Johnstown won’t have its own ECHL team next season, but the city’s adopted squad will skate on Cambria County War Memorial Arena ice in 2011-12.
The Wheeling Nailers announced on Thursday the team again will play 10 of its home dates in Johnstown next season.
“What we’ve seen in Johnstown over the last couple months is that the attendance is coming up and the enthusiasm is coming up,” said Craig Bommer, vice president of business operations with the Nailers. “In another year, we think we can get it turned around to where we want.”
The Nailers have played six of this season’s scheduled 10 games in Johnstown. Wheeling plays twice this weekend at the War Memorial – against Reading at 7:05 tonight and against Toledo at 8:05 on Saturday night.
The team’s average attendance in Johnstown is 1,801 (10,808 fans in six games). The most recent crowd of 2,139 at a Jan. 30 game was the second-best for the Nailers at Johnstown this season. The top attendance here was 2,385 on Nov. 12.
First-place Wheeling had a 14-point lead in the North Division through Wednesday and the Nailers are 5-1 at Johnstown.
War Memorial General Manager Michael Silva of SMG believes the city’s hockey community is at a crossroads.
“The opportunity to have professional hockey in town is something we shouldn’t pass by,” said Silva, who took his post after the Chiefs announced they’d relocate to Greenville, S.C., when their 22nd ECHL season concluded in April. “The level of play and the Nailers’ relationship with the Penguins, it’s all just a win-win situation for our town in general.”
Four of the crowds at Nailers games here were less than 2,000 and two of those were less than 1,500. December traditionally had been a slow month for the Chiefs and attendance typically picked up after the New Year’s Eve game.
“When we started talking about how the year went, the Nailers said, ‘We always knew it would take a little while to create a brand here in Johnstown.’ I couldn’t be more pleased that they’re coming back for a second year to win hearts and minds in Johnstown,” Silva said.
ECHL Commissioner Brian McKenna supported the hybrid schedule.
“Johnstown has played a huge part in the history of the ECHL and the tradition of our league,” McKenna said. “For Wheeling and the league to be able to continue to have an ECHL presence in Johnstown is, from a league point of view, something we’re very happy about.
“We’d always like to see a few more people in the building, but I have been encouraged by several of the crowds,” the commissioner added. “The team has played pretty well this year. I think now that fans know they’ll be back next year to play a portion of their schedule there will be a reason to support the team.”
Wheeling and Johnstown had been geographical rivals, a fact that might have made it more difficult for some diehard fans to accept the Nailers.
Silva believes the Chiefs’ departure also had an adverse affect on attendance.
“We want to get past the whole legacy of the Chiefs (leaving),” Silva said. “I hear some comments that people say the Chiefs just put them off hockey when they left. In the death throes of the Chiefs, a lot of people got burned out. We’ve got to introduce that the Nailers bring a whole new life to town.
“The front office answers the phones when you call. They’re doing giveaways in the stands. From the War Memorial’s perspective, they’ve been a pleasure to work with. That’s a relationship I’d like to continue to have.”
The two-city set-up presents challenges such as shuffling front-office and support staff, as well as players, coaches and equipment.
So far, the Nailers have adapted with a near-perfect record here.
“We’ve got a good game plan and we’ve stuck to it,” Bommer said. “Mike Silva and his staff at the arena have helped a ton. It hasn’t been as difficult as one might think.”
The Nailers’ magic number is 2,500 fans, Bommer said.
“Going over the lease, the ticket prices, our travel and our expenses we came out with 2,500 (attendance) to break even,” he said. “We knew it was going to be a challenge since we were the rivals coming into town. The first couple games we knew it would be tough. But the last couple games the jerseys are starting to sell and the fans are chanting for us. It’s starting to work.”
Silva hopes this is only the beginning of a long-term relationship.
“The hybrid model is working in Trenton and Atlantic City, too,” Silva said. “I still believe that this hybrid model for teams that are in cities that are tapped out is going to be more prevalent going forward. We should take pride that we were one of the first ones to try this experiment.”