PITTSBURGH — The following is an excerpt taken from the book “Slap Shots and Snapshots: 50 Seasons of Pro Hockey in Johnstown, Pennsylvania.”
The hastily assembled group of Johnstown Chiefs sat in the home locker room at Cambria County War Memorial Arena, making “Slap Shot” references and anxiously exchanging pregame banter.
Some of the players hardly had been together long enough to remember each other’s names. No one knew what to expect as the Chiefs prepared for their first game in the All-American Hockey League on Jan. 13, 1988.
Johnstown had joined the AAHL in midseason. Coach Joe Selenski and General Manager John Daley assembled a team and hockey operation in a matter of days. Selenski knew his boys probably wouldn’t have the stamina to outskate the Carolina Thunderbirds, one of the AAHL’s best teams. But the coach did promise that the Chiefs would play aggressive hockey.
A crowd of 3,620 fans nearly filled the 4,040-seat War Memorial for the first truly hometown professional hockey game in eight years.
“The first time we went out, there was nobody out there,” said Rick Boyd, one of the original Chiefs and a fan favorite because of his tough approach to the game. “There was a mix-up with the starting time. The Thunderbirds bus broke down. They brought us back in the locker room and we were sitting there disheartened. There were a handful of people there, and we were thinking it was going to be a big deal, but no one showed up.”
The next time the Chiefs took the ice that evening, the situation had changed dramatically.
“Then, the visitors’ bus arrived,” Boyd said. “We were told they were going to introduce us as a team. The noise level started to pick up outside the dressing room. We were sitting in the room throwing out jokes about ‘Slap Shot.’ When they told us it was time, we went out and the lights were dimmed. You couldn’t see what was going on.
“Gary Glitter, ‘Rock ’n Roll’ was playing,” Boyd added, referring to the 1970’s era song so frequently played at sports arenas throughout the country.
“When they turned the lights up, people were hanging off the rafters. I still get goose bumps thinking about it. I think the fans had been through a lot and they had waited and were patient.”
A fighting chance
The Chiefs didn’t disappoint. Fists flew early in that game. And, surprisingly, the home team won 5-3. A new era of Johnstown hockey began.
“Thirteen seconds in, I got my first fight in Johnstown,” said Boyd, who twice came out of retirement to play for the ECHL Chiefs in the late 1990s. “What Joe Selenski told us in the dressing room before the game was that he didn’t know much to tell us. He said the last things these fans remember about the game of hockey was the movie ‘Slap Shot.’ Thirteen seconds into it, the gloves were off and we got going.
“That first game I ended up with three fights.”
The official box score actually listed the first major fighting penalty 32 seconds into the game. But what are a few seconds?
Fisticuffs aside, forward Rob Hrytsak became the first Chief to score a goal at 8:51 of the first period. Hrytsak stole a cross-ice pass and had a clear path to the net before he put the puck over goalie Bruce Billes’ shoulder. Chiefs’ goaltender Bob Deraney netted the first win, and future Chiefs GM/coach Toby O’Brien later in the season recorded the first shutout as one of the inaugural team’s two goaltenders.
Scott Allen played for Carolina in that opening Chiefs’ game. More than a decade later, Allen coached the Chiefs to some of the franchise’s most memorable playoff success.
“The Johnstown players looked up in the stands and saw the turnout,” Allen recalled. “They also knew the type of hockey those people wanted to see, and they were certainly prepared to deliver.
“Joe Selenski was the coach, and he probably did as good a job as anybody as far as putting a team together at that time of the year. For him to be able to go out and find the type of players he found, it was outstanding.”
The game set a foundation. The Chiefs went 13-13 and dropped three playoff games during that short season.
But they won over fans and revived hockey in Johnstown.
Attendance numbers were impressive. Crowds of 3,620; 4,332; 4,132; 3,537; and 4,072 watched the first five games at the War Memorial, respectively.
How did such an unthinkable scenario unfold in a hockey-starved town?
Virginia oilman Henry Brabham’s foresight and determination had plenty to do with hockey’s return. Almost a year earlier, two Atlantic Coast Hockey League teams played an exhibition game at the War Memorial to gauge interest in the pro sport last played regularly in Johnstown in 1980.
“The reason I brought a team to Johnstown is because I was so enthused when we played the exhibition game here, with the people of this area and the way they liked hockey and how nice people were to me on the street,” Brabham said.
Brabham owned the Virginia Lancers team that faced Erie in that exhibition game. When the ACHL crumbled and the AAHL had a mid-season franchise opening, Brabham remembered Johnstown.
He traveled to Johnstown in December 1987 with Selenski – who had coached a Utica, N.Y., team to the ACHL finals the previous season.
Brabham met with War Memorial board president and marketing director Dennis Grenell, who suggested that the team take the nickname, Chiefs, based on “Slap Shot’s” Charlestown Chiefs. Grenell also steered Brabham to Daley, who had served as GM of the EHL’s Johnstown Jets from 1962-66.
Selenski had player contacts from previous coaching experience and his earlier attempt to assemble a team that never materialized at the season’s outset.
‘They’re the Chiefs’
“I have had the good fortune in my life and career to be involved in many community projects, but no day will ever replace Dec. 27, 1987,” Grenell said. “At 3:40 p.m. on that date, Henry Brabham and Joe Selenski walked into my office and introduced themselves. Henry said: ‘I’m Henry Brabham and I understand you’re the guy to talk to about putting a hockey team in Johns-town.’ I said, ‘When do you want to put this team in?’ I was thinking it would be the next year. He said, ‘Right now.’ He said he wanted to start in two weeks.
“I was president of the War Memorial. I told him I didn’t know anything about running a hockey club, but I knew someone who did. I called John Daley and hooked those two up. Daley agreed to be the GM.”
When the subject of a team nickname surfaced, Grenell knew the name Jets was owned by other parties, and a team being rushed into a league at midseason didn’t have time to participate in legal maneuvering to secure a name.
“Henry said, ‘What do you want to call this team?’ The only thing that came to my mind was ‘Slap Shot.’ I said, ‘How about the Chiefs?’ He said, ‘They’re the Chiefs.’”
An emergency meeting of the War Memorial Board enabled all parties to quickly reach a lease agreement.
Many fans thought the Chiefs wore black and gold uniforms to connect with the region’s beloved Pittsburgh Steelers, Penguins and Pirates. That actually wasn’t the case.
“After we came to a lease agreement, Joe Selenski went to Canada to buy some uniforms,” Grenell said. “He called me at 3 a.m. one morning. He said, ‘The only thing they have here is black and gold uniforms.’ I said, ‘Terrific.’ But he didn’t have enough money to buy them. I gave him my credit card number to buy the uniforms.”
The fans quickly took to their Chiefs.
Players were treated like celebrities in downtown eateries and bars. Kids lined up for autographs of favorites such as Boyd, tough guy Brock Kelly, Hrytsak, Darren Servatius, Deraney, Scott Rettew and O’Brien. The turnstiles at the arena clicked with regularity.
“During the 1988 season, as short as it was, I went upstairs one time to talk to Mr. Daley. There was an elderly lady sitting outside his office waiting to see him,” Boyd said. “She was a pleasant lady, and she went in to talk to Mr. Daley. She was asking for time to pay for her hockey tickets because the rent was due. Here was a lady negotiating to keep her tickets and pay her rent. She was a person who represented what the fans in this city were about.
“The fans of Johnstown are hard-working people, blue-collar people. All they want out of their hockey team is 100 percent.”
A new league is born
The rough-and-tumble AAHL gave way to the five-team East Coast Hockey League in 1988-89. Brabham had ownership interest in three of the teams – Johnstown, Virginia and Erie.
Carolina (Winston-Salem, N.C.) and Knoxville (Tenn.) also were original members of the fledgling ECHL.
The Chiefs maintained their momentum during the 1988-89 season. Selenski was gone, but former Jets and “Slap Shot” star Steve Carlson took over as head coach. Carlson welcomed future NHL goaltender Scott Gordon (18-9-3) to camp.
Gordon joined ECHL Rookie of the Year Tom Sasso (101 points), Hrytsak (89), Joe Gurney (81), J.F. Nault (78), Mike Marcinkiewicz (73 points, 171 PIM), Kelly (365 penalty minutes) and Servatius (53 points, 177 PIM) on a successful and colorful unit.
Johnstown finished second to Erie in the regular season but swept past Knoxville in the first round of the playoffs, setting the stage for a wild Riley Cup final against Carolina.
Johnstown won the first two games of the best-of-7 series by a combined 14-2 score (8-1 in Game 1 and 6-1 in Game 2) at home.
But Carolina stormed back with three straight victories to put the Chiefs on the verge of elimination. In the middle of that run, the ice at Winston-Salem Coliseum melted prior to Game 4 because a compressor mysteriously shut down during the night.
“This hasn’t happened in five years,” Carolina owner John Baker said at the time. The originally scheduled Game 5 in Johnstown was played in place of Game 4. Carolina won 5-3.
After Carolina took a 3-2 series advantage with a 7-1 win, the Chiefs had a gut check, winning 7-4 in Winston-Salem
to force a decisive Game 7 at Johnstown.
‘There for the taking’
“It was phenomenal,” said Allen, recalling Game 7 from the opposing side’s perspective. “We were down to 12 players because of suspensions and injuries. Johnstown had a full lineup. We were up 3-2 going into Game 6. We thought for sure we were going to win it at home but that wasn’t the case. A couple guys in that game got a little goofy and got suspended for Game 7. It was right there for the taking for Johnstown. They had a full lineup. We had 12 guys.”
ECHL Commissioner Pat Kelly made a statement and added credibility to the league by suspending those Carolina players despite the magnitude of Game 7.
“We pulled in the night before on the bus and there were people sleeping outside the War Memorial waiting for tickets,” Allen recalled. “We came in for the morning skate and the line was out the door and along the sidewalk. People were greeting us with the one-finger salute. We actually were enjoying the atmosphere. Brandon Watson did a phenomenal job in coaching that night with what we had. As players we were just in the mind-set that if we could keep it close for two periods, we could win the final period and win the whole thing.
“We made sure every time there was a whistle, whether 45 seconds of play or five seconds of play had gone by, we were going to change our personnel to slow down the pace of the game and get our players some rest. We got some timely goals from guys. It was a lot of fun.”
Carolina won 7-4 in front of 4,146 fans who had their hockey dreams shattered that night. Still, the city threw a parade for the Chiefs and a Central Park pep rally that brought thousands of fans out for a final farewell to the 1988-89 team.
As the 1980’s wound down, the Chiefs had established a foothold in the hearts of Johnstown hockey fans and the ECHL took its first strides toward becoming one of the elite developmental leagues.