Chris Stewart and Dana Heinze stood in the Cambria County War Memorial in Johnstown, Pa., on May 2, anxiously awaiting the announcement as to which city was going to win the title of Kraft Hockeyville, USA.
Johnstown was one of 10 finalists for the first Kraft Hockeyville USA title, and Heinze, the head equipment manager for the Pittsburgh Penguins, and Stewart, the Penguins' head athletic trainer, had a strong feeling their hometown had won.
They were right.
"Coming together as a community was the big thing that you saw throughout the whole process," Stewart said. "Once they got it, it was just a sense of pride in the community with the way they stood and really took action to get this game there."
Stewart and Heinze attended the announcement party after the Penguins' run in the Stanley Cup Playoffs ended with a loss in the Eastern Conference First Round against the New York Rangers. But both are excited to return to Johnstown with their team when the Penguins play the Tampa Bay Lightning on Tuesday (7 p.m. ET, NBCSN).
Having spent six seasons as an assistant equipment manager for Tampa Bay (2000-06), Heinze was part of the Lightning's run to the 2004 Stanley Cup, which he brought to Johnstown for his family, friends and hockey fans of the city to see.
“When I found out we'd be playing Tampa, it was almost a double-whammy," Heinze said. "I thought, 'Oh my gosh; this is incredible.' There aren't many people still there from my six years in Tampa, but I feel a strong tie to that organization, and because of being there I had the opportunity to move on to Pittsburgh. To have both teams play in Kraft Hockeyville, are you kidding me? It's so emotional."
Heinze won the Cup a second time with the Penguins in 2009 alongside Stewart. Stewart won the Cup in 2006 with the Carolina Hurricanes. He said bringing the Cup to his hometown was special, but Hockeyville represents a different form of pride.
"Taking the Cup there is nice, but that was achieved by the Penguins," Stewart said. "The Hockeyville title is more valuable to the community though because they made this all happen. This is something to be even prouder of, having the title of Hockeyville."
WE'LL MEET AGAIN
Stewart and Heinze didn’t know each other growing up in Johnstown. Stewart was more into baseball and football, while Heinze was a hockey goalie.
The first time they met was while working for the Johnstown Chiefs of the ECHL. Heinze had been a trainer for the team since the 1988-89 season. He left in 1992-93 to work for the New Jersey Devils but came back the following season and stayed until 1998. Stewart joined the Chiefs in 1996 and stayed for nine seasons before working for the Hurricanes and their American Hockey League affiliate.
After working with the Detroit Vipers of the International Hockey League and then the Lightning, Heinze and Stewart were reunited with the Penguins in 2007.
Stewart was hired first and recommended Heinze be added to the staff because of his reputation for paying close attention to any detail, no matter how minute.
Going back to Johnstown for Hockeyville is just the next part of the journey for them.
"It's kind of come full circle," Stewart said. "Dana and I started together there, we went our separate ways and ended up back here in Pittsburgh together. And now we're going to be working another game where we both started. So it's always going to be a great memory."
Just like when they took the Cup home, Stewart and Heinze had some help from the Penguins in turning Johnstown into Hockeyville, USA.
Pittsburgh is 70 miles west of Johnstown. When the city started gaining momentum during the competition, the Penguins, as well as Heinze and Stewart, encouraged their fans through in-game videos and social media to support hockey in western Pennsylvania by voting for Johnstown.
However, the biggest support Johnstown received was not solely from Heinze, Stewart and the Penguins. The title ultimately was won by the community.
FOR THE FANS
When Stewart and Heinze were standing with fans inside in the War Memorial celebrating the Hockeyville title, a bit of shock washed over them. They figured the people of Johnstown had done more than enough to earn the title, but that didn’t take away from the fact that the goal had been achieved.
"When it was announced Johnstown won, I couldn't believe it," Heinze said. "All that buildup to that point, and Johnstown has never left me. That's my hometown. We should be blessed to say we had a great upbringing in a great community. Times are different; Johnstown's a different city. But I'm proud to be from Johnstown."
Without the fans, Heinze said, Johnstown would not have the Hockeyville title.
The antiquated arena had been maintained well enough to continue being, "the little jewel of Johnstown," to Heinze, but he's excited to see where the renovations that come with the Hockeyville title will take the sport in the future.
"Johnstown needs something to be proud of sometimes," he said. "When the preseason game is over and the lights turn on, I hope Johnstown can continue to build and keep things moving forward in the War Memorial. The history that is there, the ghosts and echoes in the hallways, it's so awesome. I hope more people recognize it as that."
The town's economy has suffered in recent decades as the steel mills that helped the town thrive are gone and many businesses have closed or left Johnstown, but that hasn't kept people from going to hockey games.
"No matter what adversity is there, people in Johnstown are always going to get by and keep moving forward," Heinze said. "They have a great opportunity to showcase the community to the entire country and hopefully the shine. They will."
CHECK THIS OFF THE LIST
Jan. 4 is a day Heinze never will forget.
Yes, it's the birthday of his wife Kathy, which helps, but the specific year he has in mind isn't when his wife was born; it's 1990, the one and only day Heinze played professional hockey.
While working as a trainer for the Chiefs, Heinze occasionally jumped in as a goalie for practice. After the Chiefs' starting goalie was called up and couldn't make it back to Johnstown in time for a game against the Erie Panthers, Heinze was asked to dress as the backup.
"I remember thinking, 'What?' I think my heart was in my throat," Heinze said.
He spent most of the game sitting on the bench having fun and relaxing as he experienced a Chiefs game from a new perspective. But as he watched the starting goalie skate to the other end of the ice during a line brawl the smile went away. Then-coach Steve Carlson, better known to fans of the movie "Slap Shot" as Steve Hanson, turned to Heinze and told him to put on his mask because he was going into the game.
"No I'm not," Heinze said he remembers responding almost automatically.
There only were a few minutes left in the third period, but that still seemed like too much for Heinze.
Skating to the net nervously, he was offered some words of encouragement from a teammate and took a few deep breaths as he heard the crowd of 2,700, people he knew his entire life, chant his name.
On his first play Heinze skated outside the net to stop the puck and then he became comfortable. He said he remembers stopping two or three shots in his brief time in the goal, including a 2-on-1 breakaway.
"We lost that game 8-3, but I can say that I didn't give up any of them," Heinze said. "I could have gotten lit up like a Christmas tree and that would have been a disaster."
To this day Heinze said that game remains one of his fondest memories from the decades he has spent in the War Memorial.
On Sept. 29 Heinze will be part of another memorable moment in his hometown arena when he returns to a familiar spot behind the bench at the War Memorial.
And it will be that moment, when he watches the two teams with which he won the Stanley Cup skate onto the ice and hears his old neighbors cheering in the stands, that Heinze expects to realize how connected and fluid his career has become.
"The odds of it coming this full circle are so astronomical it's not even funny," he said. "I'm going to get to stand on the same bench of where I started, but now working my dream job. It's going to be such a thrill. I'll definitely get choked up, that's for sure.
"But I have to keep it in because I have to remain professional, right?"