A sellout crowd turned out on Saturday to say goodbye to the ECHL’s
Johnstown Chiefs in their last game at Cambria County War Memorial Arena. The irony was obvious.
The farewell was only the second sellout of the season for the team, which packed its bags for Greenville, S.C., because of low attendance here.
The Chiefs had called the War Memorial their home for 22 years, often surviving on a financial shoestring. Finally, the region’s dwindling population and a sagging national economy brought the end of the line.
Ticket-taker Jim Wos, who has welcomed hockey fans to the local arena since 1969, feels a change in fan commitment also played a part.
“I think the older hockey fans, the core base, is dying away, and the newer fans just can’t afford it and just don’t have the interest like they had in the past,” he said.
The Chiefs aren’t the first hockey team to lose a financial struggle in Johnstown, but they are the first to leave for presumably greener pastures. Four predecessors simply went out of business because they couldn’t draw enough fans. In fact, the city’s first team – the Bluebirds – nearly didn’t survive the one season it called Johnstown home. Yet, it did plant the seeds of hockey here, and those seeds produced a long-lasting, if not always monetarily rewarding, legacy.
The Bluebirds set the tone for the future of Johnstown hockey in other ways as well. For one thing, they were the product of an out-of-towner – a Toronto native named Pick Hines, who had a good day at the track and bought a hockey team with his winnings. Impressed by the turnout for an exhibition game at the Shaffer Ice Palace in Hornerstown, Hines moved his team to Johnstown for the 1941-42 season. But, the money soon ran out, and, in a scenario repeated many times throughout Johnstown hockey history, another out-of-towner – Harry Crichton of New Jersey – stepped up with enough cash to get the Bluebirds through the season.
The Bluebirds might have played another season had World War II not intervened.
Like a long string of Johnstown owners since, investors were willing to risk more losses in the belief that things would get better.
Construction of the War Memorial Arena brought
Johnstown’s longest-lasting hockey franchise, the Jets. The arena itself acquired the franchise, but quickly sold it to local interests. Those interests, changed several times from the 1950-51 debut season to the Jets’ last in 1976-77. For most of the run, Johnstown’s steel mills and coal mines provided full employment, and although the hockey team didn’t always prosper, it managed to cover its costs. But, like the Bluebirds, the team was done in by an unforeseen circumstance – the Flood of 1977, which ruined the team’s equipment and damaged the War Memorial extensively. After 27 years, the Jets were grounded.
When the War Memorial was again ready for hockey, longtime Jets executive John Mitchell brought the sport back. He put together a team
– the Johnstown Wings – with the help of NHL connections, then had to cobble together the Northeast League for it to play in during the 1978-79 season.
The Johnstown Red Wings played the 1979-80 season in a new Eastern League. Each of those teams, and their respective leagues, drowned in red ink after their inaugural seasons.
Johnstown went eight years without hockey, then came full circle.
Like Hines, Virginia businessman Henry Brabham came to town to see an exhibition game in 1987 and was struck by the number of fans it attracted.
When he needed a place to put a team midway through the 1987-88 season, Johnstown was his choice, and the Chiefs were born. Like Johnstown teams before them, they changed owners often as investors came, lost money, and left.
But many of the fans were loyal through thick and thin.
Jim Senner and his wife, Elaine, are typical of them.
“We were season-ticket holders for 21 years,” Elaine Senner said.
In fact, Jim was such a dedicated fan that his enthusiasm occasionally caused security personnel to escort him to the door. That happened a number of times at the War Memorial, as well as during at least one road game in Erie.
Then, the Senners quit coming.
“It got a little on the expensive side,” Jim said. “We needed a house more than we needed to come to the games. We had to give up one or the other, and hockey lost out.”
More and more Chiefs fans found themselves making such choices until owner Neil Smith, a Toronto native like Hines, found himself in the same situation the Bluebirds owner had – trying to hold onto a Johns-town team deep in debt with no way to pay the bills. In a case of history repeating itself, New York City investor Steve Posner put up $300,000 to get the Chiefs through this season.
Smith chose to relocate rather than fold, a strategy that allows him to keep his franchise. Most fans accepted the reality of the situation with disappointment, not heartache.
“It is a terrible loss to the community, but people don’t have the same love for this team that they had with the Jets,” Wos said. “They embraced Dick Roberge, Galen Head, Don Hall and Vern Campigotto. But now, people are moving on and players change every other year. It’s hard to really get attached to a team that keeps changing.”
Hockey apparently abhors a vacuum, at least in Johnstown.
The Chiefs’ move had hardly been announced before inquiries began rolling in from those interested in filling the void. And just before Saturday night’s opening faceoff, the ECHL’s Wheeling Nailers announced that they will play an exhibition and 10 regular-season games here next season.
The Chiefs may be leaving town, but hockey isn’t. Nevertheless, it won’t be the same for some people.
The Senners, for instance, said they had to come to Saturday’s game just to say goodbye.
But the Wheeling announcement was of no consolation to them.
“That’s not our home team,” Elaine Senner said. “I won’t come. I’m not a Wheeling fan.”
Others will come, however, providing enough nourishment to keep hockey alive in Johns-town – if not enough for it to flourish.
Joe Gorden is a sports writer for The Tribune-Democrat.