Johnstown continues to embrace hockey
Jesse Kessler remembers walking into a McDonald's not far from Palmer Ice Arena where he and his Alaska Avalanche teammates played North American Hockey League home games two winters ago.
“We're three blocks from the rink, we have our team jackets on and everything, and we just played a mile away,” Kessler said. “And there's people at the counter asking us if we are some kind of team and asking us what sport we play.
“That,” Kessler said emphatically, “would never happen in Johnstown.”
Kessler and other players who stayed with the franchise when it was purchased and moved to Cambria County last year found that out firsthand.
After two years without a team, puck-hungry Johnstown was a hockey town once more this past winter.
By most any reasonable measure, the Johnstown Tomahawks were a resounding success on and off the ice in their first season playing at historic War Memorial Arena.
The Tier II Junior A franchise qualified for the NAHL playoffs, ranked fifth among 24 teams in average attendance and was honored as the NAHL Organization of the Year.
Three years after the professional Chiefs of the East Coast Hockey League relocated to South Carolina, Johnstown embraced hockey at the Junior level.
“Initially, I sensed there was a little wait-and-see because people in the community were so used to the pro team,” Tomahawks president Rick Bouchard said.
“And as each game went on, we heard more and more fans saying this was better hockey to watch, just as fast, and they were very, very impressed. And then we put on a very good, pro-level gameday experience for fans.”
The NAHL is considered the second-most prestigious junior hockey league (age 16-20) in the country. Division I colleges recruit most often from junior teams; the Tomahawks have had three players sign with Division I programs. Others might join them soon, and several more will play college hockey at smaller schools.
“One thing about the guys on the ice at this level, they really work hard for their goals, trying to get a college scholarship,” said coach Jason Spence, who played seven of his 12 years as a professional with the Chiefs. “If they make a mistake, it's going to be because they're going full-out, not because they're not working hard. And people sense that watching them.”
Beyond their 27-21-12 record, the Tomahawks won the NAHL Organization of the Year as much for their charitable donations of more than $25,000 and their community outreach such as visits to hospitals and other non-profits.
With a hockey history that spans more than six decades as well as being forever immortalized as the site for the cult classic film “Slap Shot,” the Johnstown area's immediate future in the sport appears secure.
“Speaking for myself and my teammates, we didn't quite understand how passionate the people of Johnstown were about their hockey,” said Kessler, a defenseman who intends to return to the team next season. “From that standpoint, playing in Johnstown is an incredible experience, something I'll definitely remember forever.”