JOHNSTOWN — The following is an excerpt taken from the book “Slap Shots and Snapshots: 50 Seasons of Pro Hockey in Johnstown, Pennsylvania.” Some edits and additions have been made to reflect the Chiefs’ upcoming move to Greenville, S.C.
It simply couldn’t be done.
At least that was the perception outside of Johnstown. There was no way a Chiefs team that suffered through miserable times in the 1990s could reclaim the franchise’s spot as a competitive Kelly Cup playoff squad.
Had the ownership group, front office or coach Scott Allen believed such talk, ECHL hockey probably would have departed from Johnstown years ago.
Instead, the Chiefs evolved into the “little franchise that could” by clawing their way back into the playoffs during the 2000s, as the team enjoyed notable success – winning four series under coaches Allen, Frank Anzalone and Ian Herbers. Unfortunately, the run will end after the Chiefs finish their game against the Elmira Jackals on Saturday at Cambria County War Memorial Arena. The team will move to Greenville, S.C., next season.
“I think a ton of credit has to go to the three main people who believed in us and kept that team floating,” said Allen, the Chiefs’ head coach for five seasons, an assistant one season, and now a NHL assistant coach with the New York Islanders.
“That was (former Tribune-Democrat publisher) Dick and Connie Mayer and (former WJAC-TV executive director) Jim Edwards,” Allen said in a 2007 interview. “Those three people deserve probably the most credit out of anybody because that team is still operating in Johnstown as a direct result of those three people.”
Lighting a Flame
In the early years of the ECHL, the Chiefs had a solid affiliation with the Boston Bruins and a productive working agreement with the New Jersey Devils. Later, the American Hockey League’s Hershey Bears spent two seasons as primary affiliate, and the International League’s Kansas City Blades worked with coach Eddie Johnstone.
Links to the Pittsburgh Penguins and Philadelphia Flyers later in the decade had mixed results.
One of the keys to the Chiefs’ resurgence in the new millennium was an affiliation deal struck with the NHL’s Calgary Flames in 1998-99. General Manager Toby O’Brien and Allen had roles in securing the affiliation, and Allen immediately began attending training camps with the Flames and their AHL club in Saint John, New Brunswick.
The affiliation brought to Johnstown future NHL players such as enforcer Jody Shelley, defenseman Derrick Walser, forwards Brett McLean and John Tripp, and goaltenders Dany Sabourin and Tyrone Garner.
Some contract players who didn’t advance to the NHL still were among the best at the ECHL level. They included defensemen Mike Vellinga and Jeff Sullivan, and forwards Joel Irving and Shaun Sutter.
The Calgary affiliation materialized after the Chiefs made a sacrifice late in the 1997-98 season. Allen had replaced the fired Nick Fotiu as head coach. He and O’Brien stood by the team’s decision to allow players to advance regardless of the Chiefs’ on-ice situation.
“Nick Polano, the assistant general manager of the Flames at the time, called me at about the time when we were in a little resurgence after the coaching change late in the 1997-98 season,” O’Brien said. “Calgary asked for Martin Masa, one of our best players, and he went up to Saint John and played extremely well. A week later, Polano called again and asked for another player, Lukas Smital. Those were two of our top players at the time. We let them go.
“I told Nick Polano that I’d let them have both guys if at the end of the season Calgary would have a meeting involving me and Al Coates, the general manager at Calgary at the time.”
O’Brien got his meeting, but he had to drive to Portland, Maine.
“I was sitting in the office one night and Nick Polano called and said he was going to be out our way and maybe we could meet,” O’Brien said. “They were going to be in Portland. I thought, ‘Out our way?’ I looked up plane flights. They were $1,200 to $1,400. So I went home, showered, got in my car and drove 14 hours. We met. We had a long discussion. A week later he said he wanted to be affiliated with us.
“We let our two best players go, but in turn we secured the Calgary affiliation which I think was the absolutely key next step to get where we needed to go to re-establish ourselves in the hockey world and become a competitive contender in the ECHL.”