It's a hockey night in Johnstown again


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JOHNSTOWN, Pa. -- Going to a hockey game here is a bit like stepping back in time by a decade or four.

The rusty steel mill shells haven't changed much from the time the classic hockey movie, "Slap Shot" was filmed here. Neither has the War Memorial, which Saturday night was packed with a raucous sellout crowd of 3,721 to welcome a hockey club back to the city.

A pregame ceremony heavy on indoor fireworks left the place as smoky as a 1970s event -- so thick that it was a little hard to see Penguins owner and Hall of Fame center Mario Lemieux clearly as he dropped the ceremonial first puck.

It's not everywhere that a new team --this one part of the Junior A North American Hockey League -- can get away with using the nickname Tomahawks and a logo featuring a feathered Native American.

But strict political correctness hasn't reached this town. Lemieux, quite the celebrity here, wore a Tomahawks jersey, which he later signed for an in-game raffle prize.

Lemieux got a thundering reception. Then again, so did Johnstown forward Cody Hansen, who, for the pregame introductions, skated out with slicked back hair and thick black glasses a la the Hanson brothers in "Slap Shot."

They erupted again when Brandon Reinholz opened the scoring for the Tomahawks in the second period en route to what turned out to be a 3-2 shootout loss after starting 1-3-2 on the road. And when Reinholz fought Michigan's Garrett Prochazka a few minutes later.

The city loves hockey and its place in the game.

"The last game that I attended in Johnstown, it was sold out," said Tomahawks coach Jason Spence, an assistant with the Chiefs of the ECHL for their final game in Johnstown, April 3, 2010, and in earlier years a player here.

"It is [sold out] again this time, but the circumstances are different."

It was a celebratory return.

Majority owner James Bouchard, founder of Esmark, is a buddy of Lemieux's. Also in the ownership group are former Steelers linebacker Jack Ham and Shane Conlan, both former Penn State players.

The NAHL is a development league primarily for 18- to 20-year-olds who aspire to land a college scholarship or a shot at a pro career. It's not a slap-shot league by any means, but it's competitive.

"The game of hockey belongs in Johnstown at whatever level it is," said Tomahawks general manager Rick Boyd, another former Johnstown Chiefs player who arrived in town in 1988.

Pro hockey in Johnstown dates to 1941, but those days might have ended when the ECHL Chiefs relocated to Greenville, S.C., following 2009-10.

Following something of a trend, the city lured an NAHL team to an area where lower-level pro hockey began struggling.

With tickets ranging from $6 to $12, it's affordable for an area that isn't overly prosperous and lacks a lot of big attractions -- the recent opening of a Quaker Steak & Lube restaurant was big news.

The Tomahawks are a team that has migrated all over the country and most recently were the Alaska Avalanche.

Spence likes the makeup of the team.

"We have a really good mix," he said. "We have some speed and some toughness. On defense, we have some stay-at-home players and some puck-movers."

Spence moved with the ECHL club to Greenville. He and his wife, Marcey, have a house here, and that coupled with the chance to be a head coach, made his return a no-brainer.

"It has a small-town mentality," Spence said. "They really appreciate that hard-working mentality."

Enough that to welcome back a hockey team they lined up to serve as host families for the players.

"We have more people that want players now," Spence said. "At first, we were worried it would be the other way around."

Not in Johnstown.

penguins

For much more on the Penguins, read the Pens Plus blog with Dave Molinari and Shelly Anderson at www.post-gazette.com/plus. Shelly Anderson: shanderson@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1721 or Twitter @pgshelly. First Published September 30, 2012 4:00 AM


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