Hockey team made famous in 'Slapshot' moves to South Carolina

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JOHNSTOWN, Pa.-- From her seat in War Memorial Arena, Chris Richey was knitting a scarf for one of her grandchildren because the action in the hockey game was too nerve-racking.

But like the classic knitter Madame Defarge, who used yarn to measure out the life of a man in "A Tale Of Two Cities," her purling is symbolic of the end for an iconic hockey team. After the Johnstown Chiefs play their final home game Saturday, the franchise is skating off to a new home in South Carolina.

"I'm devastated. I'm going to have to find something new," said Mrs. Richey, a season ticket holder who rents an apartment to two Chiefs players. "Times are tough in Johnstown just like they are in a lot of places. This is just one more thing we've lost."

Call it a sad day for hockey.

The Chiefs, indelibly linked to the 1977 movie "Slap Shot," are heirs to a minor league hockey tradition that dates to 1941. But there is no happy ending to this real-life plot. The relocation to Greensville, S.C., was announced in mid-February and has been approved by the East Coast Hockey League.

This Cambria County city, 70 miles east of Pittsburgh, has endured much in its long history -- three epic floods, the crash of the local steel and coal industries, the recent death of congressional patron Jack Murtha. The heartbreak over hockey is relative, of course, but the franchise is part of Johnstown's identity. In some minds, losing this community asset would be like losing the Johnstown Incline.

At a recent game, Dave and Rose Harford, who have had season tickets for decades, spoke in tones suggesting the grief process will be required. "She's going through withdrawal," said Mr. Harford, wearing a Chiefs jersey.

His wife spoke with an air of resignation.

"I'll probably sit home and cry," said Mrs. Harford. "But who would I be angry at? People just don't come to the games. We're surprised it didn't happen sooner."

A combination of circumstances doomed the franchise. The team is in the league cellar with an abysmal record. The average attendance at the 3,745-seat arena is under 2,000 per game. In a region that has hemorrhaged jobs and population since the 1980s, the $14.50 cost of a top ticket is out of reach for many.

Primary owner Neil Smith, who was the general manager of the New York Rangers when they last won the Stanley Cup in 1994, said he had worked to no avail to attract local investors. The franchise's losses of about $600,000 over the last two seasons were just too much. Red ink makes a poor hockey surface.

"We would be ill-advised to keep slipping down that slope," said Mr. Smith, who lives in Manhattan but has been coaching the Chiefs for much of the season.

"I've been committed to keeping the team here. We tried and tried and tried. But it's not like this was about to turn around," he said.

The Chiefs are the only original member of the ECHL remaining in the same city since the circuit formed with five teams in 1988-89. But hockey history goes back a lot longer.

After a team called the Blue Birds lasted just one season in 1941-42, the Johnstown Jets were born in 1950 and played 27 seasons in the then-new War Memorial Arena. But a 1977 flood damaged the ice-making machinery and ruined the team's equipment, causing them to fold.

The end for the Jets dovetailed with the release of "Slap Shot," which starred Paul Newman as the player/coach of the fictional Charleston Chiefs in a failing factory town.

Hockey resurfaced briefly with teams called the Wings and Red Wings, but there was a seven-season gap before the Chiefs, who took their name from the movie, started up in 1988. The name Chiefs belongs to the ECHL and will stay in Johnstown in case another team can be brought in.

Hockey brought Don Hall from Toronto in 1950, and Johnstown became his home. His retired No. 9 jersey hangs in the arena rafters, and he was president of the Jets when "Slap Shot" was filmed. He still buys season tickets, but he is not in denial.

"It's always been a struggle," said Mr. Hall, who turns 80 the day before the final game. "It's not that we don't love hockey, but we don't have a big enough core of fans," he said. "To be honest, it's been hard to even give tickets away. I'm surprised it's lasted this long."

Some of those with the fondest memories of Johnstown hockey are Pittsburgh Penguins. Announcer Paul Steigerwald, for example, got his first broadcasting job in Johnstown for $110 a week. And senior adviser Eddie Johnston, former general manager and coach of the Penguins, won a championship with the Johnstown Jets as a maskless goalie before he won a Stanley Cup with the Boston Bruins.

"It was a hotbed for hockey in my day. You couldn't get in the place," Mr. Johnston said. "The mills were going 24 hours a day. In some of the bars, workers would have shots and beers lined up seven or eight at a time. Johnstown was jumping, and hockey was a great form of entertainment."

The pipeline from Johnstown to Pittsburgh also includes trainer Chris Stuart and equipment manager Dana Heinze, who both started their careers with the Chiefs. Mr. Heinze put together a book documenting more than 50 years of Johnstown hockey.

"I wouldn't be where I am without the Chiefs. They were a big part of my life," said Mr. Stuart.

There will be an economic loss as well. A watering hole called Scott's is just a block away from the arena, and 30 percent of the business is about to dry up. Not only does the place cater to hockey fans, it makes post-game meals for opposing teams taking long bus rides home.

"I'm going to lose money. The Holiday Inn up the street is going to lose money," said Dan Shaffer, 36, whose father owns Scott's.

Over the years, whether they played for the local team or were involved in exhibition games, such National Hockey League legends as Maurice Richard, Gordie Howe, Andy Brown and Arturs Irbe played at War Memorial Arena.

Charles White, a resident of Johnstown since 1961, volunteers as an off-ice official for the ECHL and remembers the night his future wife needed three stitches to close a gash caused by a puck shot by Gordie Howe.

The relocation leaves a hole in his heart.

"I'm lost," Mr. White said. "What the hell am I supposed to do on Saturday nights now? I just don't know."

A sad day for hockey indeed.

Robert Dvorchak: or 412-263-1959.


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