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Chiefs - Johnstown, not Charlestown - say goodbye

by Evan Weiner
Does art imitate life or does life imitate art? It seems the Charlestown -- rather, Johnstown -- Chiefs hockey team is in financial trouble again and the team might be moving at the end of the season. Will the coach plant a story with the local newspaper hockey writer that the team is moving to a retirement community in Florida? Will the coach ever find out who owns the Chiefs?
Johnstown, Pa., which was the setting for the movie "Slap Shot," is losing the ECHL team that has called the western Pennsylvania city home for the past 22 years. The team will play its last games this weekend, and then relocate to Greenville, S.C., to start play next fall. And the coach of the real, not the fictionalized, Chiefs, Neil Smith, actually is an owner of the Chiefs.

The Johnstown Chiefs hockey team is not the celluloid Charlestown Chiefs' successor, although after more than three decades since the birth of the Charlestown Chiefs, the Hanson Brothers, Killer Carlson and coach Reggie Dunlop, there may be some people who actually think the Charlestown Chiefs of the Federal League really did exist.

There is a fine line between the celluloid Chiefs and the real-life Johnstown Jets of the North American Hockey League circa 1974-76. The Charlestown Chiefs and the Federal Hockey League are fictional, but if you talk to Philadelphia Flyers General Manager and one-time Johnstown Jets forward Paul Holmgren, the Charlestown Chiefs and the Federal League are perhaps the only two pieces of the movie "Slap Shot" that are made up.

The movie's famed Hanson brothers really did exist, but in reality they were the Carlson brothers. Killer Carlson was Dave Hanson, who played one of the Hanson brothers in the movie. The Ned Braden character was a player named Ned Dowd who was on that Jets team, and he kept notes on the team and shared them with his sister, Nancy.
Nancy Dowd wrote the screenplay for the movie. Ned Dowd played the worst goon in the league, Ogie Oglethrope, a character based on Bill Goldthorpe.
Ned Dowd eventually became a Hollywood producer. Nancy Dowd wrote more screenplays including, "Coming Home."
The Charlestown Chiefs were the farm club of the Minnesota Nighthawks of a higher unnamed league. Holmgren missed out on his chance to appear in the movie. The World Hockey Association's Minnesota Fighting Saints, the parent club of the Johnstown Jets, called him up after six games in the 1975-76 season. Holmgren did skate, however, with some of the "legends" of the Federal League. Holmgren left the Fighting Saints three days before the team folded because of financial difficulties and signed with the Philadelphia Flyers.
He was never cast in the film because he joined the Flyers organization and was unavailable, but Holmgren briefly lived the experience and heard a lot of the stories that ultimately would end up in the movie.
"I started out the year in Johnstown that year and that's the year they filmed 'Slap Shot.' I got called up right before that or I could have probably been a movie star, who knows," said Holmgren. "It could be me and Tom Cruise right now."
Minnesota was even more dysfunctional than the Chiefs.
"The year I played with the Fighting Saints, I was 19 years old and I got to play with Johnnie McKenzie, Dave Keon, Shakey Walton, some great old guys who played a lot. It was an eye-opening experience to say the least," Holmgren said. "It just was being around guys who had long and established NHL careers. Teddy Hampson was there as well, guys who were winding down their careers. That was the first year they folded.
"In February 1976, (the owners) told us they couldn't pay us, so we took a vote as a team what we were going to do, so we decided as a team we were going to play for a month and see what happens.
"I remember going to hotels and checking in, of course the hotel bills weren't guaranteed so they asked if anybody had a credit card, so somebody pulled out a Sears credit card and said, 'Will this work?' It was interesting -- I ended up leaving and signing with the Flyers right after that, but the team ended up folding in March, there was a dispersal draft so to speak and a lot of guys ended up all over the WHA or points elsewhere.
"It was fun for me but a wild experience for a kid who didn't know."
As far as Holmgren can tell, he didn't get all the money the Fighting Saints owners owed him, nor did he get a crack at a role in the movie.
The Minnesota Fighting Saints folded Feb. 26, 1976, but that didn't end the saga of the Fighting Saints. When Mel Swig, owner of the NHL's California Golden Seals, moved the team to Cleveland in 1976, Nick Mileti, owner of the WHA's Cleveland Crusaders, moved his team to St. Paul. The "new" Fighting Saints, with the same logo but a different color scheme, didn't fare too well and the team went out of business Jan. 20, 1977.

"I started out the year in Johnstown that year and that's the year they filmed 'Slap Shot.' I got called up right before that or I could have probably been a movie star, who knows. It could be me and Tom Cruise right now."
-- Paul Holmgren

The Johnstown Jets won the NAHL championship in 1974-75. It was that team that was turned into the Charleston Chiefs. The movie came out in 1977 and is considered a comedy classic. The NAHL folded after the 1977 season, which is ironic in that a movie celebrating the NAHL had just been released.

The Johnstown Jets folded, as well, but that was due to a flood in the city that damaged the Cambria County War Memorial Arena's ice-making equipment. The present-day Chiefs began play in 1988, and there is a connection between the Johnstown Jets and Chiefs in film history -- a number of Chiefs players were used as hockey players in the 1995 movie "Sudden Death."

The present-day Johnstown Chiefs will finish the season and more than likely the old ownership will be contractually forced to leave the Chiefs name behind, but that might not be the end of asking the question, "Who owns the Chiefs?"
A new hockey league is starting up in the northeastern United States -- you guessed it, the Federal Hockey League. That league plans to begin play in the fall of 2010 and guess what market the Federal League is canvassing? Charlestown -- err, Johnstown.

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