Will area residents embrace new Phantoms? We hope so

The Mahoning Valley SteelHounds professional hockey team is fading from memory; the Mahoning Valley Phantoms junior hockey team has ceased to exist; the city of Youngstown-owned sports arena downtown boasts a new name, the Covelli Centre; and tonight marks the beginning of the first season for the Youngstown Phantoms, a member of the United States Hockey League.

They say change is good — but only if people embrace it.

Thus the question: Will the Phantoms, an amateur team, have more success than the SteelHounds, which skated onto the region’s sports and entertainment scene in November 2005, but bowed out in April 2008?

The owner of the new team, Bruce Zoldan, the Valley business leader who had previously owned the Mahoning Valley Phantoms, is optimistic. So is his son, Alex, team president, and coach Bob Mainhardt, who also coached the old team.

And there’s the eternal optimist, Eric Ryan, director of the Covelli Centre. Ryan has been around long enough to have experienced the disappointment of not only losing anchor tenants — the SteelHounds and the Mahoning Valley Thunder arena football team — but also having to deal with the arena’s name change.

From the time the facility opened in 2002, General Motors has paid for the naming rights. The Chevrolet Centre became a symbol of a global corporation’s commitment to the region’s quality of life.

But with GM’s financial implosion, the priorities changed.

The city of Youngstown’s search for a replacement brought forth Valley business leader Sam Covelli. For Mayor Jay Williams, Ryan and others associated with the sports and entertainment facility, the local connection is significant and important.

Thus tonight, the opening season of a locally owned hockey team, in a publicly owned arena, bearing the name of a local entrepreneur does offer an intriguing story line.

People power

In the end, however, the success of the Youngstown Phantoms and the Covelli Centre depends on the people of the Mahoning Valley.

As the experience with the SteelHounds illustrated, sustained public support is essential.

What is being promised tonight and for the 29 other home games, not including playoffs, is exciting, fast-paced hockey played by 16 to 20 year olds who hope to grab the attention of scouts for major colleges and National Hockey League teams.

Last July, at the news conference officially unveiling the newest USHL team, Alex Zoldan made the following promise about the games to be played at the Covelli Centre:

“We will have entertainment in between, something for everyone. It will be a night of entertainment with outstanding hockey, plus fans will have the ability to watch kids who someday may be in the NHL. They will have the talent to go there.”

Tonight’s game should be everything that’s been promised — and more. The Phantoms play the Indiana Ice, the reigning Clark Cup champion.

So to the question, “Will Valley residents embrace the new hockey team?” — not only do we hope so, we believe they should.

It’s about region’s quality of life, a key ingredient in the effort to attract new businesses and high-wage jobs.

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