Looking Back: Phantoms Calder Cup Anniversaries

Philadelphia Phantoms Won Calder Cup on June 10, 1998 and June 10, 2005

by Bill Meltzer @BillMeltzer / philadelphiaflyers.com

June 10 marked the twin anniversaries of the two Calder Cup championships won by the Phantoms back when the Flyers’ top farm club was based in Philadelphia prior to the closure of the since-demolished Spectrum. It is the 25th anniversary of the first championship and 18th anniversary of the second.

On June 10, 1998, the Phantoms captured the first Calder Cup championships in franchise history with a 6-1 win in Game 6 of the Final against the St. John Flames. Right winger Mike Maneluk captured the Jack Butterfield Trophy as playoff MVP as he racked up 34 points (13 goals, 21 assists) in 20 postseason games.

Other prominent players on head coach Bill Barber’s roster including starting goaltender Neil Little, center Peter White (who won his third and final Jack Sollenberger Trophy as the top scorer in the league), center Craig Darby (second in the AHL with 42 goals, eighth in league scoring), former LA Kings and New York Rangers forward Shawn McCosh (54 assists, 7th in the AHL), hard-shooting defenseman Jamie Heward (17 goals, 65 points), veteran forward Jim Montgomery (62 points in 68 games), versatile winger Bruce Coles and a collection of rugged and gritty performers such as defenseman Dave MacIsaac (241 PIM), Frank “the Animal” Bialowas (259 PIM), rookie tough guy Andre Payette (209 PIM).

Thirty-one-year-old veteran defenseman John Stevens served as team captain, and was a leader both on the ice and in the locker room. As with much of the Phantoms’ relatively old-school styled blueline, he was effective in his own end of the ice and kept things simple when the puck was on his stick. Fellow defensemen such as Jeff Lank, Aris Brimanis, the hard-hitting Jeff Staples and MacIsaac fit a similar mold.

While much of the first Phantoms championship team was veteran-oriented, the team also had some promising young players who later spent varying amounts of time in the NHL: left winger Colin Forbes (who moved up to the Flyers relatively early in the season), offensive defenseman Andy Delmore, 22-year-old Paul Healey (34 goals that season, 77 NHL games including 11 with the Flyers), rookie power forward Brian Wesenberg (39 points, 93 penalty minutes, one-game NHL stint with the Flyers the following season) and rookie goalie Brian Boucher.

In the playoffs, the Phantoms defeated Rochester in four games (best-of-five) in the opening round, swept archrival Hershey in the second round, and then beat Albany in six games to advance to the Final. In the championship round, each of the first three games went to overtime (the Phantoms prevailed in Games 1 and 3) before the Phantoms won hard-fought 6-4 decision in Game 4 to take a 3-1 lead. After St. John took the series back to Philadelphia with a 6-1 blowout in Game 5, the Phantoms won the championship on home ice.

Side note: One of the intrigue points going into the 1998 Calder Cup Final was the presence of defenseman Ryan Bast on the St. John side. The 22-year-old, signed to an AHL contract, had a strong season as a physical shutdown defenseman. The Flyers signed him to an NHL contract, kicking in for the 1998-99 season. The Calgary Flames objected, but had no CBA basis for doing so because Bast was an unrestricted free agent for NHL rights purposes.

On June 10, 2005, the Philadelphia Phantoms captured the second Calder Cup championship in team history with a 5-2 win over the Chicago Wolves. A crowd of 20,103 packed the sold-out Wachovia Center (now Wells Fargo Center) for the clincher; the largest playoff gate in AHL history. Phantoms goaltender Antero Niittymäk, an All-Star game participant during the regular season, captured the Butterfield Trophy as playoff MVP after he outdueled countryman Kari Lehtonen (then considered a future NHL franchise goalie) in each of the four games.

By now, former Phantoms captain John Stevens served as the team’s head coach and was building a resume toward an NHL career as an assistant and head coach. Future NHL head coach Craig Berube was an assistant coach under Stevens, along with Kjell Samuelsson.

The year-long NHL lockout bolstered many teams in the American Hockey League in 2004-05. Few benefited more than the Phantoms. Rookie center/winger R.J. Umberger led the team in scoring during the regular season (65 points), and 22-year-old forward Patrick Sharp caught fire in the second half and rode it through the playoffs (21 points in 21 games). Other NHL-caliber players on the roster throughout the season included AHL All-Star blueliner Joni Pitkänen, defenseman Dennis Seidenberg, rugged rookie winger Ben Eager and enforcer Todd Fedoruk.

The biggest additions came at the tail end of the regular season and during the Calder Cup playoffs after the Flyers’ top two prospects — centers Jeff Carter and Mike Richards — finished their Ontario Hockey League regular seasons. Carter came first and was later joined by fellow 2003 first-round pick Richards. Both players were installed near the top the lineup. Carter racked up 23 points (12 goals, 11 asists) in 21 playoff matches, while Richards posted 15 points (seven goals, eight assists) in 14 games. The Phantoms were also joined late in the playoffs by young defenseman Alexandre Picard, who dressed in two games during the Finals.

Apart from this unusually strong core made possible by the NHL lockout, the Phantoms roster also had a number of other young players who went on to play in NHL for varying lengths of time, including defensemen Randy Jones and Freddy Meyer. Twenty-two-year old tough guy winger Riley Cote went on to play a similar role in the NHL for the Flyers. Another rugged young forward, Josh Gratton, had a few cups of coffee in the NHL.

Some of the team’s “glue players” with a bit more experience heading into the season — such as team captain Boyd Kane and Ryan Ready as well as defenseman Wade Skolney — also made brief NHL appearances. AHL Hall of Fame defenseman John Slaney, by then 32 years old, had a 44-point regular season and then added 10 more points in the playoffs. Veteran Jon Sim, an in-season acquisition, posted 35 goals and 61 points after coming over the Phantoms and then added 10 goals and 17 points in the playoffs.

Former Boston College standout and Philadelphia native Tony Voce scored 22 goals in the regular season and dressed in seven playoff tilts. Yale alum Ben Stafford, who left pro hockey after the season to attend medical school and then a military career with the U.S. Marine Corps, dressed in all 80 regular season games and all 21 playoffs for Stevens’ team.

The only active player on the Phantoms roster who was also part of the 1998 championship was veteran goaltender Neil Little. The Phantoms’ playoff starter in 1998, Little served as Niittymäki’s backup in 2004-05. Little appeared in 26 regular season games and two playoff contests.

In the playoffs, the Phantoms beat Norfolk in six games in the first round. In the second round, Philly took out Wilkes Barre/Scranton in five games. The Phantoms advanced to the championship round after defeating Providence in six games. Entering the Calder Cup Finals, the Phantoms were considered an underdog but they went on to sweep Chicago.