The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

March 31, 2010

From beginning to end: 2000s

More playoff heartache, financial woes follow for ‘little franchise that could’

Mike Mastovich
The Tribune-Democrat

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.”

Playoff drama

Tangible results were evident during the 1999-2000 ECHL season. The addition of franchise goaltender Frederic Deschenes and the leadership of Brent Bilodeau, Dmitri Tarabrin and Jason Spence combined with the arrival of many of the aforementioned Calgary-Saint John contract players to make the Chiefs a formidable group.

The Chiefs won six of their first seven games and swept through a tough four-game trip through the Carolinas with victories over Pee Dee (3-1), Charlotte (8-1),  Greenville (5-4) and Greensboro (3-0). After Johnstown beat his team by seven goals at Independence Hall on Oct. 23, 1999, Charlotte coach Shawn Wheeler, a former star player, proclaimed that these Chiefs were the best ECHL team he had ever seen.

The Chiefs cooled off after some key players such as McLean, Tripp and Shelley were called up to the AHL. But Johnstown still finished with 33 wins, 75 points and third place in the Northwest Division.

The 2000 Kelly Cup playoffs brought the Chiefs their first postseason series victory since 1992. Behind Deschenes’ two shutouts, Johnstown upset highly regarded Roanoke, twice winning on the road, including the series-clinching fourth game.

Johnstown lost the next series to eventual Kelly Cup champion Peoria.

In 2001, the Chiefs placed fourth in the Northwest and dropped a 3-1 series to Trenton in the playoffs.

The next season, the Chiefs produced one of the most dramatic playoff turnarounds in league history.

After placing third in the regular season, the Chiefs faced division runner-up Peoria in the first round in ‘02. The Rivermen, always among the Chiefs’ toughest foes, jumped out to a 2-0 advantage in the best-of-5 series by winning twice at Carver Arena.

The games were close, 2-1 in the opener and 1-0 in Game 2.

Allen vowed that the Chiefs would return to Peoria for a decisive fifth game. That bold promise meant that Johnstown had to win a pair at the War Memorial.

The Chiefs responded with a 6-1 victory in Game 3 and a 3-1 win in Game 4 as the War Memorial rocked with fans who understood the significance of those two wins.

“I still have guys talk to me about being down 2-0 to Peoria and coming back,” Allen said.

The Chiefs shocked the Rivermen with a 4-0 shutout in Game 5 at Carver Arena.

The magic didn’t last long.

Division champion Dayton defeated the Chiefs 4-3 in a double overtime game at Hara Arena to open the Northwest Division Final series. The Chiefs dropped three straight to the eventual Kelly Cup runner-up Bombers.

Changes abound

The 2001-02 season ended an era in Chiefs hockey. Allen left to accept an assistant coaching position with the American Hockey League’s San Antonio Rampage.

The Mayers sold the Chiefs to a group fronted by majority owner Neil Smith, the former New York Rangers Stanley Cup-winning general manager, and Richard Adams, the ECHL’s former president and CEO.

In seven seasons as part of the Chiefs’ ownership team, including five years as sole owners, Richard and Connie Mayer reportedly lost more than

$1 million but still kept the team operating in Johnstown. Part of the sales agreement included a guarantee that Smith and Adams not move the Chiefs for an unspecified number of years.

“To me, Mr. Mayer is my hero and the city of Johnstown’s unsung hero,” said Ned Nakles Jr., who fronted a group that owned the Chiefs from 1993-95 and remains a minority owner.

“He never looked for publicity. He never asked for accolades. He shied away from the spotlight. But he’s probably done more for Chiefs hockey and the city of Johnstown than anyone else. Through it all he never asked for a word of thanks.”

Smith and Adams moved O’Brien from general manager to head coach. Jim Brazill, who had been with the Chiefs in a number of front office positions since 1992, was named general manager.

The Chiefs missed the playoffs in 2003 and 2005 under O’Brien. But the 2003-04 team produced a special season – the best regular season in Chiefs’ history – only to see their playoff hopes squashed in a one-game, play-in upset loss to visiting Reading.

“The entire 2003-04 season was just something special,” said Brazill, who started as a Chiefs intern before holding titles as director of sales, ticket manager, director of operations, assistant GM, vice president of operations and vice president/GM in 13 years.

“Off the ice, we had the Save Our Sports grass-roots effort to save the Chiefs. We had the Message Board Crusaders and the Chiefs Fan Club in our corner. We got the two-year lease extension to save the team.

“On the ice, for so many years it seemed that we were on the short end of the stick and

the puck bounced the other

way. That year everything we did was right and the puck was bouncing our way almost every night. Then that final play-in game against Reading the puck hit the post twice and the puck didn’t bounce our way.”

The 2003-04 Chiefs posted single-season records for wins (45), home wins (26), road wins (19), fewest regulation losses (20) and team shutouts (seven).

The fourth-place Chiefs had eight more wins and 13 more points than fifth-place Reading.

But at the season’s outset, Johnstown was among the teams that voted for the wild-card playoff format. The Chiefs probably wished for another vote after Reading’s David Masse scored twice against Johnstown goalie Dmitri Patzold, and Royals goaltender Cody Rudkowsky played a phenomenal game in a 2-1 win. Further adding to the irony was that Johnstown had a 6-3-0 record against Reading that season and was 4-0-0 at home against the Royals.

The Chiefs’ most successful regular season was followed by one of the most crushing playoff losses, one ranking second perhaps only to the 1989 Game 7 setback to Carolina in the Riley Cup Final.

Before that playoff setback, the Chiefs’ special season included a lengthy stay by former NHL all-star goaltender Arturs Irbe, who won 10 games and the hearts of Chiefs fans.

There also was a surge that followed the additions of veteran Larry Courville and Jeff Zehr.

After Jan. 7, 2004, the Chiefs went 28-6-4, with a 10-1-1 mark in the final 12 games.

Community support

The community rallied behind the Chiefs, who had six sellout crowds at the War Memorial for the first time since the 1991-92 season. The average attendance soared to 2,551, an increase of 307 a night from the previous year.

Much of that had to do with the team’s play. But an aggressive grass roots campaign to support the team, and the Chiefs’ willingness to be active in the community also were significant.

Mainstays such as Randy Rowe, Jean Desrochers, Morgan Cey, Tarabrin and Doug Andress were the faces of the franchise from 2005-07.

“My first year as an intern there still was that, ‘Open the doors and they’ll come era.’ On a Saturday night it was average for us to get 3,200 or 3,300 people in the building and on a good Saturday it was even better just by opening the doors,” said Brazill, whose first day with the Chiefs was Dec. 26, 1992. “The honeymoon ended. Ownership changed hands a couple times. It was in a downward spin until some stability came in Dick Mayer and Jim Edwards. There still were always the rumors that ‘this’ is the last year of the team, but the community always rallied around the team. The attendance numbers never did get back up to those numbers of the early days but they’ve consistently been around 2,500.

“Louisiana was averaging 9,000 or 10,000 a night when they were in their honeymoon period. When their honeymoon period was over, they not

only flattened out, they were gone. For Johnstown to still have 2,500 a night says something about the community,” Brazill said in a 2007 interview.

Comings and goings

The ECHL did its share to keep Johnstown as a historic and viable operation. The league did its best to provide weekend dates. Leaders such as Adams and current Commissioner Brian McKenna have supported the Chiefs and Johnstown hockey in general.

The ECHL grew from five to 25 members with large market cities such as Las Vegas, Fresno, Stockton, Trenton, Charlotte, and Phoenix, among others.

Teams moved into southern markets with beaches or winter golf available to players.

The league appeared to have outgrown Johnstown. But ECHL leaders felt otherwise.

“Johnstown is very much the Green Bay of minor-league hockey,” McKenna said back in 2007. “It’s a long-standing market, a small market by some standards. But in terms of pride and support of the fans, knowledge of the game and tradition of the sport, it is right up there in the minor-league markets in all of North America.”

The Chiefs’ ownership was restructured prior to the 2005-06 season. Lancaster businessman Jim Weber joined the group and touted himself as primary owner. Adams was out of the picture, and Smith quietly faded into the background despite the fact that it was later learned he remained the majority owner under a complex agreement.

Weber soon brought in the Tampa Bay Lightning as a part-owner and affiliate. Tampa and its AHL club in Springfield, Mass., supplied the majority of players to Johnstown and had a hand in virtually every on-ice decision.

Brazill left to take a job at nearby St. Francis University before the 2005-06 season.

O’Brien moved back to the general manager position, and Anzalone was hired by Tampa to coach the Chiefs and implement the Lightning’s systems.

Anzalone’s teams were respectable, if not spectacular.

The Chiefs finished fourth in 2005-06 and swept a best-of-3 playoff series against Trenton before falling in three straight to Toledo in the division semifinals.

The 2006-07 squad placed fifth, but eliminated Reading on the final day of the regular season to claim the division’s last playoff berth. Johnstown won

6-3 at the Sovereign Center

as goalie Ryan Munce made

49 saves to quiet 7,072 mostly Royals fans.

The surprising push to the postseason was followed by a pair of losses to Trenton in a best-of-3 series.

Soon after the season, Weber and the Lightning parted ways, which meant Anzalone, who was under contract to Tampa, was out as coach. Weber hired coach Ian Herbers on June 18, 2007, and named 10-year front office member Kevin McGeehan as director of hockey operations.

Herbers, a former NHL player, had been an associate coach with Saginaw in the OHL.

On July 5, 2007, the Chiefs’ future was clouded as Weber unexpectedly announced that a sudden change in his financial situation forced him to leave the team’s ownership group.

Smith reasserted himself as the team’s majority owner and vowed that the Chiefs would play their 20th anniversary season in the ECHL. McKenna, the league’s commissioner, provided his support and reinforced Smith’s assessment.

“I want hockey to survive in Johnstown. That’s my first priority, and it always has been,” Smith said after Weber’s abrupt announcement. “Make sure the fans and the good people that have supported the team so long know my heart is in this. This is my own money. This isn’t a corporation or a way to write off taxes. I’m a traditionalist. I don’t want to see hockey move out of Johnstown. I’ve been very committed to the ECHL. We’re going to do everything we can to keep that team there. I’m the majority owner and I think that message should carry some weight.”

Final chapter

Smith’s intentions might have been good, but financially he took one hit too many.

Despite the seemingly constant financial burdens and restraints faced by the Chiefs, the team had considerable on-ice success under Herbers, a former NHL defenseman who was respected by players and well-liked by fans.

In his first season, Herbers led the Chiefs to 36-30-6 record and the fourth seed in the Northwest Division playoffs.

Johnstown swept Dayton in a best-of-3 series, winning Game 1 on the road and blanked the Bombers 5-0 in Game 2 at home.

Herbers’ team ran into Brabham Cup-champion Cincinnati Cyclones, a team that won

55 regular-season games and was 8-1-1 against the Chiefs. The Cyclones swept the series 3-0 on the way to a Kelly Cup title.

The offseason brought several important changes. Smith partnered with Roustan United Arena Solutions Team to manage the Chiefs in July 2008.

New General Manager Bill Bredin was hired.

On the ice, Herbers led the team to 20 wins faster than any squad in Chiefs history. Johnstown won its 20th game on Dec. 28 in its 30th game (20-9-1). The Chiefs held first place as the calendar turned from 2008 to 2009. Goaltender Kris Mayotte and defenseman Jon Landry each were selected to start in the ECHL All-Star Game in Reading, and Herbers was picked by his peers to coach in the all-star contest.

But the second half was unkind to the Chiefs, who gradually slipped down in the division standings. A four-game winless streak to close the season left the team one point out of the playoffs.

During the offseason, SMG was brought on to manage the War Memorial, a significant step recommended by an independent study searching for the most effective means to keep the arena operating.

Unfortunately, Smith and Roustan endured a well-publicized disagreement over the team’s finances and who bore the responsibility for the previous season’s bills.

As the issue dragged on, the Chiefs lost two solid affiliates due to monetary reasons – the NHL’s Colorado Avalanche and Columbus Blue Jackets. Eventually, Smith brought in New York City investor Steve Posner, who injected $300,000 to the team’s coffers in order to pay bills from the previous season. In early August, Herbers took an assistant coaching position with Milwaukee in the AHL.

The Chiefs permitted the coach to move up the ladder even though he had another year remaining on his contract and had commitments from many of the players from the previous season.

After three potential replacements turned down the Chiefs, a relative unknown, Jeff Flanagan was hired as coach. The team was winless in its first eight games, then seemed to bounce back with seven wins in November, but fell apart in December and Janaury.

Flanagan was fired on Jan. 17 and Smith stepped in as coach of the team. The Chiefs briefly showed signs of life after the coaching change, but injuries and an apparent lack of chemistry prevented them from ever getting back into the playoff race. At one point, the Chiefs lost a league-record 13 consecutive home games. Attendance dropped to just under 2,000 a night.

Finally, on Feb. 14, Smith made it official during an interview with The Tribune-Democrat prior to a home game against Cincinnati. The team will move at the season’s conclusion.

Minority owner Nakles formed a nonprofit group and received the blessings of Smith and the league to keep the ECHL rights to the Chiefs’ name and 22-season history in Johnstown.

The always optimistic Nakles hopes that one day the city again will have a team in the Double-A level league, even though the odds are stacked against such an occurrence.

But for the present, longtime fans only can say their good-byes to the Chiefs on Saturday night.