City’s next Covelli issue: Phantoms

With the city and its Covelli Centre, you could say it’s now two down, and one to go.

This year has been frenetic for the facility — and it has nothing to do with which act is the latest to sell out the place.

Off stage, a mayor- requested study was completed that said keep the facility ownership as is — city-owned.

Last week, the city knocked off another key issue: the future of director Eric Ryan. His company is getting a five-year extension to continue to run the facility. Mayor Sammarone has signed off on it, and it advances this week to city council and the board of control.

Assuming that proceeds, the next key order of business is the future of the Youngstown Phantoms hockey team.

Spring becoming summer is not our only current change of seasons.

There’s also a change of sorts that reflects the views of what to do with the Phantoms, owned by Bruce Zoldan and his B.J. Alan fireworks company.

On the ice, Phantoms play has been fantastic (twice on ESPN top plays in the last 12 months and former players tasting the premier NHL level while others lead elite Division 1 programs across the U.S.).

But on the spreadsheet, the organization has never measured up.

It’s not for lack of trying, and that’s where Bruce gets credit for being willing to lose money for a community offering. Not every successful businessman would do the same.

But this season marks a change for Bruce, as well as for others who cycle around his hockey world. I’m one of them — having been part of the Ice Zone youth hockey scene since my first days here. I’m also a regular at the Phantoms games.

In fact, even before setting foot in the Ice Zone, I met Bruce at a fundraiser. He produced two business cards: The fireworks card, he said, was where he makes his money. The other card — the hockey card — was where he loses money, he said, proudly.

Bruce is no longer proud to lose money. Earlier this year, he announced he was closing the Ice Zone in Boardman due to financial losses. (It closed in May. A fall reopening is rumored, but likely only if the junior team returns.)

That closure has been followed by several incidents that serve as a change of seasons for Bruce.

One by one — from his core hockey community, to the Covelli management, to Mayor Chuck Sammarone — Bruce has had to realize that his way is no longer the only way.

It started with the hockey community, whom he asked to sell 1,000 season tickets as a way to keep open the Ice Zone. It was a nonstarter to a group that’s experienced too many failed Ice Zone ventures. Maybe five season tickets were sold, and the plan was shelved.

At the Covelli Centre, he has been eager to play a fifth USHL season — the final year of his contract — and has been waiting for the city to get back to him. And waiting.

Waiting is not a norm for Bruce, a guy who routinely hosts presidents and other big-time power brokers at his home. And me.

Yet, with hockey, he’s been told to wait his turn.

Ryan and his team have enough success at the facility with other programming. They do not need a hockey team if it is not producing profit, as a city study demonstrated.

And city politicos are not rushing to Bruce’s fifth-season needs.

Combine those, and you have a team and a team owner still without an official OK to play next year — even as new players arrive this week for tryouts.

Bruce has earned the right to play his fifth year, and without paying the $75,000 penalty for low attendance that could be applied. Barring a city council revolt, he will get this.

It’s fair: While he’s not come close to the 3,000- person crowds he pledged, he’s also not been a fiscal drain on the facility. While the study said there’s no profit, there’s also little loss. And the Phantoms are a plus when you consider about 1,200 or so loyal fans trek downtown 30 nights a year, buy beer and nachos, visit nearby restaurants before or after, and bring night traffic to downtown.

But that the city is not talking about years beyond next is what Bruce really needs to focus on now.

Ryan believes a full-time sports tenant is vital for such a facility. But it has to be a sport and an organization embraced by fans.

The Phantoms numbers have not moved in four years. They started among the bottom three teams in attendance and have not moved.

Conversely, the league’s top teams in attendance have not moved from their top perches of about 3,500 fans per game in Farm-Belt places such as Nebraska and Iowa.

While that number would thrill city bosses, the prevailing view is that an attendance average of 2,500 would earn more Phantoms years. Short of that, the fifth season will be the final season.

The organization’s inability to move its attendance in four years makes that tragic forecast a sad likelihood. How do you even begin to market “Welcome to our final season?”

Bruce’s organization has had a common way of dismissing the poor attendance figures: The community has failed to respond to hockey, and this is a football town.

But when you are the sole owner of an area’s hockey population, from toddlers to Division 1 college, I think you have to accept that the absence of community support is not the fault of the community, but of the owner.

An example of the stubbornness is easily found in the current ticket package. Amid a fourth lackluster attendance year, admission prices were increased yet again, including to loyal season-ticket folks who are the main gravy. Several immediately said no thanks. When this was mentioned to management, it was suggested they could attend cheaper high school games.

And the football argument is flawed. If you can attract 3,500 hockey fans in agriculture states where football and basketball are the dominant sports, it can be done here.

That it hasn’t, I believe, is rooted to my first introduction to Bruce at that fundraiser.

You can’t proudly bleed money for years and then, when you tire of bleeding, blame others.

This season change is also a legacy period for Bruce and his group. If you accept the inevitable, how then do you want to be remembered for something you started?

There are two paths to choose for the Phantoms:

Proudly recognize it’s another organization’s turn at this — from the closed Ice Zone to the 80-percent vacant Covelli seats. Find a graceful handoff.

Or pridefully hold on with all your might and ego to what’s not working until, in the end, you’re holding onto nothing.

Todd Franko is editor of The Vindicator. He likes emails about stories and our newspaper. E-mail him at He blogs, too, on Tweet him, too, at @tfranko.

Don't Miss a Story

Sign up for our newsletter to receive daily news directly in your inbox.