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One native son sorry to see Johnstown go

by Lindsay Kramer
By Johnstown Chiefs forward Sean Berkstresser's estimation, 90 percent of the Chiefs players are indifferent about Johnstown's impending fold at the end of the season. Of all the things that fall on their radar right now, that issue is way off in the distance.

And the other 10 percent who are emotionally invested in the news? That would be Berkstresser, perhaps all by himself.

"It's kind of sad to see the team go. The Johnstown Chiefs have been around for a lot of years," he said. "Growing up, I always heard about them. It means a lot to me (that) I could play professionally here."

Berkstresser is more than sentimental. He's home-ice proud. Johnstown is less than 90 minutes from where he grew up in Apollo, Pa. He played youth hockey games in the very rink he skates in now.

Berkstresser's hockey roots run deep and far all across Pennsylvania and its surrounding areas. He played for the Pittsburgh Forge of the NAHL, and then joined Robert Morris University for that school's first year of NCAA Division I play in 2004-05. Two seasons ago, he broke into the pros with Wheeling of the ECHL, about an hour away. Now, with the Chiefs, friends and family dot the stands at every home contest.

"It's going to be a big adjustment moving away from here," he said. "It's definitely a bonus to see your friends and family there every game. I'm fortunate to make the (local) teams and have the guys like me."

What's there not to like? Berkstresser, 27, is an entertaining distraction during the last-place team's farewell act. He's second on the Chiefs with 19 goals and fourth with 35 points.

"When it gets down to the last two or three games, it (the team leaving) might hit me harder. Right now, I'm just focusing on playing," he said. "What I've focused on this year is doing whatever I can to contribute to the team. This year is one of the years I need to be doing something to get called up to the AHL. Doing the little things, scoring goals, being a defensive player, it's definitely coming together."

Berkstresser said Johnstown coach/owner Neil Smith has expressed an interest in him joining the team in Greenville, S.C., next year. From a professional standpoint, that sounds good to him. From an emotional perspective, however, Berkstresser might need to scrounge around the Chiefs barn looking for a small souvenir or remnant to bring with him.

"If there's something laying around the rink, I wouldn't mind taking something with me to bring back the memories," he said. "The tradition here is unbelievable."

On the fast track -- Christmas could have been a real bah-humbug time for Reading Royals forward Olivier Labelle, but he managed to keep one pro hockey lesson in mind.

"Things change fast in this game," he said. "It's a matter of who wants it the most."

For the past several weeks, that's been Labelle.

While many of the other Royals have fallen by the wayside with injuries or have been recalled to the AHL, Labelle is helping lug the offense all across the ice. His 21 goals tie for the team lead, and 10 of them have come in the last 12 contests. He also paces the squad with four game-winners.

That's Labelle's U-turn from a left knee injury he suffered in a preseason game with the Chicago Wolves. He didn't take the ice for real until Oct. 29, and through the end of November Labelle had just 3 goals and 2 assists in 14 games. Just when he started rolling after the holiday break his other wheel temporarily fell off because of a right knee injury that cost him almost another full month.

"Sometimes, for some reason, everything works for you. Sometimes nothing works for you," he said. "Now, everything I do, I could close my eyes and shoot and it will go in somehow."

Labelle, 24, wishes it was just as easy to blink and find himself in the AHL. The grinder made his pro debut with 31 points and 153 PIM for the Syracuse Crunch in 2006-07, but in the past three seasons he has spent most of his time with a different ECHL squad each year.

"I'm convinced as soon as I get one (AHL callup) I'm going to take advantage of it," Labelle said. "A lot of people give up. I'm not that kind of person."

Still waiting -- The most patient goalie in the ECHL has waited a decade to get his first chance between the pipes. Wheeling has to hope that day never comes.

Billy Higgins is the Nailers' equipment manager, a position he's held for seven seasons. For three years before that, the Wheeling native was the team's stick boy. His side job during that stretch is much more interesting. Higgins has been the team's emergency backup goalie, and a popular one at that.

"It's kind of sad to see the team go. The Johnstown Chiefs have been around for a lot of years. Growing up, I always heard about them. It means a lot to me (that) I could play professionally here."
-- Sean Berkstresser

Higgins has dressed as a netminder for about 15 games this season, more than double his typical understudy workload. He's never seen a minute of action, but sometimes practices with the team and, as a former club goalie in college, thinks he might be able to get in the way of a puck or two.

"I don't think I'd like to see a whole game. I'd like to get a period, a minute or two," said Higgins, 28. "I think I'd be able to hold my own for a period. Thankfully no one (in goal) has gotten hurt during my time here, so that's good."

Higgins tries to stay as close to the action as he can. Occasionally a referee will slap him with a friendly two-minute misconduct at the end of a contest, so he can get on the score sheet.

A couple seasons ago, Johnstown came in needing an emergency backup. The Nailers sent over Higgins, raising the outside possibility that he'd make his debut as a visitor against his very own team.

"The law of averages says someday (he'll play)," Higgins said. "By no means do I think I'm any good. But it would be fun."
Around the ECHL -- Kalamazoo K-Wings captain Sam Ftorek is two goals shy of 200 for his career and three games shy of 700 played. ... Kalamazoo’s 6-3 victory at Reading on March 4 was the team's first road win that wasn’t decided by a single goal since Dec. 5 against the Toledo Walleye, a span of 13 games. ... Victoria's Wes Goldie reached the 40-goal plateau for the fourth consecutive season with a tally against Stockton on March 6. ... Reading's Matt Ward (March 2), Robert Slaney (March 2) and Kyle Laughlin (March 7) all scored their first professional goals last week. ... Utah has not allowed a power-play goal in six games and hasn't allowed a five-on-four power-play goal in eight games. ... Elmira is 5-0 in games that have gone past regulation against Johnstown this season, with three wins in OT and two in shootouts. ... There have been five shutouts in the last 11 Bakersfield games -- one by Bakersfield and four by its opponents. ... Goalie J.P. Levasseur has appeared in only five games for the Condors, but two of those games featured the highest save totals for a game for Bakersfield this season. He had 41 saves against Victoria on Feb. 26, and he turned in a 40-save effort vs. Idaho on March 5.

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