Beyond the realm of high school and college athletics, the term “Youngstown champions” may well sound like an oxymoron to many in our community. After all, it’s been about three decades since a citywide -based sports franchise has garnered a national or world league championship.
That happened in 1989 and 1990 when the Youngstown Pride won two consecutive championship titles in the now- defunct World Basketball League.
Today, at long last, however, it looks as if that long drought may soon be over. Thanks to the determined and talented play of members of the 2017-18 Youngstown Phantoms team of the United States Hockey League, a coveted league championship – and all the glory that comes with it for players, the franchise, the city and the Mahoning Valley – is well within striking distance.
In fact, it’s so close we can almost taste it.
By defeating Team USA Saturday night at the Covelli Centre, the Phantoms clinched the USHL Eastern Conference crown and now advance to the Clark Cup finals, akin in this level of play to the Stanley Cup finals of the National Hockey League.
The best-of-five championship series begins in North Dakota on Friday night, when the Western Conference champion Fargo Force squares off against the pride of Youngstown. After a two-game series out West, the playoffs come to the Phantoms’ home turf for Games 3 and (if needed) 4 on May 18 and 19.
To show off our community’s pride and to help the Phantoms cement a richly deserved league championship, we’re hoping for nothing short of standing-room-only crowds at the downtown arena for all title games played there.
The team has earned such appreciation from Youngstown and Valley residents by the caliber of its play and its relatively short but rich history as the anchor team for the downtown arena and for the city.
The Phantoms of the Tier 1 junior hockey league featuring players age 16 to 20 have displayed some of the best and most consistent talent on the ice among the 18 teams that make up the 16-year-old USHL.
Consider the handiwork of goalie Ivan Prosvetov, who’s played impeccably well during every single playoff game this year. Or consider the collective talents of Michael Regush, Matthew Barry and Chase Gresosck who have formed one of the most consistently strong offensive lines in the league. Or consider the solid leadership of head coach Brad Patterson and his squad of assistants in guiding team members toward greatness.
Unfortunately, flying in the face of that greatness is the team’s embarrassing levels of fan attendance at its home games. In fact, during the first 25 home games this season, the team wallowed in the basement of the league’s attendance standings.
During that period, the USHL says the Phantoms averaged only 1,261 spectators per game, which places the squad 13th of the 18 teams. Contrast that level of paid spectator support with that of first-ranked Sioux Falls, Iowa, where an average of 6,611 people have attended each game or Clark Cup opponent Fargo, which has averaged 3,029 spectators per game for third place in attendance in the league.
Clearly, the onus is on the Greater Youngstown community to show its support in numbers that rival those attending Elton John or Keith Urban concerts at the 6,000-seat public arena. An arena only one-sixth full would send the wrong message to the team at a time when fan backing matters most.
We’d therefore suggest calling 330-747 PUCK to reserve seats to Game 3 of the finals May 18 – pronto.
The playoff frenzy also provides an opportunity for the Phantoms to build a fan base for coming seasons. After all, spectator interest in organized and professional hockey play has been on an upswing for years. Just look at the Pittsburgh Penguins, who rank as the most successful sports franchise in the Cleveland-Youngstown-Pittsburgh region.
In addition to individual fans demonstrating a more robust commitment to the team, we’d hope community groups and companies rally behind it as well.
What’s more, the franchise itself can play a role in growing attendance. Some have suggested, for starters, toning down the loudspeaker volume so some patrons aren’t forced to cover their ears when players are introduced or goals announced.
Perhaps the team could take a page out of the playbooks of other teams and other sports. Instead of one vocalist singing the national anthem, why not invite an entire area high school band to perform it as well as selections between periods? Perhaps two or more bands could compete during intermission for the loudest cheers and ovations.
We’re hoping for a deafening sea of cheers during the series in this championship-starved city next week.
Player Regush is optimistic about that potential: “I think people are going to be excited and people are going to come out and support us.”
Greater Youngstown should double down to make his wish come true.