Last week, area hockey fans needed only seven minutes to purchase nearly 4,000 tickets to the Johnstown Tomahawks Charity Classic.
It took National Hockey League owners and NHL Players Association 113 days to reach a tentative agreement on a new collective bargaining agreement, thus ending a grueling lockout that has wiped out three months of the season.
In what has to be some of the worst timing to hit a diehard hockey town that’s seen its share of disappointments on the ice, the lockout’s conclusion will prevent those ticket holders from walking through the turnstiles at Cambria County War Memorial Arena tonight.
The Tomahawks announced the Charity Classic, which was to feature Pittsburgh Penguins players alongside the Tomahawks, had been canceled due to the recent tentative agreement between the NHL owners and players. The announcement followed a 90-minute conference call Tuesday morning as the Tomahawks front office staff, Penguins player Matt Cooke and Dr. Brad Henderson, president of the Pittsburgh Kids Foundation-Haiti, discussed options.
Tomahawks President Richard Bouchard said the major stumbling block involved players’ insurance.
“The Penguins advised the players that were going to play in the game that the insurance issue was a big one,” Bouchard said Tuesday afternoon. “They hadn’t set training camp schedules yet. These players are going to be traveling pretty much non-stop once they get this schedule together. They’re putting their own lives together with their families. Ultimately, it was too difficult for them to come to Johnstown.”
The development, while perhaps not a total surprise, had heartbreaking consequences to Johnstown’s fans and the Tomahawks players.
But Bouchard pointed to the two charities that would have benefited from the money generated through nearly $100,000 in ticket sales and other fundraisers. Nearly 4,000 seats at $25 a ticket sold out on Ticketmaster and in the arena lobby in 7 minutes. Some fans slept in the lobby overnight to reserve a spot near the front of the line.
“The biggest loser out of this whole situation is the charities that were going to benefit from this,” Bouchard said. “That’s the biggest disappointment – that we couldn’t raise big money to help the charities. Our fans are disappointed. I consider our fans a part of our family. I know they’re disappointed, but the charities are the ones I feel sorry for.
“That charity money would have kept an orphanage (in Haiti) going for a year.”
Tomahawks players had hoped to skate next to NHL stars, but now will focus on three weekend home games in as many days.
“Obviously it’s disappointing, but we all knew there was a chance of the NHL getting back in the swing of things with the union and the players getting a deal,” Tomahawks captain Mitch Kontny said. “Our games are obviously more important and coming off a weekend like we had (0-2-1), we’ve got to get back in the swing of things.”
Penguins forward Cooke was instrumental in assembling a group of 10 to 12 players for the Johnstown game, including high-profile stars such as Marc-Andre Fleury, Brooks Orpik, James Neal, Chris Kunitz and former Pen Jordan Staal.
Cooke and Kunitz made a promotional appearance at the arena and signed autographs for two hours at a recent Tomahawks home game.
“We apologize we are unable to make this game a reality because of the start of the NHL season, but we will look at other opportunities to assist the Pittsburgh Kids Foundation and the Johnstown community,” Cooke said in a statement released by the Tomahawks. “We look forward to seeing everybody back on the ice in Pittsburgh.”
Fans who purchased tickets to the game will receive refunds beginning Monday, Bouchard said.
“There will be a 100 percent refund of the tickets. That will go on starting at 10 o’clock on Monday morning,” Bouchard said. “Anybody who went through Ticketmaster, they will do it automatically.
“If they came to the War Memorial they can do it right there or they can contact our office and we’ll guide them through the process,” he added. “It’s a 100 percent refund. The Penguins hope they can create an opportunity to do something in the future.”
Dean Gindlesperger, chairman of the Cambria County War Memorial Arena Authority, praised the Tomahawks for their attempt to organize a milestone event. The irony of the timeline of events stung Gindlesperger.
“It’s an unfortunate situation,” Gindlesperger said. “We were looking forward to the game. There was a lot of hard work put into it by the Tomahawks organization and the arena staff. But anybody who knows hockey understands that when they were in the lockout they weren’t under contract. Now, there’s a tentative agreement.
“It’s just a bad timing thing,” Gindlesperger added. “Give us another couple days and we have a game. But the sun is going to come up tomorrow. We need to put it behind us and find some other things to bring in. This group of people in the Tomahawks organization are first class. I think they’ve brought more into the arena in the last four months than anyone has done in the last 10 years when it comes to hockey. We need to be patient.”
Authority Treasurer George Arcurio III has confidence in the Tomahawks. Arcurio thinks Johnstown hockey fans eventually will experience more marquee attractions involving the team.
The Hawks previously had a season-opening outdoor hockey festival that attracted 2,000 people; Penguins Hall of Famer Mario Lemieux dropped the ceremonial first puck at the home opener; the “Slap Shot” Hanson Brothers made an appearance at a game; and Cooke and Kunitz visited along with the Stanley Cup during another contest.
“I believe Mr. Bouchard, Mr. (Jean) Desrochers, Mr. (Rick) Boyd and the Tomahawks in the very near future will provide something very exciting to the fans,” Arcurio said, referring to the team president, director of business operations and GM, respectively. “This is just unfortunate timing. They will make it up to the public and the fans of Johnstown. Their heart is with this town.”