The thought of loyal Johnstown Chiefs fans rooting for the Wheeling Nailers might have been difficult to grasp a few months ago.
But next season, Johnstown’s hockey fans have no other choice.
And, that’s a best-case scenario as far as Cambria County War Memorial General Manager Tim Landis is concerned. The arena landed a part-time tenant for the next ECHL season, which is quite a feat considering the Chiefs will move to Greenville, S.C.
The official word came on Saturday that the Nailers will play 10 of their home games and one preseason exhibition game at the War Memorial.
“We feel very strongly working with the Brooks brothers and Wheeling as well as with the affiliation with Pittsburgh that we can prove that the ECHL can still do very well here,” Landis said. “With the marketing power of the Penguins organization, we think it will be a very successful endeavor. Going back and forth between Wheeling, 10 games was our target. They threw in the preseason game, which is a nice bonus for us.”
Wheeling owners Rob and Jim Brooks are western Pennsylvania natives who grew up about an hour away from Johnstown.
“Hockey at the War Memorial has played a huge part in my life,” Jim Brooks said during a press conference in Wheeling on Saturday afternoon. “As a youth and through high school, I played many games in the historic War Memorial and also attended several Chiefs games. It’s a great honor to be able to keep their strong ECHL hockey tradition alive.”
The Chiefs had been the only original member of the once five-team East Coast Hockey League to remain in the same city for all 22 seasons of the ECHL’s existence.
That status ended after Saturday night’s season finale against Elmira, played in front of a standing-room-only crowd.
ECHL Commissioner Brian McKenna attended the game. McKenna embraced the idea of the Nailers playing a portion of their schedule in Johnstown, but he conceded there will be many challenges.
“From the league’s point of view to be able to continue to have ECHL hockey in Johnstown is a positive,” McKenna said. “We have a core base of fans that have supported the Chiefs and the league for decades. To be able to allow them to continue to follow the league and see some games is a positive.
“For some of the teams in the North, if it happens to be Elmira, Trenton or Reading, it certainly is, from a travel perspective, a benefit for those teams.”
How the Nailers accommodate their season-ticket holders, corporate sponsors and advertisers with 26 games at WesBanco Arena instead of 36 remains to be seen, though the team is offering a Johnstown season-ticket package for all 10 regular season games plus a preseason game for $130.
The Wheeling staff also will have to adapt to working in two markets separated by about 120 miles and a two-plus-hour drive.
“There is some risk involved in terms of trying to split your staff and your efforts over two markets,” McKenna said. “But again, depending on the dates and the match ups we’re optimistic that it can work.”
Landis said the Nailers’ affiliation with the defending Stanley Cup Pittsburgh Penguins will be advantageous. He also said the initial plans had the War Memorial receiving prime dates rather than simply getting throwaway weekday dates.
The deal with the Nailers also signified the end to any speculation that either the Federal Hockey League or International League would field a team here next season.
“At this point, we feel that would be an overflow, having too many,” Landis said.
“There are some opportunities we’re looking at but that would be discussed in the future.”
Landis had said the Wheeling games could be used as a gauge of interest to perhaps prove to the ECHL that the league still might be viable in Johnstown.
McKenna said it’s too early to think along those lines.
“We’re not looking at it in that regard,” McKenna said. “If it’s overwhelmingly successful I’m sure it would generate some interest potentially from ownership groups.”
McKenna instead views the Nailers’ two-city schedule as more of an opportunity to keep the ECHL game in Johnstown for at least part of one more year.
“The Brooks brothers recognize the tradition and history of hockey in Johnstown,” McKenna said. “They feel it will work. I think for next year it’s an experiment. It’s going to take some effort and a lot of dedication to make it work. But beyond next year, I wouldn’t like to guess.”