The latest chapter in Johnstown’s storied hockey history officially began Thursday morning at Cambria County War Memorial Arena.
The city once again has its own hockey team, although the yet-unnamed North American Hockey League squad will take Johnstown back to its amateur sports roots.
Johnstown had been in the pro game for more than 50 seasons dating to 1941 and is known internationally as the place where the Paul Newman motion picture “Slap Shot” was filmed.
The NAHL is a Tier II Junior A league consisting of players ages 16 to 20. With 27 teams located in 14 states, the NAHL is the oldest and largest junior hockey league in the United States.“We’re going to bring a great hockey program here,” said James Bouchard, chairman and CEO of Johnstown Sports Partners LLC, a private investment group that announced its acquisition of the Alaska Avalanche team that will relocate here for the upcoming 2012-13 season. “We want to bring a national championship to Johnstown.”
A crowd of nearly 50 fans, reporters and local dignitaries gathered in the arena lobby for the announcement. The press conference was well-organized, informative and visually appealing. Two large flatscreen televisions showed highlights of NAHL games complete with fast-paced skating, tough-angle goals, big saves, hard checks and fights.
“The heritage of hockey in this town and the heritage of steel in this town make it the perfect marriage to put this together,” said Bouchard, a Pittsburgh businessman.
Bouchard said the team’s name, logo and uniform colors all must be determined within the next week. Equipment also must be ordered to arrive in time for a 56-game schedule that includes 28 home dates.
Johnstown’s James Vasilko will be a minority owner of the NAHL team, along with Mark Lee, who formerly owned the Alaska team. Richard Bouchard will serve as team president.
Ex-Chiefs fan favorites Rick Boyd and Jean Desrochers will serve key roles. Boyd, a tough guy and captain with the Chiefs, will serve as general manager and director of hockey operations.
Desrochers, a former all-star forward, will be director of business operations. Eighteen players from last year’s Avalanche playoff team are eligible to return to the Johnstown roster.
Bouchard listed ticket prices of $8 for students, veterans and active-duty military, and $10 and $12 for adults depending on the seat’s location. Children 5 and younger will be admitted free.
By comparison, the ECHL’s Chiefs tickets were $16.50 for adults, $13.50 for students and seniors, and $8 for children during the 2008-09 season.
“When you think about the AAABA Tournament, the Sunnehanna Amateur, and the NAHL, this is the place where people come to perform and show their wares and to grow and move into the professional ranks,” U.S. Rep. Mark Critz of Johnstown told the crowd.
Johnstown once competed with Indianapolis for the title of Amateur Sports Capital in the mid-1980s. At that time, promoters touted the AAABA Tournament, Sunnehanna Amateur, Johnstown Marathon and a now-defunct basketball tournament. Vasilko said the NAHL fits nicely into Johnstown’s reputation for hosting quality amateur sporting events.
“We get to see the Johnstown Oldtimers put together the AAABA Tournament and we see great amateur baseball,” Vasilko said. “Then, in the future you’ll see a picture of a player in the (downtown Johnstown) Candy Store because he’s now playing major league baseball.
“Then we get to see a week of the Sunnehanna Amateur, a tournament that brings great amateur golf to Johnstown,” he added. “You watch TV and see a golfer who played in the Amateur (playing on the PGA Tour).
“It’s the same now for amateur hockey. These kids are in the part of their career where they’re getting the ball rolling and they want to play Division I hockey. The hockey teams around here, from Penn State to Robert Morris to Notre Dame, everybody seems to be behind us. The community is behind us. The War Memorial is behind us. We’re so excited to have this type of hockey here. You won’t believe the speed and ability of these players.”