All-American Hockey League (1988)
East Coast Hockey League (1988-2010)
Born: December 1987 – AAHL expansion franchise.
Moved: 2010 (Greenville Road Warriors)
Arena: Cambria County War Memorial (4,045)
- 1988-89: Black, White & Gold
- 1998-99: Black, Gold, Red & White
- 1988-1993: Henry Brabham & John Daley
- 1993-1995: Ned Nakles Jr., Ned Nakles Sr. and Leonard Reeves
- 1995-2002: Richard Mayer & Connie Mayer
- 2002-2010: Neil Smith, et al.
- 2005-2007: Neil Smith, Jim Weber
- 2007-2010: Neil Smith, Ned Nakles, Jr., et al.
Johnstown, Pennsylvania holds a special place in the hearts of minor league hockey fans. The small city 70 miles east of Pittsburgh has a hard luck history, which includes three devastating floods, the decline of the steel, iron and coal mills that fueled the local economy, and the reduction by half of Johnstown’s population since 1970.
In 1976, director George Roy Hill filmed the Paul Newman hockey comedy ‘Slap Shot’ in Johnstown. The films fictional ‘Charlestown Chiefs’ were based loosely on the long-running Johnstown Jets (1950-1977) of the bruising North American Hockey League. Screenwriter Nancy Dowd based the story on tales from her brother Ned Dowd, who played for the Jets for two seasons in the mid-1970’s. (Ned Dowd also played infamous goon Ogie Ogilthorpe in the film).
‘Slap Shot’ was released in February 1977, but unlike ‘Bull Durham’, the minor league baseball comedy featuring North Carolina’s Durham Bulls released a decade later, ‘Slap Shot’ did not inspire an economic windfall for the home team. Instead, the Flood of 1977 hit Johnstown five months later and ruined the ice making equipment at the Cambria County War Memorial. The Jets were out of business after 27 seasons.
Flash forward a decade and a Virginia oil man named Henry Brabham needed a city to prop up the staggering All-American Hockey League and quick. In December 1987, the AAHL was down a team in midseason and needed a replacement. Brabham visited Johnstown, liked what he saw, and launched the team on two weeks notice. Long-time Johnstown Tribune-Democrat sports writer Mike Mastovich credits then War Memorial board President and marketing director Dennis Grenell with suggesting the ‘Chiefs’ nickname to Brabham, in honor of ‘Slap Shot’. Thus the Johnstown Chiefs were born in January 1988 as an emergency plug in the leaking All-American Hockey League.
After the 1987-88 season, Brabham pulled his clubs out of the AAHL and merged them with a couple of teams from another low-level circuit, the Atlantic Coast Hockey League. The resulting new league was dubbed the East Coast Hockey League and had five members clubs for the 1988-89 season, three of which were owned by Brabham. The Chiefs’ opponents for their first full season of play were Erie, Knoxville, Virginia and Winston-Salem, North Carolina.
For the 1988-89 season, the Chiefs hired Steve Carlson as their new Head Coach. Carlson’s hiring further the city and team’s tribute to ‘Slap Shot’, as he played one of the beloved Hanson Brothers in the 1977 film. The Chiefs would enjoy some of their finest seasons under Carlson, including their only visit to the ECHL’s Riley Cup finals series in 1989. In the championship, Johnstown outscored the Carolina Thunderbirds 14-2 in the series’ first two games en route to a commanding 2-0 series lead, but they would ultimately lose the Riley Cup to Carolina in seven games.
Carlson’s tenure came to an end in 1992 and Henry Brabham sold the Chiefs to local investors a year later. The Chiefs then struggled for a long-stretch of the 1990’s, failing to make the playoffs four straight years from 1996 until 1999. Johnstown struggled to compete as the ECHL grew from its modest mid-Atlantic roots to a sprawling, nationwide league with more than two dozen clubs. The team’s on-ice fortunes eventually rebounded in the early 2000’s, with several deep playoff runs under Head Coach Scott Allen.
Off the ice was a tougher story. The Chiefs ran six-figure operating losses virtually every season and went through multiple ownership groups over the years. None of them ever figured out how to make the Chiefs sustainable, but all displayed an admirable commitment to try to keep pro hockey in Johnstown. In 2003, for instance, then owners Richard & Connie Mayer sold the club to former New York Rangers General Manager Neil Smith for a single dollar in return for Smith’s commitment to keep the team in Johnstown. (The Chiefs previously sold for $600,000 in 1995).
Despite the red ink, Smith kept to the club running in Johnstown for nearly a decade with a variety of partners. Chiefs attendance continued to rank near the bottom of the ECHL, however, which now included big city teams as far away as Anchorage, Las Vegas and Fresno. In February 2010, Smith’s group bowed to the inevitable and announced the Chiefs would move to Greenville, South Carolina at the conclusion of the 2009-10 season, the club’s 22nd campaign in the ECHL.
The New York Times sent a reporter to the Chiefs’ final game at Cambria County War Memorial on April 3, 2010. Minority owner Ned Nakles noted to The Times that Johnstown outlasted 48 other cities that lost their ECHL franchises during Johnstown’s 22 years in the league. Johnstown was also the last survivor of the original five cities that formed the league in 1988.
==Johnstown Chiefs Programs on Fun While It Lasted==
|1988-89||12/17/1988||vs. Virginia Lancers||W 9-6||Program||Roster Insert|
|1991-92||3/8/1992||vs. Hampton Roads Admirals||L 4-2||Program|
|1992-93||3/15/1993||vs. Birmingham Bulls||W 5-2||Program|
|1994-95||10/21/1994||@ Toledo Storm||L 6-5 (OT)||Program|
|1995-1996||11/22/1995||vs. Wheeling Thunderbirds||L 5-3||Program|
|2007-08||10/18/2007||vs. Wheeling Nailers||L 4-2||Program|
|2007-08||1/18/2008||vs. Dayton Bombers||W 5-1||Program|
|2008-09||10/18/2008||vs. Wheeling Nailers||L 4-2||Program|
Johnstown’s Brian Ferreira hurls a puck at ECHL Commissioner Pat Kelly before storming the press box during a playoff game against the Cincinnati Cyclones. March 20, 1992.
WJAC-TV coverage of the Johnstown Chiefs’ final game in April 2010.
“Chiefs, Inspired by ‘Slap Shot’, Are Leaving Johnstown“, Sean D. Hamill, The New York Times, April 4, 2010