Nineteen seasons of covering the Johnstown Chiefs have been filled with numerous ups and downs, unexpected twists and more than enough bizarre antics.
The long and winding ECHL road leads to Greenville, S.C.
Soon, Johnstown won’t be able to state that its Chiefs are the only original East Coast Hockey League team still remaining in the same city since 1988. The reality will set in after the final seconds tick off the Cambria County War Memorial Arena scoreboard in Saturday’s game against Elmira.
Before it all ends, this beat writer made his choices of the top 10 impact Chiefs players since the 1991-92 season, my first on the beat. It’s worth noting that I didn’t begin covering the team until the fourth ECHL season, and these picks reflect players who have skated since then:
1. Frederic Deschenes, goaltender, 1999-2002. The 5-foot-9 netminder played much bigger than his size. The man fans came to know as “Freddie” won 69 regular-season games and two playoff series in three seasons. The Chiefs front office labeled Deschenes as “The Franchise” when they signed him in 1999, and Freddie didn’t buckle under the lofty expectations.
He was among a group of experienced players and Calgary Flames prospects to end the Chiefs’ four-year playoff drought under coach Scott Allen.
Deschenes holds Chiefs records for most regular-season wins (69), playoff shutouts (three) and is tied for single-season wins (25 in 2001-02).
The Chiefs advanced to the playoffs in all three of his seasons.
2. Bruce Coles, forward, 1991-95 and 2000. Need a big goal? Put Coles on the ice. At least that seemed to be the Chiefs philosophy in the early 1990s. Coles delivered, too. He scored what at the time was a record 106 goals and had 227 points.
Coach Steve Carlson acquired Coles from Winston-Salem in early December 1991. The team had 11 wins and was on a four-game losing streak when Coles arrived. Johnstown finished with a then-record 36 wins that season as the line of Coles, Mark Green and Brian Ferreira combined for 126 goals and
270 points in 1991-92. An all-star, Coles played on four teams that advanced to the playoffs and still ranks second all-time in Chiefs goal-scoring.
3. Randy Rowe, forward, 2005-09. Rowe provided a combination of leadership and on-ice production that made him a valuable asset.
Rowe scored more than a point a game, with 79 goals and 180 points in 170 regular-season games. He turned it up a notch in the postseason, netting six goals and 11 points in 10 games, including a pair of series wins. Rowe was the Chiefs captain, and his leadership was evident on the ice.
Had he not been bothered by injuries that kept him out for lengthy stretches, Rowe’s numbers would be even more impressive.
4. Lukas Smital, forward, 1996-99, 2001-03. Smital had a wicked wrist shot and a knack for finding the net. He passed Coles as the Chiefs’ career goals leader with 107. “Lukey” played 278 games for the Chiefs and collected 217 points and 302 penalty minutes. The Czech native couldn’t speak English when he arrived in 1996 but years later became one of the most outgoing and recognizable players in team history.
5. Eric Schneider, forward, 2000-02. Schneider only played two seasons for Johns-town, but they were two big seasons.
Twice Schneider passed the 30-goal plateau, with 33 and 38. He had 71 goals and 148 points in 131 games. The Chiefs made the playoffs in both of his years, and
“Schneids” had four goals and nine points in 12 postseason games. He was part of the team that overcame a 2-0 series deficit to beat Peoria in a best-of-5 series in 2002.
6: Jeff Sullivan, defenseman, 1999-2005. Sullivan was a quiet, physical leader who epitomized the term blue collar. A commercial fisherman in the North Atlantic during the offseason, “Sully” played 315 games for Johns-town, scoring 14 goals and 66 points. He accumulated 1,205 penalty minutes, the most in Chiefs history. He was a class act who told the Chiefs he’d change his uniform number in mid-season when the team retired former Johnstown Jets star Galen Head’s No. 8 jersey.
A fan favorite, Sullivan is the only Chiefs player to have his own bobblehead made for a promotion that had crowds lined up outside the arena in two lines that encircled the War Memorial.
7. Jody Shelley, forward, 1998-2000. Shelley was big, standing 6-foot-3 and weighing
A Calgary prospect and future NHL tough guy, Shelley made an impact on multiple fronts. In 88 games with the Chiefs he scored 21 goals and 55 points, a lot of times camping out in front of the net on the power play. He also had 581 penalty minutes.
Shelley had 325 PIM his first season and was on the way to breaking the single-season mark with 256 minutes in 36 games until an AHL call-up that put him in Saint John, New Brunswick, for the remainder of the 1999-2000 season.
8. Dmitri Tarabrin, forward, 1999-2008. Tarabrin played more games than any other Chief, with 480 regular-season appearances.
The Moscow native scored 99 goals and 232 points.
Including the playoffs, he was in 499 games with Johnstown.
Despite standing 5-foot-8, Tarabrin won over fans by often fighting opponents who were much bigger than him early in his career.
9. Jean Desrochers, forward, 2004-08. Desrochers scored 80 goals and had 186 points in 260 games with the Chiefs. Twice he appeared in all 72 games and was an all-star.
He scored a career-high 25 goals and 53 points in 2007-08. Desrochers was part of three playoff teams.
10. Rick Boyd, forward, 1989-91, 1995-97, 2000-01. I covered Boyd in his later seasons when he came out of retirement three times to bolster the Chiefs’ lineup. But even then, one could see the leadership qualities and feisty play that made Boyd such a big hit with Chiefs fans.
In 146 ECHL games with the Chiefs, he had 16 goals, 57 points and 812 penalty minutes. A captain, Boyd also played on the first Chiefs team in the AAHL in 1988.
Of course, it’s impossible to list all of the top players who made the Chiefs’ 22 seasons in the ECHL so memorable. But a group of “honorable mention picks” that I covered follow:
Martin Masa (86 goals and 191 points in 182 games); Mark Green (seven hat tricks and
68 goals in 1991-92); Ryan Garlock (ignited Chiefs offense in two seasons); Stan Reddick (a team-record
25 wins in 1991-92); Don Parsons (four-goal effort in the season finale to net 50 goals in 1995-96); Kris Mayotte (30 wins in two seasons); Connor Shields (rookie all-star and leading scorer this year); Bob Woods (reliable blue liner); Brent Bilodeau (mainstay on defense for six seasons); Dennis Purdie (fiery leader and goal-scorer); Arturs Irbe (former NHL star won over Chiefs fans before earning another trip to the show in 2003-04); John Bradley (37 wins in two-plus seasons); Ryan Nie (single-season record 29 wins in 2007-08); Carl Fleury (30-goal scorer); Jason Spence (tough leader who evolved into assistant coach); Peter Skudra (netminder used time in Johnstown as a springboard to the NHL); Perry Florio (305 games with Chiefs); Mike Knight (captain and solid defenseman); Rob Hrytsak (82 goals,
193 points and 245 PIM on early teams); and Derrick Walser (his wicked shot led defenseman from Johnstown to the NHL).
Mike Mastovich is a sports writer for The Tribune-Democrat.