Proof of the Mahoning Valley Phantoms’ success when it comes to moving young players on to bigger and greener pastures has never been hard to find.
Over 45 former Phantoms have ventured on to play NCAA Division I college hockey, and eight more current players are committed to collegiate programs for the near future - and that number will unquestionably rise.
The first season of Junior A hockey in the Mahoning Valley was back in 2003-04. Five years removed now from their days as a Phantom, most of those players are wrapping up their collegiate hockey careers this season, and already the Phantoms have a couple of professional alumni to boast.
Former Phantoms goaltenders Tyler Sims and John Murray each signed professional contracts to play in the ECHL, both with the Reading (Pa.) Royals.
“We couldn’t be more proud to have guys from our inaugural season that have now moved on to the professional ranks,” said Phantoms coach-GM Bob Mainhardt. “John and Tyler were two young goaltenders that we took and we knew they had top-notch abilities, and they have done nothing but prove just that.
“It’s exciting for us as an organization, and we are very excited for them as individuals because they definitely deserve it.”
The ECHL is considered the premier AA minor hockey league – third only in stature to the NHL and the American Hockey League. The Reading Royals are affiliated with the AHL’s Manchester Monarchs, and the NHL’s Los Angeles Kings.
Sims was one of the most successful goaltenders in Phantoms history and led the team to within a tiebreaker of making the playoffs in their inaugural season. Starting a majority of the games that year, the Fort Wayne, Ind., native compiled a 20-14-5 record with a NAHL-high four shutouts and a 2.63 goals-against average.
“Tyler Sims is a guy that has come back and trained here, he’s helped us out at camps and selecting our teams over the past few years, so we’ve kept up with him quite a bit,” Mainhardt said. “His younger brother (Jordan) is actually in the system as well, playing on the Midget AAA team that is going to Nationals, so it is nice to have that legacy built.”
After Youngstown, then only 19 years old, the elder Sims spent four very successful years at Providence College in Rhode Island, becoming the starter over his last three seasons. The 2007-08 season ended just weeks ago for the Friars, losing 5-1 to Boston College back on March 15 in the Hockey East quarterfinals, and Sims wasted no time signing a professional contract for Reading.
“We always stay in touch with colleges and pro scouts,” said Mainhardt about moving former players up even after a few seasons away from the Valley. “We’re always getting calls on those guys, and we’re very interested in their progress, so we stay in constant contact.”
In his first professional game, Sims turned in a solid performance, stopping 29 of 32 shots in a 3-2 loss on Tuesday night at the Dayton Bombers.
Murray took a little bit of a different route, but ended up in the same place. Just a spry 16 years old when he played for the Phantoms, Murray spent two more seasons playing junior hockey in the United States Hockey League for the Sioux Falls Stampede after leaving the Valley.
From there, the Lancaster, Pa., native migrated north to Canada to play Major Junior hockey for two seasons in the Ontario Hockey League. Murray played with the Kitchener Rangers last year, and was selected to the 2007 OHL All-Star Game before heading to the Kingston Frontenacs this past year.
Murray’s and the Frontenacs’ season ended on March 16 with a 5-3 loss at the Brampton Battalion - eight points short of a playoff spot. He signed with the Royals the very next day.
Murray has had two very successful starts in Reading already. In his first-ever professional hockey game, Murray earned a 2-0 shutout win with 38 saves against the Elmira Jackals on Friday night, before making 27 saves in a 3-1 win on Saturday against the Trenton Devils. His performances earned him the ECHL Goaltender of the Week award.