Dave Molinari On The Penguins: Hockey & Johnstown ... it's more than 'slap shot'
The "Hanson Brothers" of "Slap Shot" fame pose with Mario Lemieux, left, and NHL legend Gordie Howe in 1995.
A Chiefs game at the storied War Memorial in the mid-1990s.
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Professional hockey faces an uncertain future in Johnstown.
Has for years. Probably always will. At least until one in the endless series of predictions about its demise actually comes true.
But while it is impossible to say with any certainty where the pro game is headed in that city, there's no question about where it has come from.
And even if there were, it likely would be answered by the book -- "Slap Shots and Snapshots: 50 Seasons of Pro Hockey in Johnstown" -- a group of Johnstown-area hockey devotees, including Penguins equipment manager Dana Heinze, has produced.
It chronicles the history of pro hockey in that city and does it in remarkable detail.
The book, a 336-page hardback, features 284 photographs and other images, 51 statistical packages covering everything from game-by-game results to individual numbers, and 51 team photos.
Why 51 stat packages and team photos for just 50 seasons? Turns out the authors constructed a complete rundown of one season for the Charlestown Chiefs of "Slap Shot" fame.
The Johnstown Jets, then of the North American Hockey League, were the inspiration for that movie. The screenplay was written by Nancy Dowd, sister of Jets player Ned Dowd.
Not surprisingly, putting together a detailed breakdown of a season that never happened wasn't easy, although Heinze said he watched the movie in super slow-motion to pick up any statistical nugget than might lend credibility to that facet of the project.
It was inevitable, though, that the players' numbers would be largely manufactured, since they were characters in a film. And the authors made that point by citing one of the most famous lines from the movie.
"At the very end, people will get it," Heinze said. "We wrote, 'Just trying to capture the spirit of the thing -- Dickie Dunn.' The diehard fan will understand that this is not real, that it's just keeping the flow of the book together."
And while hockey in Johnstown will always be best-known for its connection to "Slap Shot " -- it's no accident that the city's current franchise in the ECHL is known as the Chiefs, and the fabled Hanson brothers have agreed to do a book-signing during a game next month -- its real story is not of characters like Ogie Ogilthorpe, Ned Braden and Clarence "Screaming Buffalo" Swamptown, but of men like Galen Head and Dick Roberge and Don Hall.
Not of a fictional club playing for the championship of the imaginary Federal League, but of the 1974-75 Johnstown Jets, who won the NAHL title.
"When you talk about Johnstown, I don't want people to just think about 'Slap Shot,'" Heinze said. "'Slap Shot' is a very important part of what happened there, but it's not the most important part. There's been an actual hockey team in Johnstown since 1950.
"The Hanson brothers -- who were actually the Carlson brothers [Jeff and Steve] and Dave Hanson -- were real hockey players, not just fictitious goons in a movie. They were real hockey players, and they deserve that recognition."
The book's roots stretch back to the mid-1990s when Heinze, who grew up in suburban Johnstown, was the Chiefs' equipment manager and looking for a way to honor the city's hockey heritage.
"I remember, back in 1995, hanging up pictures in our Johnstown Chiefs locker room, then looking at the War Memorial and thinking about the history that was there before our team," he said.
"So I thought, wouldn't it be neat to start collecting team pictures from every team and hang it up in this hallway to pay tribute to all the people in Johnstown who were there before us? I never knew what a difficult task that would be, to go back to 1950 and try to find an 8-by-10 team picture from every year."
Some came from friends and former players. Even his mother contributed, as she turned up a few at flea markets and garage sales.
"It was a long process," Heinze said "But we did get them all."
Turns out that was the easy part, though. Compiling accurate stats for minor-league seasons contested more than four decades earlier proved to be every bit as challenging as it sounds.
"Back in the 1950s and '60s, the stats were done on paper, by hand, and mailed into the league," Heinze said. "It's easy to not get something correct.
"We had to go back and painstakingly go from 1950 through, basically, 1992. The first four years of the East Coast Hockey League, there were some discrepancies, as well. Go back and re-do everything."
And it wasn't just a case of double-checking, or elaborating on, statistics kept by league officials, because those often were not available. Consequently, Heinze turned to sources such as the archives of the Johnstown Tribune-Democrat, old game sheets and programs purchased online or at garage sales.
The latter, he said, were useful because "sometimes people would score the games."
The project has the financial and editorial backing of the Tribune-Democrat, which covered the costs and contributed a significant portion of the editorial content. Mike Mastovich, the paper's longtime hockey writer, was responsible for 34 stories -- 19 news, 15 reprints.
Four other men with a passion for Johnstown hockey -- Dave Zeigler, Mike Piskuric, Mike Starchok and Lou DeFazio -- were involved in researching and producing the book, and Mastovich said Tribune-Democrat editor Chip Minemyer played a "vital" role in bringing it to fruition.
The book came back from the printer Friday afternoon and can be ordered online at the home page of www.tribdem.com, the Tribune-Democrat's Web site.
And with luck, five decades from now, someone will have an opportunity to reflect on the second 50 years of professional hockey in Johnstown.
First Published November 11, 2007 12:00 am