The Johnstown Chiefs were more than just a hockey team to the small Western Pennsylvania town they called home. Playing out of the historic Cambria County War Memorial Arena, the Chiefs had been a hockey landmark in Johnstown from 1988 to 2010, the year they relocated to Greenville, South Carolina. This was the second time the hockey team in Johnstown had left. The Johnstown Jets, for whom the War Memorial was built, played from 1950 until they folded in 1977. Only memories and an empty arena remained in this blue-collar town.
When the recently formed Johnstown Sports Partnership bought the Alaska Avalanche with the intention of bringing them to Johnstown, fans and citizens were not jumping at the chance to buy season tickets, according to General Manager Rick Boyd.
“These fans were used to the pro hockey game and were skeptical early on about watching a Junior-level team.”
Rick Boyd is well aware of the type of fan base in Johnstown. Boyd played six of his eight professional seasons with the former Johnstown Chiefs, and endeared himself to fans with his physical, gritty play.
If there was any skepticism or doubt on what kind of product the fans of Johnstown would watch on their beloved War Memorial ice, it is long gone. Fans packed the arena for the Tomahawks home opener and never looked back.
“We average about 2,300 fans a game. We sold out the home opener and the fans fell in love with our brand,” Boyd said.
The Tomahawks, who play at the Tier II Junior level, compete in the North American Hockey League. The NAHL is composed of 28 teams, with players ranging from 18-20 years of age with hopes of promotion to Tier 1 Junior hockey or college scholarships.
While the passion in the arena and on the ice is the same as it ever was, the play differs from what Johnstown fans are used to.
The Chiefs played in the East Coast Hockey League, or the Double-A level of professional hockey (two steps below the NHL). While the league boasts numerous current and former NHL players, it is known more for its physicality than its skill.
Fans were used to big hits and fights. While the fights and big hits remain, the overall skill of the league has improved dramatically with the shift in landscape.
Johnstown, with a 19-13-9 record, sits at fourth in their division and tenth overall, good enough to make the playoffs if they keep their current pace. While they don’t possess a single scorer in the top 30 in the league, the Tomahawks depend on solid team play as unit and a strong, reliable defensive corps.
“In this league, every team has a good coach. If your team isn’t clicking one night, you are going to lose, plain and simple,” added Boyd.
“We’re in good shape defensively. We need to score more on the power play. We need to tweak something just a little bit.”
While the fans continue to pack the War Memorial, players are more than willing to do their part off the ice as well.
“The players love getting out and interacting with the fans. And everybody in the town was just as welcoming,” said Public Relations Manager Suzanne Grove.
One example of these events was the players traveling to numerous elementary schools around Johnstown to read to young children. The team journeyed as far as Somerset to reach out to their fans.
“Hockey was sorely missed in Johnstown. Fans and citizens can join together as a town and community at the games, and the organization is just as dedicated to getting back out into the community,” added Grove.
The team has regular autograph signings after home games for fans of all ages, win or lose. It’s not uncommon for some players to beat the fans to the autograph tables.
Much like the Pittsburgh Penguins, the Tomahawks are also involved in their local youth hockey programs.
The local amateur program is the Johnstown Warriors. At the youth hockey association’s Christmas party, the Tomahawks came out and skated with the novice hockey players.
“The players set a great example for young fans and players. They are never in a hurry to leave events,” said Grove.
Rick Boyd knows what the signs of a strong hockey club are.
“We have a great ownership staff that is committed to the team. We have a great support staff, including our coaching staff and full-time equipment manager. We have the best fan interaction and best mascot in the game. Nobody puts on a better show than us.”
Let’s hope the show goes on in Johnstown for a long time.