Don Spatz and Steven Henshaw
READING, Pa. – Back in 2000 as the Reading Royals were introduced, Reading was considered a huge hockey town passionate about the sport and perfect for the team by then-general manager Ray Delia and Wes Westley, president of SMG Management, part owner of the club.
But then came the naysayers, who griped that hockey fans already had teams to follow in Philadelphia and Hershey. They said one more team, especially in Reading, would be one too many.
And mostly they claimed nobody would come to the Sovereign Center to see anything, much less hockey, because the arena is downtown.
Saturday night, the naysayers were proved wrong as the Royals’ millionth fan walked through the Sovereign Center turnstiles.
Dan D. Seltzer of Kenhorst came through the arena doors just before game time at about 7 p.m.
As soon as Seltzer reached the top of the steps leading to the turnstiles, someone yelled, “Everyone stop,” then a balloon exploded and confetti rained down as Royals officials and photographers swarmed on the millionth admission.
Seltzer, 25, who is engaged to be married, said he attends one or two Royals games per week.
He said he appreciates the proximity of professional hockey games to complement minor league baseball.
“I just got into it this year,” Seltzer said. “I enjoy coming here because it’s close, like the Reading Phillies. It’s a good place to come out to when you have nothing to do.”
He wasn’t expecting that the millionth fan would walk through the doors Saturday, let alone that it would be him.
Seltzer said a friend called him Saturday and suggested they go to the game. They bought tickets at the Sovereign Center box office just before walking in.
It was a fortuitous decision.
In a ceremony during the first intermission, Seltzer was invited to choose three prizes among hundreds contained in money pouches spread over the ice rink.
Though he didn’t choose the one containing $1 million, he did receive a pair of season tickets for the next five years, a luxury suite for an upcoming playoff game, and a $500 gift certificate for the Royals merchandise shop.
Only seven other clubs in the history of the ECHL, now with 25 teams, have reached the million-fan mark within five seasons.
“The community and the team need to celebrate this moment … because this is a community achievement,” new Royals general manager Gordon Kaye said. “That’s not a million Royals’ employees walking through the door. That’s a million fans coming through the door.”
Westley said the milestone was accomplished by what he called greater Reading’s passionate and devoted fans and a world-class arena.
Westley, based in Philadelphia, said he knew an ECHL team would flourish in Reading.
“First, residents of Berks County are extremely proud of their community and have shown over the years that they will put their full support behind a team that they can call their own,” he said. “Second, Reading was a great hockey market just waiting to happen.
“If you look at the base of hockey fans that for many years traveled over an hour and a half to Philadelphia or Hershey to watch professional hockey, a local team just made logical sense.
“We could offer first-class, professional hockey at a price that was affordable to almost everyone while still making practical business sense.”
The president of the Royals Booster Club, Dr. Richard P. Christoph, said the arena and team are a good fit for Reading, even though Royals fans still are going to Philadelphia and Hershey games, too.
Still, Reading is far enough removed from Philadelphia and Hershey to have its own hockey spirit and its own community spirit, ECHL Commissioner Brian McKenna said.
“People have taken pride in the team, much as they have taken pride in the Reading Phillies,” McKenna said.
He praised the city for taking a chance on the arena.
“Obviously, there were community leaders and business leaders and politicians who believed the downtown area could be brought back, and despite the naysayers they moved ahead to do it,” he said.
“That’s what civic leadership is all about, whether this is a sports arena or fine-arts center or park,” he said.
P. Michael Ehlerman, chairman of the Berks County Convention Center Authority, agreed that the building itself is responsible for some of the success but said most of the credit goes to its operator, SMG Management.