BY MIKE MASTOVICH
Jim Edwards Sr. was a driving force in reshaping both the image and the on-ice success of the Johnstown Chiefs during his eight seasons as the ECHL franchise’s president.
Edwards was devoted to keeping the small-market Chiefs on the ice in the mostly large-market ECHL.
With owners Richard and Connie Mayer and the tandem of GM Toby O’Brien and coach Scott Allen, Edwards was part of a group that turned a franchise with the lovable loser tag into a playoff contender.
Along the way, the Johnstown businessman and former television executive at WJAC-TV earned leaguewide respect in his role as Chairman of the ECHL Board of Directors for four seasons.
“What a great honor,” O’Brien said. “(Edwards) did it all out of the goodness of his heart. I’m just so happy for him.”
Nearly four years have passed since the Chiefs skated on the Cambria County War Memorial Arena ice, but the team still is earning recognition through Edwards, who on Thursday was announced as one of four members of the ECHL Hall of Fame Class of 2014.
“It’s a humbling experience knowing that my hockey peers think my contributions and my efforts on behalf of the sport were worthy of special consideration,” said Edwards, who officially will be inducted Feb. 7 in Anchorage, Alaska, site of the ECHL Hockey Heritage Weekend and all-star game.
“What really pleased me the most is the fact that the chiefs may be gone but we’re still remembered,” Edwards said. “We had a great team, with Toby, Scotty, (former GM) Jimmy Brazill and (former vice president of business operations) Kevin McGeehan. They made a lot of sacrifices on behalf of the team. Any recognition I may receive, I’m doing it on their shoulders.”
Joining Edwards in the Hall will be: Wes Goldie, the ECHL’s all-time leader with 370 career goals in 697 games with Pee Dee, Victoria and Alaska; Al MacIsaac, a former Hampton Roads Admirals player (1991-93) who won a Riley Cup championship and played in the league’s first all-star game before becoming a coach and eventually landing in the Chicago Blackhawks front office for 14 years; and the late John Spoltore, who played for the Louisiana IceGators from 1995-96 through 2000-01 and scored 532 points in just 275 career ECHL games.
Edwards served as Chiefs’ president from 1995-96 through 2002-03. He was ECHL Chairman from 1999 to 2003.
Edwards took on his duties with the Chiefs at a time when players refused to report to Johnstown, preferring to play for teams near the beaches or in cities with an active night life. Agents steered prospects away, and the team suffered through four straight seasons without a playoff appearance.
Edwards didn’t deviate from the plan. O’Brien and Allen built teams based on character, loyalty and honesty.
“We decided to take the player development approach,” Edwards said. “If you want to play golf or play tennis do that. If you want to advance your career, come to Johnstown. We’ll help you learn things about hockey. Scotty was a great teacher.
“We will never hold you back. When we went out in the market to recruit, our policy was we’d never lie to you. If you’re going to be a role player, we’re going to tell you. We’re not going to lie to you about what we’re going to pay you.”
The Chiefs fortunes reversed as standouts like goaltender Freddie Deschenes and future NHL players Jody Shelley, Derrick Walser and Brett McLean complemented solid skaters such as Eric Schneider, Joel Irving and Andrew Dale.
“At the end, when we went to the playoffs, coaches and agents were calling us to take their players,” Edwards said.
Allen left the Chiefs to coach in the American Hockey League and eventually was an assistant coach with the NHL’s New York Islanders.
He currently is an assistant with the Chicago Wolves, an AHL affiliate of the St. Louis Blues.
“A very well-deserved honor,” Allen said of Edwards’ induction. “If people only knew how strong of a presence he had at those league meetings. He was a big part of not only keeping Johnstown in the league for as long as it was in the league, but also in defining the structure of the league and how they had to operate to keep things going.
“Mr. Edwards is very high in morals. It’s no secret that so many teams were cheating and paying ridiculous amounts of money under the table back then. Mr. Edwards was against it because he knew it would be the demise of the small market teams. I think he knew eventually the league would outgrow Johnstown, but for him to keep it going with the support of Mr. and Mrs. Mayer, I can’t say enough about the support he gave the team and the city.”
When asked for his top moment with the Chiefs, Edwards didn’t hesitate.
“Peoria. Game 5 in Peoria,” he said of the comeback, upset series win in the 2002 Kelly Cup playoffs. “That, I will never forget. We were the underdog. We walked out of Peoria with the win. That to me was the turning point.”
The Chiefs had lost the first two games of the best-of-5 series in Peoria, each by one goal. Allen guaranteed in print that the Chiefs would be back in Peoria for Game 5.
They decisively won both games in Johnstown and then blanked the Rivermen 4-0 behind a Deschenes shutout.
“Those were very challenging years,” Edwards said. “Fortunately, with the support of Dick and Connie Mayer, we turned it around. Dick and Connie provided the cash. I provided the sweat equity.”