Dana Heinze on the Johnstown Chiefs bench with head coach Steve Carlson.
After working with the Utica Devils of the American Hockey League while attending junior college in the area, Dana Heinze returned to his hometown of Johnstown, Pa. and struck up a conversation with Dave “Ziggy” Ziegler, a mainstay of the local hockey community in Johnstown through his equipment business at the Cambria County War Memorial Arena, while at the rink one day.
“I remember going to the pro shop one day and just talking with Ziggy about hanging out in the Utica Devils locker room and getting to fold towels one day and put socks out, and Ziggy said they were looking for someone to be the trainer/equipment manager for the Chiefs,” Heinze said.
That would be the Johnstown Chiefs, who were preparing to move to the newly-formed East Coast Hockey League after one season in the All-American Hockey League. And Heinze was keenly interested in working for the team.
So John Daly, the Chiefs general manager, told Heinze he needed to call the head coach, Steve Carlson – who actually played Steve Hanson in the movie Slap Shot – and discuss the opportunity with him.
“Here’s me, calling this guy Steve Carlson, one of the Hanson Brothers,” Heinze said. “He asked, ‘do you have any experience?’ I’m like ‘well, a little bit.’ He responded, ‘But do you know what you’re doing?’ I said ‘yeah, sort of, yeah.’ And he said, ‘all right, you’re hired.’ It was crazy.”
That 1988-89 season was Heinze’s first, and his experience in the brand-new league there was incredibly similar to the film Carlson starred in.
“It was like the Wild West back then. It was like Slap Shot,” Heinze said. “There were five teams in the league and Henry Brabham from Virginia owned three of them. We shared our team bus, this old, beat-up diesel bus, with Virginia, Erie and Johnstown. Every time you got on it was good and then when you got off you smelled like diesel fuel. It had these old bunks welded into the thing and I think there were four seats at the front.”
And many nights after games, Heinze would join Carlson up there for a while as the team journeyed back to Johnstown.
“Back then, meal money was $5 a day on the road,” Heinze said. “So we would have pizza on the bus after the game. Steve would sit in the front seat and he’d let me come up and sit with him and he would tell me stories, and that was unbelievable. When the pizza was gone, and maybe a couple beers, story time was over and I went back to my seat.”
Heinze credits Carlson, who played 173 games in the World Hockey Association (even rooming with Wayne Gretzky his rookie year) and 52 contests in the National Hockey League, with being an incredible mentor to him as he was a 19-year-old kid just trying to figure everything out.
“Working with Steve for a year like that was awesome,” Heinze said. “He taught me so much. That’s why I try to pay it forward, because there’s no handbook in being an equipment manager. But you’ve got to get your foot in the door and you’ve got to just do it. Having Steve support me and help me and give me his advice; he always told me to be the first one to the rink, the last one to leave.”
One of Heinze’s most memorable parts of that first season was when Scott Gordon, a goalie who had seen time with the Quebec Nordiques, got re-assigned to Johnstown and became the first player with NHL experience to play in the East Coast Hockey League.
“He was playing in the minors for Fredericton at the American Hockey League level. And for whatever reason, they sent him to Johnstown at the halfway point of the season,” Heinze said of Gordon, a former NY Islanders head coach and Toronto assistant who is now the bench boss of the AHL’s Lehigh Valley Phantoms. "He turned our season around and took us to the championship."
At one point, Heinze was assigned to room with Gordon on the road.
“I was always at the rink or whatever, so Scotty had the room to himself,” Heinze said. “We would travel sometimes and we’d have to take our bags into the hotel and put the gear in the hotel and stink the room up. And the first time we did that he was just beside himself. He was like, ‘are you kidding me?’ That’s just the way it was.”
Looking back, there were many other ‘are you kidding me?’ moments when it comes to the way things were done then – especially compared to how life in pro hockey is now at all levels.
“You look at how it’s advanced here today,” Heinze said. “Back then, the only thing you provided to the visiting team was 20 warmup pucks, two bars of soap, two cases of Coke, 20 towels and I think a jug of Gatorade with some cups. That was it. Five things. You didn’t do the other team’s laundry; you didn’t help them with anything else. It was like bare bones.
“I remember when we had a chance, I would take the laundry to a Laundromat. In Knoxville, Tennessee, I’ll never forget the place. It was called Duds and Suds. I’d sit there and throw quarters into the machine and do their laundry. It was crazy.”
Heinze stayed in Johnstown with the Chiefs for a total of four years, and a lot of his memories revolve around those road trips with the team.
“Riding the bus, we’ve got these guys on there and I remember them always talking about how their dream was to play one game in the National Hockey League,” Heinze said. “It’s all they wanted. Guys would be like, if I could just play one game, one shift, I could walk away. A lot of them never got to achieve that goal. And I did. When we go on the road and we go to different cities, it has been so much fun after all these years because sometimes I get to run into some of these guys and they see me still working. And they come up and they’re like ’Heinze, we’re so proud of you and we’re so glad. We always knew you were going to make it.’ There’s a little bit of them in me to be able to share that.
“Because that’s all they wanted. These kids had college educations and that’s all they wanted was one game. They never had it. But as they get older and they look back and they realize hey, I played in Johnstown and a lot of people would love to be able to say they played in a pro game of any level. A lot of guys never get that opportunity. So the East Coast has come a long way and the Johnstown history there is incredible. It goes back into the 1950s. So there’s a lot of players that have come through there and have done well for themselves.”
Heinze certainly has, and the Pens head equipment manager can’t wait for it all to come completely full circle Tuesday night.
“Now after all these years – from starting out playing at the War Memorial as a youth hockey player and in high school, and lucky enough to get that job with the Johnstown Chiefs – we’re going back to Johnstown to the Cambria County War Memorial where I got my start,” Heinze said. “I’m going to be able to say I’m a member of the Pittsburgh Penguins. I think when you’re a kid playing street hockey or ice hockey, of course you dream of playing for the Penguins and things like that.
“Now I’m going home and it’s totally full circle. I’ve been on two Stanley Cup champion teams. Tons of games under my belt. But to go back home, in your hometown, to be a member of the Pittsburgh Penguins, I might get a little teary-eyed. There’s no doubt about it. It’s going to be awesome. It’s going to be incredible. And I’m so happy for the community because they earned it and they deserve it. Johnstown has taken some hits but it’s a great place. It really is. The people there are awesome, as blue collar as it gets. Very classy and respectful people. It’s a place that I still call home.”