The final seconds ticked down in the Johnstown Chiefs’ ECHL existence on Saturday night, and even though the hometown team trailed by four goals, a standing-room-only crowd began chanting, “Let’s go Chiefs.”
That chant would be nothing out of the ordinary on most nights. But this game was the last game.
Twenty-two ECHL seasons and thousands of memories came to a conclusion when the Chiefs dropped a 5-3 contest to Elmira at Cambria County War Memorial Arena.
But even in defeat – and there have been many defeats this season – the Chiefs and their fans made one more lasting impression.
As the fans cheered, Johns-town forward Dan Collins put a shot from the left circle past Elmira goaltender Julian Ellis just inside the far post with 1:17 left.
Most in a crowd of 4,017 figured that would be the final goal in Chiefs history.
The chants began again. And, with 10 seconds left, Troy Schwab capped a 2-on-1 break with a goal that cut the big deficit to two goals. This time it was official. Schwab’s was the last goal by the ECHL’s Chiefs.
“I’ll never forget that they were still yelling, ‘Let’s go Chiefs,’ and chanting even though it was 5-1,” said Chiefs owner/coach Neil Smith, who with investor Steve Posner will move the team to Greenville, S.C., next season. “They never gave up. They never stopped loving the team.
“In the NHL, that doesn’t happen like that,” added Smith, the former Stanley Cup-winning GM of the New York Rangers. “They take away their love pretty quickly in the NHL, and they give it back pretty quickly, too. In this building, they never stopped loving the Chiefs. That’s something to really remember. They never took their love away.”
The Chiefs closed the season with a franchise-low 18-43-7-4 record and a league-worst
Johnstown’s nine home victories are four fewer than the previous record-low of 13 (1995-96, 1989-90) and the 18 wins overall were three worse than the previous low of 21 (1995-96).
All-time, the Chiefs finished 669-685-164 in 22 ECHL seasons.
Johnstown had the distinction of being the only original member of the once five-team league to remain in the same city for all 22 years.
That changes next year.
“I’m full of emotion right now, and I didn’t think I would be,” Smith said. “It’s an emotional game to begin with for everybody. You want to win so bad to leave with the right ending. It’s just not meant to be.”
Elmira quieted the big crowd early, as Wes Cunningham scored 2:55 into the game and former Chiefs defenseman R.J. Anderson netted his 12th of the season at 11:55 against Pittsburgh native Kris Mayotte.
Johnstown’s Collins briefly put the Chiefs back in it with a 4-on-3 power-play goal at
17:18 of the first period.
Brian Kaufman and Sean Berkstresser had assists on Collins’ 11th goal.
But Elmira’s Chaz Johnson knocked in a rebound with 1:50 left in the period, and Johnson and Justin Donati added second-period goals, pushing the Jackals’ margin to 5-1.
Collins and Schwab added the late goals to at least end the night on a high note.
“To leave the building 5-3 is a thousand times better than 5-1 or 6-1 or 7-1,” Smith said. “To win the third period 2-0 is what it is. You won the period and gave them something to cheer about. The last two goals were our goals.”