Some of you may have already heard of Johnstown, Pennsylvania, site of Tuesday’s Kraft Hockeyville Preseason game between the Lightning and Pittsburgh Penguins. If not, the NBC Sports Network broadcast will surely highlight a number of notable facts about the small town located about 60 miles east of Pittsburgh. Here are some of them …
Johnstown has endured three separate floods in its history. The worst of those was the first, which occurred in 1889, and is known simply as “The Johnstown Flood”. In that disaster, more than 2,000 residents perished and the downtown region was completely destroyed. The other two took place in 1936 and 1977, respectively. The 1977 flood effectively ended the 27-year tenure of the Eastern Hockey League’s Johnstown Jets because all of the equipment was destroyed. (After a year without hockey, the sport returned to Johnstown in 1978 with the Johnstown Wings).
The cult hockey movie Slapshot was filmed in Johnstown shortly before the 1977 flood. The film centered on the fictional minor league Charlestown Chiefs, who were based on the Johnstown Jets. It starred Paul Newman as Chiefs’ captain Reg Dunlap.
Following the departure of the Wings in 1980, Johnstown was without a team for the next several years. But in the late ‘80s, a new team was formed. The club was legally prohibited from using the name “Jets”, so the owners held a fan vote to determine a name. “Chiefs” was the overwhelming winner, so the team took the name from their movie predecessors. The Johnstown Chiefs played in the East Coast Hockey League (ECHL) from 1988 until 2010.
In 1983, Lightning GM Steve Yzerman played his first professional game, a preseason contest for the Detroit Red Wings, in Johnstown.
Bob Costas, who will anchor the NBC Sports Network coverage, called his first professional game in Johnstown. As a senior at Syracuse University, he called the play-by-play for the Eastern League’s Syracuse Blazers. His first game was between the Blazers and Johnstown Jets in Johnstown. Costas will likely speak of that game on Tuesday – he was given a Johnstown roster in advance of the game, but unfortunately for him, the Johnstown owner decided to change all of the player numbers on the uniforms.
Penguins’ head equipment manager Dana Heinze, who also spent several seasons with the Lightning as an assistant equipment manager, is from Johnstown and was a former trainer for the ECHL Chiefs.
Yzerman, Costas and Heinze won’t be the only ones at Tuesday’s game with a connection to Johnstown. It’s also where I got my professional start as a hockey play-by-play announcer. Here’s my story.
In the spring in 1991, I was a senior at Yale University, a few months away from graduation. During my sophomore year, I had joined the sports department of the college radio station. After calling nearly all of the Yale hockey games as a junior and senior, I decided that I wanted to broadcast for a professional team. So I collected the names and addresses for all of the teams in the American Hockey League, International Hockey League and East Coast Hockey League and sent them all a demo tape of my hockey play-by-play work on the college station. (For an established announcer in pro hockey, such a practice is bad form. One should wait to hear of an opening before sending an application. But for someone without those kinds of resources, such as a college student hoping to break into the business, well, you’ve gotta do what you’ve gotta do. Plus, I didn’t know any better at the time). I wasn’t optimistic about the AHL or IHL, which were higher minor leagues. But the ECHL was the lowest pro league in hockey, so it seemed like an appropriate starting point. Also, the league, which had 11 member clubs in the 1990-91 season, was expanding to 15 teams for 1991-92. So I figured at least I had a shot at the job for one of those four expansion teams.
A few weeks after sending out my tapes, I hadn’t heard anything. So I began making phone calls to each team’s General Manager. Most of the time, an office manager answered the phone and informed me that no, the GM wasn’t available. But when I called the Johnstown Chiefs, I didn’t get the office manager. Instead, I heard a gruff voice stating abruptly, “Johnstown Chiefs!” It was the GM John Daley. I introduced myself and asked if he had received the demo I’d sent. Yes, he had. Yes, he liked it. And yes, they were looking for a new broadcaster.
I’ll never know if Mr. Daley would have contacted me if I hadn’t called first. Or what might have happened had he not answered the phone himself. (I would later see firsthand how infrequently that happened). But it was true that the Chiefs were making a change in the booth. It wasn’t because they were unhappy with their previous announcer. Instead, Mr. Daley decided to move the position “in-house”. Before, the radio station that carried the games provided the announcer, one of its employees. But the Chiefs, like a lot of minor league teams, wanted the announcer to be an employee of the club. They wanted someone who could handle the team’s PR and sales as well as the announcing. I became that someone.
Breaking into broadcasting isn’t easy. In hockey play-by-play, for example, there simply aren’t a lot of jobs. Landing that first one takes luck. And I was lucky to phone the Chiefs when I did. But that call gave me the opening I needed.
So one week after graduation, I packed up my belongings and relocated to Johnstown. The hockey office staff consisted of Mr. Daley, the office manager Judy and me. I’m not including hockey operations, such as the head coach or our trainer (Dana Heinze). And there were plenty of people who worked in the arena. But in terms of the front office, it was just the three of us. It was early June when I arrived – offseason – which meant it was the time of the year for selling advertising. Ads in the game program, on the dasher boards and for the radio broadcasts. I made “cold calls” to car dealers, restaurants, insurance offices and hotels. It’s not easy work (and I quickly gained an appreciation for people who sell year-round). As fall approached, I learned how to layout the game program and worked with the local printer on supplying pages. Some of the content I provided because I wrote the stories. But the ads had to be collected, either directly from the businesses or from their ad agency. Before long, the season got underway. I was responsible for writing all the team’s press releases and preparing the media game notes before each home game. In the event of a road game, I also forwarded information to the team the Chiefs would be playing.
In 1991-92, most of the other 14 teams in the league were within seven hours of Johnstown. The schedule had the Chiefs playing primarily on the road on Fridays and home on Saturdays. As long as a trip was seven hours or less, the bus would leave on Friday morning for the game that night. The Fan Club would provide bread and cold cuts (for sandwiches) as a snack food and the bus would stop for lunch halfway through the trip. We’d arrive at the visiting arena a couple of hours before the game, then bus back home afterwards for the Saturday contest. Most of the time, the bus pulled back into the War Memorial parking lot between 4:00 AM and 6:00 AM. I went to the office and slept for a few hours on a sofa next to my computer. By 9:00 AM, the league would have faxed the updated standings and stats from the previous evening’s games (remember, 1991 was pre-internet!) and I had received the roster information from the opposing team, so I assembled the game notes for that evening’s contest. I’d drive home for lunch and to change, then head back to the War Memorial for that night’s game. Sunday was often a game day, too. A home game meant following the same script as Saturday. A road game meant a similar routine to Friday’s.
The Chiefs’ head coach in 1991-92 was Steve Carlson, a former player with the Johnstown Jets, and one of the popular “Hanson” brothers from Slapshot. (Incidentally, only two of the three fictional “Hansons” were actually brothers – Steve and Jeff Carlson. The third was Dave Hanson. The three are expected to be in attendance on Tuesday, as the “Hansons”). Steve Carlson has a terrific sense of humor, not surprising, given his “Hanson” role, and would often have Dana and me in stitches. That humor could morph into a biting wit, too. Once, I asked about his assessment of a player, who seemed to be a candidate for a recall to the AHL. He shook his head and replied simply, “NHL shot. AHL hands. Pee-Wee heart”.
The Chiefs were in a battle for first place during most of the 1991-92 season. But a late-season slump dropped the team out of the top spot in the division. They won a first-round series best-of-five series over rival Erie, but didn’t make it out of the second round. Cincinnati won a best-of-three in two quick games, eliminating the Chiefs with two blowouts. The clinching game occurred in Johnstown, in front of a distraught crowd.
Shortly after the season ended, Mr. Daley fired Steve Carlson. Perhaps it was because of the late-season swoon, or the way the season ended. Eddie Johnstone, who had played for the New York Rangers during the ‘70s, became the new head coach. As Eddie got settled into town during the summer of 1992, I went back into selling mode.
My first 12 months in Johnstown was a huge adjustment professionally. I had called more games in one season than I had cumulatively before. I learned about sales, and program design and preparing game notes. I learned to call three games in three nights, often in a state of perpetual fatigue. And I loved every minute of it.
I also had made a big adjustment socially. I left the college environment, surrounded by people my own age with similar interests. In school, I had a close-knit group of friends, who were now scattered across the country. And I moved to a small town where there didn’t seem to be a lot of people in their early 20s. Other than the players, of course. I was friendly with the players, but understood that fraternizing between the front office and the locker room was not ideal. Dana and I got along well and I socialized with people at the flagship radio station. But part of me still missed what I had left behind in college. That began to change in the fall of ’92.
That summer, I had to move out of my apartment, which was located in the second floor of a house. The house was sold and the new owner wanted the apartment as well as the bottom floor. For my new place, I chose to rent a duplex – one half of a large house. Compared to my puny apartment, this new place was enormous. It had multiple bedrooms, bathrooms and was two stories. It was more space than I needed and I didn’t want to carry the rent all by myself. So I knew I needed to find a housemate. But I figured I could swing a few months by myself until someone else moved in.
During a Chiefs preseason game that fall, I saw a new guy in the press box. Jeff had just started working as a sports anchor at WJAC, the local TV station. He was my age and had arrived from Pittsburgh, where he had attended Pitt. The previous year he had stayed in the city, cobbling together some work at TV station KDKA. It can be risky to choose a roommate so quickly, but in this case, it worked out well. We shared that house for nearly two years until I left for Hershey. He moved onto a station in Altoona, PA about a year later. But to this day, he remains one of my closest friends and was one of my groomsmen at my wedding in 2003.
Though Jeff, I began meeting more people at WJAC, which led to more friendships and acquaintances. While it wasn’t exactly like college, I began to feel more a part of the community.
The Chiefs qualified for the playoffs in 1992-93. Based on their fourth-place finish in the division, they had to play the fifth-place team, the Richmond (VA) Renegades, in a one-game playoff. The game took place at the War Memorial since the Chiefs were the higher seed. In the first period, the Renegades jumped out to 3-0 lead. But the Chiefs chipped away at the deficit and eventually took a 4-3 advantage. Richmond tied the score in the third period and the game went into overtime. I can still see Chiefs defenseman Jeff Ricciardi taking the slapshot that won it for the Chiefs. It was the most memorable game I called during my time with the Chiefs. The team did lose in the next round to the Wheeling (WV) Thunderbirds, the division’s top team.
There were some affiliation developments in the summer of ’93. Previously, Johnstown had a working agreement with the Boston Bruins (and AHL’s Providence Bruins). For 1993-94, we would be working with the AHL’s Hershey Bears, who were affiliated with the Philadelphia Flyers. Hershey was only a couple of hours away, so the affiliation made geographic sense. We had a press conference announcing the agreement that summer and it was the first time I met Hershey GM Jay Feaster.
The 1993-94 season was another one in which the Chiefs qualified for the playoffs. However this was the shortest postseason of the three I experienced there. In a best-of-three against the Columbus (OH) Chill, the Chiefs won Game One at home but lost the next two in Columbus. While the season was wrapping up, we had an ownership change. Mr. Daley was not only the GM, but also a part owner of the team. During that season, he and co-owner Henry Brabham sold the team. Sounds like Slapshot, doesn’t it? But the new owner was a local attorney named Ned Nakles, who was keeping the team in Johnstown. He did hire a new business manager, Les, who came from the Dayton (OH) Bombers. Mr. Daley, who had come out of retirement in the late ‘80s to help get the Chiefs off the ground, retired (again) at the end of the 1993-94 season.
By the summer of ’94, the office staff was slightly bigger than it had been in 1991. In addition to Judy and me, there was Les. We also hired Jim, our intern from the previous year. Now I had some help with sales during the summer. Les was an invaluable resource in that regard. I learned much from him on how to conduct a sales call and used those skills to have my most productive summer. My crowning achievement was a major package sold to The Galleria, the local mall.
I also coordinated a mascot contest that summer. The candidates were a “Chief” and the “Iron Dog”, who, as referenced in Slapshot, is a beloved downtown statue. (It represents the town’s resiliency in rebuilding itself after the 1889 Flood). The dog won the contest and I auditioned candidates by placing them (in costume) in the Galleria and seeing how they interacted with people. The winner was a young man named Bob McElligott, who later became the voice of the Chiefs, then of the Syracuse Crunch and is now the radio voice of the Columbus Blue Jackets.
In July, I went to the wedding of a college friend in Puerto Rico. When I returned, I heard that Dan Kamal, the longtime voice of the Hershey Bears, was leaving to take a job with the IHL’s Atlanta Knights. As I had done when hearing about other AHL openings during the previous couple of summers, I hurried off a demo. The difference between the Hershey job and the others, though, was that GM Jay Feaster knew me. Les put in a call on my behalf and within two weeks of my return from Puerto Rico, I drove to Hershey for an interview. On my way back to Johnstown, I started feeling unwell. By the next morning, I had itchy red bumps all over my face. It was chicken pox! I’d never had it as a kid. I was still recovering from the chicken pox when Jay Feaster called to offer me the job. (I later found out someone else at the wedding also came down with chicken pox, which has an incubation period of two weeks). What luck that my interview had just preceded this ailment!
By August, I was on my way to Hershey. It was a quick goodbye to Johnstown – I was gone within a couple of weeks of getting the offer. That’s often the case when leaving an old broadcasting job for a new one. In the fall of ’94, I did travel with some of the Bears coaches and staff to watch a game in Johnstown (the affiliation was still in effect), but that was the last time I’ve been to the city where I got my start. Until the Kraft Hockeyville game.
Johnstown, Pennsylvania gave me so much. I called over 200 games during my three seasons there – and gaining that experience helped me advance to the AHL. I also learned how to handle all of the other responsibilities that minor league broadcasters typically have – skills I would need when I got to Hershey. I made a number of friends there – and one great one – and in the process, adjusted from the life of a student on campus to someone living in the “real world”. Simply put, without my time in Johnstown, I likely wouldn’t have become the radio voice of the Hershey Bears. Or the Tampa Bay Lightning.