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Phantoms' first opponent might be sidelined by coronavirus

Youngstown's junior hockey team will play at the Covelli Centre on Dec. 4.
Covelli Centre 04062020
On Dec. 4, the Youngstown Phantoms will play their first game at the Covelli Centre since March 7. The opponent will be the Muskegon Lumberjacks. (Photo by William D. Lewis)

YOUNGSTOWN — During the first full weekend of November, the Youngstown Phantoms will open their 12th season in the USHL.

Whether it's a Friday game or a Saturday game remains to be determined.

For now, the Phantoms are scheduled to open on Nov. 6 (Friday) with a road game against the Chicago Steel in Geneva, Ill. The next night (Saturday), the Phantoms will travel to Dubuque, Iowa, to face off against the Fighting Saints. 

Before returning to Ohio, the Phantoms are to return to Geneva, Ill., for a Nov. 8 (Sunday) game rematch with the Steel.

The status of the Steel is up in the air as a coronavirus outbreak has benched the team. This weekend's preseason games against the Muskegon Lumberjacks have been canceled. 

The Lumberjacks' website says the games are off per USHL safety protocols. 

"Minimum standards will not be met to play these preseason games," the Lumberjacks' website says. "The cancellation comes after players from the Steel tested positive for COVID-19. Out of an abundance of caution, and in keeping with the USHL safety protocols, the teams decided to cancel the games for the safety of all players and personnel."

Andrew Goldman, Phantoms president, said the Phantoms don't know "how significant exactly the issue was [but] as of [now] we are on schedule to play on [Nov. 6]."

If they don't, Goldman said the USHL will treat the games as postponements.

"The intention is for them not to be forfeits," Goldman said, saying the league wants each team to play 54 games which is down from the 62 of recent seasons. This season, only the top four teams in each of the two conferences will qualify for the playoffs. That's because the USHL is down to 14 teams instead of the 17 and 16 of recent seasons.

"We all gave makeup dates that our buildings are available," Goldman said, adding that the USHL also could schedule makeup dates immediately after the regular season ends because of fewer playoff rounds. In the USHL's last completed season (2018-19), six teams from each conference qualified for the playoffs.

"The intention is to get [all regular-season] games played," Goldman said.

No matter what, Goldman said the Phantoms will travel to Iowa to play the Fighting Saints on Nov. 7. 

"It would be an expensive game," Goldman said of a one-game trip to the Midwest. "They certainly are allowed to have fans there and it's their opening night, I believe. My gut [instinct] says we're leaving next week regardless, hopefully, to play three games but it is possible that it would be only one."

Youngstown is the furthest east city in the USHL, which has teams in Michigan, Iowa, Nebraska, South Dakota and North Dakota. To reduce expenses, road trips are designed to combine two-to-three games in a weekend to maximize the long trips.

The Phantoms opened training camp in late September. Goldman said the team has had no coronavirus issues.

"It's a daily grind, for sure, because we've had [players] wake up with a stuffy nose or a sore throat, so we isolate those kids, we get them tested," Goldman said. "If they live with [another player, that player also] is isolated also until we get a negative test.

"It's going to be an interesting year," Goldman said. "We've been fortunate thus far not to have any issues."

The Phantoms' first 10 games are on the road. The home opener will be on Dec. 4 at the Covelli Centre against the Lumberjacks.

How many fans can watch is still to be determined. Ohio's sports guideline for indoor facilities is 300 spectators for a building as large as the Covelli Center. 

Goldman said there is a chance that number could increase, adding that the Phantoms have had a "great relationship" with the city and Eric Ryan, Covelli president.

Except for a Men's Rally in the Valley earlier this month, Ryan has not scheduled events this fall at the 15-year-old arena because of limited capacity allowed by the state.

"We're thrilled to be opening the doors of the Covelli on the 4th," Goldman said. "Masks are going to be required throughout the game, unless [fans] are eating or drinking."

A socially-distanced seating chart will be used, with families of up-to-six allowed to sit together. Removal of the tarps covering the seats in the East corner is a possibility if it helps increase socially-distanced seating capacity.


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