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==
The Toledo Storm were a durable minor league hockey franchise that played for 16 seasons at the old Toledo Sports Arena. The Storm were members of the East Coast Hockey League, which is the equivalent of a “double A” league in the pro hockey ecosystem. The Storm were a minor league affiliate of the NHL’s Detroit Red Wings during nearly all of their existence, although the Tampa Bay Lightning, Nashville Predators, San Jose Sharks and Chicago Blackhawks also contributed prospects to the club for brief periods of time.
The Storm’s glory years came during the early and mid-90’s under the stewardship of team founder Barry Soskin. The Storm won back-to-back Riley Cups as champions of the ECHL in 1993 and 1994. They also regularly packed the small, no frills Sports Arena and turned an annual operating profit. In late 1998, Soskin sold the franchise to Tim Gladieux for a sum reported to be just over $2 million. Attendance peaked during the 1998-99 season, with an average of 4,960 fans per game, well over 90% of Arena capacity.
Budgets rose through the ECHL during the 2000’s as the league evolved into nationwide operation, but the Storm struggled to keep pace, with its revenue upside limited by the outdated Sports Arena. The team began to lose money and requested a temporary withdrawal from the league in 2005 to re-group. The request was later revoked and the Storm played for two more years. In October 2005, team founder Barry Soskin returned to manage the team under a lease arrangement with Tim Gladieux, who remained the owner of record. But ultimately the Storm’s fate hinged on the construction of a long-discussed modern arena in downtown Toledo.
In April 2007, Storm owner Tim Gladieux sold the franchise to the owners of Toledo’s triple-A minor league baseball club, the Mud Hens. The Mud Hens immediately announced that the Storm would take a two-year hiatus from the ECHL until the $105 million Lucas County Arena in downtown Toledo opened in 2009. During the hiatus, the new owners abandoned the Toledo Storm identity and re-branded the team as the Toledo Walleye. The Walleye re-entered the ECHL as scheduled for the 2009-10 season and continue to play today.
The Louisville IceHawks were a minor league hockey outfit that played during the early years of the East Coast Hockey League (ECHL). The club served as a second-tier farm club of the Chicago Blackhawks and Hartford Whalers during its inaugural season of 1990-91 and later supported the NHL’s Tampa Bay Lightning (1992-1993) and Pittsburgh Penguins (1993-1994).
Serial hockey investor Horn Chen acquired the club from founder Leo Hunstiger in the early 1990’s and operated the IceHawks during their final seasons at Broadbent Arena. Chen shuttered the team following the 1993-94 season and the franchise went into inactive status for a year. In 1995, Chen reanimated the team as the Jacksonville Lizard Kings (1995-2000).
In 1995 the ECHL returned to Broadbent Arena after a year’s absence with the formation of the Louisville River Frogs, who lasted three seasons from 1995 through 1998.
The Roanoke Express were a mid-level minor league hockey club in the East Coast Hockey League for nine seasons from 1994 to 2003. The Express followed close on the heels of a series of failed Roanoke-area clubs of the mid-80’s to early 90’s, including the Lancers, Rebels and Rampage, all of which played in a peculiar little building called the LancerLot in nearby Vinton. A blizzard in March 1993 caved in the LancerLot roof during a Roanoke Valley Rampage home game, marking the death knell of both team and the LancerLot as a pro hockey venue.
The ECHL granted an expansion franchise to a group led by trucking entrepreneur John Gagnon and Pierre Paiement, a former player from the 1970’s Roanoke Valley Rebels of the Eastern Hockey League. Unlike the Valley’s recent string of failed clubs, Gagnon and Paiement’s would play at the downtown Roanoke Civic Center, which hadn’t hosted pro hockey since the 1970’s but offered a far more conventional and professional setting than the destroyed LancerLot.
The Express had a strong team throughout the 1990’s under coaches Frank Anzalone and Scott Gordon. The team’s goaltending was especially strong thanks to the tandem of NHL’s veterans Daniel Berthiaume (pictured on program, above right) and Dave Gagnon. The Express won three straight division titles from 1998 to 2000, but the team never progressed far in the playoffs.
The club fell on hard times in the early 2000’s. Ownership turned over a couple of times and the second generation of hockey investors over-extended themselves by getting involved with the city’s money losing Arena Football 2 team, the Roanoke Steam. A pair of front office officials were indicted for embezzlement from the team, though charges were later dismissed. The team began losing and attendance dipped from a mid-1990’s high of nearly 5,700 per game to fewer than 3,000 a night. In July 2004 the ECHL terminated the franchise after the team’s final investor group exhausted its resources and no new buyers could be found.
Goaltender Daniel Berthiaume settled near Roanoke after his hockey career was over and has operated a fishing charter on Smith Mountain Lake for over a decade. Check him out at www.captainbert.com