champion team, and over the course of the conversation, he brought up an aspect of hockey in Glens Falls that I never knew.
You could expect that a cold-weather industrial upstate New York city on the periphery of the Adirondack Mountains would be a hockey hotbed, but not so. It took Ned Harkness to build the arena and bring an AHL team here, and when he did, the Red Wings built their fan base by, literally, introducing them to the sport.
“They held clinics to teach people what icing was, how a power play works,” Mike said.
The lessons took.
And so did the team, which won four Calder Cup championships from 1981 to 1992.
I had the privilege of covering one of them with Mike, in 1989, when we typed our Cup-clinching game stories through eyes reduced to slits by the sting of champagne poured over our heads during lockerroom interviews.
The fans adopted the octopus-on-ice tradition of the parent club in Detroit, and Adirondack’s Robbie Nichols gained possession of it and draped it over the neck of TV reporter Paul Palmer while he was in the middle of an on-camera interview.
Later, we sipped bubbly from what was likely a facsimile of the Cup that was being passed around a throng of fans and players at Dango’s on Maple Street. Lou Crawford showed up at the bar still in full sweat-crusted uniform. Yeah, skates, too.
I’d bet a lot of money that some of the people in that crowd were also at the Civic Center on Friday night.
I pulled into the lot on Oakland Avenue just across the bridge two hours before the game and was offered a hot dog by a group of six fans tailgating. They had Phantoms stuff on, but said they were Red Wings fans from way back.
They cheerfully expressed hope that the Calgary Flames affiliate in Abbotsford, British Columbia, the Heat, will move here, as does the city and arena, but there are doubts.
For one thing, the Civic Center is 35 years old. While Glens Falls, which had a UHL team from 1999-2006, has been discarded and left behind by the AHL, the 4,794-seat arena has dropped below AHL standards, particularly with regard to the lockerrooms and workout facilities.
Funding for such projects doesn’t appear to be readily available.
In the opening minutes of the game against Bridgeport, a chant from the standing-room crowd of “We want hock-ey” started up.
Later, it turned into “We want Abbots-ford.” In the closing minutes, it was “We want the Heat, we want the Heat,” but because there was still a game going on and the home team was tied, 2-2, that one dissolved and seamlessly turned into “Let’s-go, Phan-toms.”
This wasn’t AHL hockey in Glens Falls as I had come to know it.
Until you saw the people.
One thing stood out with the purity of a jet-black vulcanized puck fresh out of the box — hockey fans live here.