BY MIKE MASTOVICH
JOHNSTOWN — The Johnstown Chiefs franchise will move to Greenville, S.C., after the current ECHL season concludes, pending approval by a Greenville arena authority and then the league, owner Neil Smith confirmed before Sunday’s game at Cambria County War Memorial Arena.
The Chiefs distributed an official news release after the game against the Cincinnati Cyclones.
“It was a combination of things,” Smith said, noting that his attempts to find a local owner to buy the team had been unsuccessful. “With the economy and the attendance going down and the cost going up, and the other thing that people might not know is our lease is up, and this is not against SMG, but early indications are the cost of the lease is going up. It’s not going down. We have to make a decision. What do we do? Really, we were left with no choice.”
Smith has been primary owner of the Chiefs since 2002, though he said he had openly invited local businessmen to either purchase the team from him or invest in the franchise in order to solidify its foundation in Johnstown during the past five years.
The Chiefs are the only original member of the ECHL remaining in the same city since the league formed with five teams in 1988-89. Johnstown has fielded an ECHL team for 22 seasons.
The Greenville arena board will hold a vote on today to approve a lease agreement with Smith and investor Steve Posner that would bring an ECHL team to the state-of-the-art Bi-Lo Center for the first time since 2006. The Greenville Grrrowl competed in the ECHL from 1998-99 through 2005-06, winning a Kelly Cup in 2002 and ranking at or near the top of the attendance category in its first four seasons before falling on tough financial times.
Should the Greenville board approve, as expected, then the ECHL Board of Governors would probably hold a teleconference call later this week to vote on approving the transfer of membership from Johnstown to Greenville.
Smith said the only chance for the Chiefs to remain in Johnstown would be “if someone reads this article and decides to buy the team” at the 24th hour. That would be equivalent to a minor miracle.
“But realistically, they would have had to have been hiding under a rock for many years,” Smith said, referring to his repeated attempts to generate local interest. “It’s sad. I’m not happy about it. Nobody is happy about it. It’s not something that you want to have happen. Steve and I, this summer, our intention was to go at least through 2010-11. But with attendance being so off this year and the prospect of having to sign a lease which wouldn’t go down, and then this thing (Greenville proposal) comes up at the same time.”
Through 24 home dates the Chiefs’ average attendance was 1,975.
The Chiefs had a perfect storm of hurdles hit the franchise during the offseason.
Smith and former team manager Roustan United had a much-publicized dispute over operation of the team and finances. When that situation finally was resolved, Smith became a hands-on owner after spending about five years overseeing the team from a distance.
In August, popular and successful coach Ian Herbers landed an AHL assistant coaching job, leaving the team without a head coach. The Chiefs eventually hired Jeff Flanagan after several others on their list turned down offers.
Flanagan’s team stumbled to a 9-19-4-3 mark and he was fired last month. Smith stepped in as interim head coach and the team has shown improvement on the ice.
Another factor for the rough start was the loss of two solid affiliates, the NHL’s Colorado Avalanche and Columbus Blue Jackets due to financial reasons.
Smith had been a staunch believer in keeping the Chiefs in Johnstown because of the team’s long history and the city’s role in the motion picture “Slap Shot” filmed here in 1976. He even once played here as a minor leaguer with the Hampton Aces against the Johnstown Red Wings in 1979-80.
Despite annual losses Smith and his group, which includes 10 percent minority owner Ned Nakles Jr. – another major Johnstown hockey benefactor – somehow managed to keep the team in town despite the Chiefs playing in the league’s smallest market and oldest, smallest arena.
“Our losses, to say six figures is deceiving,” Smith said. “It was in the hundreds of thousands. I’ve been committed to keeping the team here since the day I got here. I’ve always kept my word. Financially, it became impossible. I don’t know if people know how close we came to folding last summer. We went through that tough time, but we were able to save it for one more year. It was a different situation, but we were able to rescue it for one more year.”
Smith needed a cash injection from New York City investor Posner during the offseason to stabilize the situation. Sources said Posner invested as much as $300,000.
Losing the Chiefs would take away 36 guaranteed regular-season dates from the War Memorial as well as potential playoff dates.
Area hotels typically benefit from out of town teams and patrons, and some area eateries have had larger crowds on Chiefs game nights over the years.
War Memorial General Manager Tim Landis said the Chiefs and SMG, which manages the arena, had exchanged lease proposals in recent weeks and potential dates for home games had been submitted.
“We can’t speculate on rumors,” Landis said prior to the official news release. “SMG is in negotiations with the Chiefs, and we have presented an offer. We’re moving forward. We’re negotiating in good faith with the Chiefs on a new lease deal.”