BY MIKE MASTOVICH
JOHNSTOWN — Johnstown Chiefs fans repeatedly asked one question after owner Neil Smith confirmed the ECHL team will relocate to Greenville, S.C., pending approval of the league governors.
Actually, that question typically was followed by others:
“Will there be pro hockey at Cambria County War Memorial Arena next season?”
“If not, how will the arena survive without a major tenant?”
The Chiefs have played in the ECHL for 22 seasons. The team is the only original league member still playing in the same city.
Johnstown holds a special place in professional hockey, with a history dating to the 1941-42 Blue Birds season, six league playoff championships earned by the Johnstown Jets and, of course, filming of the movie “Slap Shot” here in 1976.
Good or bad on the ice, the Chiefs were known throughout the hockey world because of their famous name and venerable arena.
Now, barring a miracle, they’re off to Greenville, a city with a shiny, spacious arena. The Bi-Lo Center once housed a championship ECHL team that eventually folded under financial burdens in 2006.
Philadelphia native Andy Richards has a few questions of his own. The vice commissioner of the fledgling Federal Hockey League spent part of Monday morning trying to contact the proper people in Johnstown and Cambria County. He wondered if Johnstown would be a fit for what the FHL hopes blossoms into a six-team low Class A level minor league.
“We’ve been following the situation with the Chiefs,” Richards said. “We didn’t anticipate they’d be leaving this soon. We thought they would last a few more years, but economics are economics. When we saw the thing with Greenville, we wanted to set up a meeting with the appropriate people in town and see if we can get involved with the community there. We are interested in getting that meeting set up and see what would be required and if it would fit our model.”
The Federal League, which not quite coincidentally borrowed its name from “Slap Shot,” officially opened for business on Dec. 17. Richards said four teams are committed for the upcoming season and he envisions two more joining before a league-imposed March 15 deadline.
Richards listed teams in Rome, N.Y., Thousand Islands, N.Y., Danbury, Conn., and Cornwall, Ontario, as members and added that negotiations are ongoing with Jamestown, N.Y., as well as other cities.
“We anticipate starting the season with six teams, and currently we have four,” Richards said. “We have several others. We should reach our six by March 15. We are trying to negotiate some leases with some facilities.
“Johnstown would fit our geography,” he added, noting that while local investors would be welcomed, a FHL franchise in the city probably would initially have outside ownership. “It would be appropriate with our league called the Federal League. We didn’t intend to name it that because we wanted to replicate Slap Shot, but it was a good name people would associate with hockey, and it’s not taken by anybody.”
Cambria County Commissioner P.J. Stevens is confident that arena manager SMG Worldwide “will pursue other hockey teams to keep hockey in Johnstown, at whatever level possible. They (SMG) are in many markets, and they’re an organization that understands our niche. They have connections across the country.”
Chiefs owner Smith said that during the past five years he had attempted without success to find a local owner or investor to keep the team in Johnstown. Smith said Sunday that if a local investor stepped up at the last minute, he would prefer to keep the team here. He considered the chances of someone local wanting to own the team unlikely considering the lack of interest locally in recent years.
The Greenville arena authority agreed to a memorandum of understanding with the Chiefs on Monday.
The ECHL Board of Governors is expected to hold a teleconference call this week to vote on approval of the transfer from Johnstown to Greenville.
ECHL Commissioner Brian McKenna said league rules prohibit him from commenting on the Chiefs’ situation.
“Unfortunately, I cannot say anything at this point. Our midseason meeting is still open,” McKenna said. “We’re dealing with several issues. Until we reconvene I cannot say anything. After that I would be happy to speak.”
McKenna did acknowledge that Johnstown has a special place in league history. Without the Chiefs’ early success on the ice and at the box office, the East Coast Hockey League might not have enjoyed its rapid expansion into previously untapped markets in the mid-1990s.
“From the league’s perspective, there has always been a soft spot for Johnstown, the tradition, the fact that it’s the only charter member still playing in the same arena in the same market,” McKenna said. “A lot of players, front office folks, coaches and broadcasters have moved up and on from Johnstown. It’s played a very significant role in the history of the ECHL.”
Unfortunately, that history is about to become just that – history.