By Tom Williams
In 1992, the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim selected Pittsburgh Penguins forward Troy Loney in the NHL expansion draft. Going from a two-time Stanley Cup champion to captain of an expansion team in the Sunbelt was one of the bigger challenges of Loney’s 15-year NHL career.
Loney accepted another hockey challenge Thursday as he and his wife, Aafke, became equal partners with Bruce Zoldan in owning the Youngstown Phantoms, a five-year-old USHL franchise that has struggled to draw fans and has no assured future past April.
Loney is overseeing the club’s day-to-day business and hockey operations.
“We’re really excited,” Loney said. “We think there is a solid foundation here.”
The Loneys first were involved with the Phantoms four years ago when their son Ty played two seasons for the Phantoms. Ty now is in his third year with the University of Denver hockey team.
“We got to learn about the Youngstown area, learn about the Phantoms, learn about the USHL,” Loney said of Ty’s time with the Phantoms.
Loney’s latest hockey challenge won’t be an easy one. In their five seasons at the Covelli Centre, the Phantoms have struggled to develop a fanbase.
Last season was the team’s most successful on the ice as the Phantoms won their first best-of-five playoff series against the Green Bay Gamblers.
The Phantoms then took the eventual champion Dubuque Fighting Saints to five games in the USHL Eastern Conference finals before being eliminated.
But that success did not translate into box office fever. In 25 games this season, the Phantoms have averaged 1,154 fans.
According to Zoldan, the break-even mark under the current Phantoms deal is an attendance of approximately 2,000. That deal expires in April and the next one most likely will contain terms much more favorable to the arena.
Loney spent 10 seasons with the Penguins, then finished his career with the Mighty Ducks, New York Rangers and New York Islanders.
He estimated it will take him about 50 minutes to commute from the Pittsburgh suburbs to the Covelli Centre.
He’s ready for anything, saying he even intends to ride on the team bus during an upcoming roadtrip.
Loney said sports teams are competing for the entertainment dollar that goes to movies, concerts and other sports.
“You’ve got to make [attending] entertaining for the fans,” Loney said. “It’s a great place to come and watch the fastest sport in the world. That’s going to be our focus.”
With the regular season almost over and the last-place Phantoms (15-29-6, 36 points) out of the playoff hunt, Loney said he plans to start by focusing on marketing.
“Bruce’s commitment to the area has been very long and very generous,” Loney said. “I’m excited to grow the marketing plan.”
Loney said he’s optimistic that negotiations with Covelli Centre executives soon will produce at least one more season. He added that there is no Plan B as far as the franchise relocating.
“That’s not even been a thought in my mind,” Loney said. “We’re pretty confident that in the near future we well have an agreement.
“We’re committed to this town, this arena.”
The contract for Anthony Noreen, the Phantoms’ head coach for three seasons, expires when the regular season ends on April 5.
Noreen isn’t worried and said he plans to remain with the team.
“I’m fully committed and invested in this team,” Noreen said. “I don’t believe my job [here] is done.”
Noreen was an assistant coach during Ty Loney’s second season as Phantom.
“For players and staff, it’s extremely exciting to have a resource of Mr. Loney’s caliber, someone who has played at the top level,” Noreen said. “To have that here every day is an unbelievable opportunity.”
As equal partners, Loney said he and Zoldan have not worked out a tiebreaker, saying he doesn’t foresee major disagreements.
“I don’t see any challenges,” Loney said. “We’ve talked about [strengths] that each one of us brings.”