The following is an excerpt taken from the book “Slap Shots and Snapshots: 50 Seasons of Pro Hockey in Johnstown, Pennsylvania.”
Peaks and valleys? Highs and lows?
The decade of the 1990s featured some of the most memorable moments in Johnstown professional hockey history. The East Coast Hockey League Chiefs captured the hearts and minds of the city’s fans as the “honeymoon” stage of this relationship still loomed at the decade’s outset.
The Chiefs were winners on the ice and popular at the box office. A hockey night in Johnstown was a highlight of the weekend, the thing to do, the place to be.
But somewhere in the middle of the 1990s, the Chiefs lost some of their allure. There were coaching changes, an affiliation lost, disgruntled players who would not report to a small-town franchise and sports agents who spread the word that Johnstown was a dead end that prospects should avoid.
Then, just as the situation appeared too bleak to rectify, something special occurred. Local owners Richard and Connie Mayer provided financial and moral support to a trio of “rebuilders.”
A young, enthusiastic general manager named Toby O’Brien teamed with a somewhat unknown, young and energetic head coach named Scott Allen to begin a lengthy, sometimes frustrating rebuilding process.
Chiefs President James M. Edwards Sr. oversaw the campaign to reshape the Chiefs’ image in minor league hockey circles. Part of that mission was to assemble a winning team in a city where most of the sport’s naysayers said such a feat was virtually impossible.
As the decade concluded, the Chiefs were competitive again. The foundation was built for future playoff success in an ECHL that had expanded to as many as 31 teams before finally settling at 25 members.
The ’90s actually began with mixed reviews. The 1989-90 squad had a miserable 23 wins and missed the playoffs.
Those Chiefs, however, collected a whopping 2,098 penalty minutes as fan-favorites such as Rick Boyd (284 PIM), Darren Schwartz (270), Dan Williams (251), Darren Servatius (192) and Mark Bogoslowski (138) led the hit parade.
Even though statistically, the 1990 Chiefs were among the least successful groups all-time locally, there is no disputing the popularity of the team known as “The Fightin’ Chiefs.” A total of 110,827 fans attended home games that season, an average of 3,694 a night in the 4,040-seat War Memorial.
Coach Steve Carlson led the 1991 and 1992 teams to the postseason, with the ’92 Chiefs posting what was then a club-record 36 victories. Carlson was voted runner-up for 1991-92 ECHL Coach of the Year honors, and his team won a first-round playoff series against intra-state rival Erie. He already had 123 wins and three playoff appearances as coach of the Chiefs.
But Carlson still lost his job amid controversy after the infamous Brian Ferreira puck-throwing incident in the Chiefs’ final game of the 1992 playoff series against Cincinnati at the War Memorial.
The Cyclones were well on their way to winning the game (7-1) and the best-of-3 series (2-0) as 3,019 fans watched.
Chiefs players and the local crowd were obviously upset with a string of officiating calls that, right or wrong, went against the home team. As the game progressed and the one-sided margin ballooned, matters on the ice deteriorated.
During one stoppage of play, Ferreira slowly skated toward the face-off circle, where a puck lay on the ice. He slipped off his glove, scooped up the disc and used a side-arm delivery to toss the puck into the press box, where ECHL Commissioner Pat Kelly was watching.
Kelly sat in the auxiliary box adjacent to the main box. Ferreira’s throw was wide right, nearly hitting a reporter.
The puck caromed off the wall, leaving a scuff mark that remained years later.
Ferreira and forward Matt Glennon, who had briefly played for the Boston Bruins prior to joining the Chiefs, made their ascent to the press box in a scene straight from “Slap Shot.” Glennon had received a game misconduct earlier and was in street clothes. He also had skate guards for Ferreira.
Once upstairs, the two players yelled to Kelly, who only stared coldly at them. A statistician had closed the door to the auxiliary box and prevented the players from crossing the small metal bridge to reach Kelly.
Had this been a movie, it would have been hilarious. In real life, Ferreira and Glennon each received 30-game suspensions. The oddest part of the ordeal was that Ferreira was one of the most respected and productive Chiefs.
“We watched it all and just couldn’t believe it. It felt like we were in the movies,” said former Chiefs captain Perry Florio. “After the second period, we were getting our butts kicked. Brian and I were sitting in the locker room. We were griping about the refs. I remember his exact words, ‘I’d like to kick that guy’s butt.’ He wasn’t talking about the ref. He was talking about the commissioner. I remember saying, ‘He’s up in the press box.’ I threw it out there. I didn’t think he’d do it.
“Brian got thrown out of a face-off. I remember the puck was still on the ice.
“Brian grabbed the puck and side-armed it up there. I couldn’t believe it.
“Then Matty Glennon was standing there with his skate guards. It had to be all planned out. I felt so bad because I felt like I threw it out there.”
Former New York Rangers and Detroit Red Wings player Eddie Johnstone was named coach in 1992-93. He won 102 games in three seasons. Johnstone’s teams advanced to three playoffs but never won a postseason series.
The 1992-93 Chiefs did win one of the most dramatic postseason games in team history. Defenseman Jeff Ricciardi, who netted only seven goals in
61 regular-season games, scored 8:47 into overtime as the Chiefs defeated the visiting Richmond Renegades 5-4 in a one-game play-in.
Ricciardi skated end to end after the goal, waving his right fist in a circle as he moved while almost kneeling on one leg.
Players mobbed goaltender John Bradley. Florio jubilantly hugged coach Johnstone, forgetting that only days earlier in practice, Johnstone had separated his shoulder.
“I remember that just before he scored the goal the play was down our end. They shot the puck. I got a piece of it and it started rolling toward the goal line,” netminder Bradley recalled.
“Someone was just able to stop it as the puck was about to get across the line.”
Richmond star Phil Huber snapped a shot from just inside the blue line that hit Bradley’s glove, popped out and crept within an inch of the goal line.
Bradley also made two point-blank saves just before the game-winner.
“The whistle blew. We ended up going down the other end and a minute or so after that and he got the game-winner,” Bradley said. “Within seconds, it turned around. We were on the verge of going home, and then seconds later we won the game.”
The 1993-94 team had a colorful season that included hockey history when Knoxville Cherokees goaltender Manon Rheaume defeated the Chiefs 9-6 at the Coliseum on Nov. 6, 1993. Rheaume earlier had become the first woman to start a professional hockey game.
But she wasn’t the first female goalie to win a game. Erin Whitten, with the ECHL’s Toledo Storm, won in relief over Dayton on Oct. 30 and posted her first win as a starter a day before Rheaume won the high-scoring game against the Chiefs.
That same season, Johnstown had a franchise-record, 10-game winning streak from Dec. 12, 1993 to Jan. 7, 1994. The Chiefs outscored opponents by a combined 71-31 during those
10 straight wins.
Goaltenders Bradley and Rob Laurie were on top of their respective games. High-scoring wing Bruce Coles joined the team in mid-December and provided an instant spark. Players such as Dennis Purdie, Ted Dent, Gord Christian, Pittsburgh native Jamie Adams and Matt Hoffman provided offense during a run that tied the 1967-68 Johnstown Jets for the city’s longest pro winning streak (Dec. 30, 1967 to Jan. 21, 1968).
Veering off course
Later that same season, Four players and a Johnstown resident were injured during a two-car crash on an icy road in Richland Township.
Leading scorer Purdie, fifth-leading scorer Christian and defensemen Campbell Blair, the driver, and Ben Wyzansky all suffered varying degrees of injuries that sidelined them.
The other car’s driver also was injured. Fortunately, there were no fatalities in the Feb. 18, 1994 accident.
“We had a 10-game winning streak. We went back and forth for a while after that, then we got another winning streak and were back on track,” said Ned Nakles Jr., who was an owner of the team then. “Before the wreck we had a really stirring comeback in Wheeling. We were really back to playing dominant hockey. Then there was the wreck.
“It was just so senseless. It really took the wind out of our sails. But thank God nobody was killed. It was scary.”
The loss of four players left Johnstone and Daley scrambling to fill a roster.
With only 12 skaters the Chiefs somehow beat the visiting Birmingham Bulls 9-7 on Feb. 19 behind Matt Hoffman’s two-goal, four-point night. An emotional Nakles shook every player’s hand in the quiet home locker room after that win.
The Chiefs’ misfortune did enable Johnstown native David Murphy to become the first local native to score a goal for the Chiefs. The Westmont Hilltop High School graduate had attended Johnstown’s training camp but was a late cut. He briefly played with the ECHL’s Charlotte Checkers before returning home. Murphy scored in the second period of an 8-3 loss to Raleigh at the War Memorial on Feb. 20.
Away from the ice, the Chiefs also underwent changes, as four different ownership groups took the reigns during the decade.
Majority owner Henry Brabham and minority owner-GM John Daley, who had been with the team since its inception, sold the Chiefs to a group of Latrobe attorneys on April 1, 1993.
Managing partner Nakles Jr., his father, Ned Nakles Sr., and Leonard Reeves owned the team for two seasons before selling to local WJAC-TV on April 6, 1995.
When WJAC-TV was bought by out-of-town owners two years later, Richard Mayer, former operator of the television station, took ownership of the Chiefs, with his wife, Connie.
The Mayers put Edwards in charge of the day-to-day operations.
Changes at the top
Johnstone was fired prior to the 1995-96 season. After a string of candidates turned down offers to coach the Chiefs, Nick Fotiu was hired in mid-July, late in the recruiting season.
Fotiu, a popular coach and fan favorite as a player with the New York Rangers, brought many of his former players from the ECHL’s Nashville Knights, including high-scoring forward Trevor Jobe, obtained in a trade involving the Chiefs’ Purdie.
But the Chiefs never clicked under Fotiu, who lost too much of the recruiting season to assemble a quality club. Jobe did become the ECHL’s all-time leading scorer while wearing a Chiefs’ uniform, but his offense-first, self-centered style of play didn’t sit well with blue-collar fans in Johnstown. Jobe was traded away by midseason.
Fotiu also brought in goaltender Peter Skudra, an outcast in Erie whom Fotiu developed in 1995-96 and briefly in
1996-97. With Fotiu’s help, Skudra eventually played in the NHL beginning in 1997 with the Pittsburgh Penguins.
But after two straight losing seasons and a dismal start in 1997-98, Fotiu was fired. His assistant coach, Scott Allen, was promoted and began a rebuilding project that showed promise once the Calgary Flames were brought aboard as an affiliate.
“We discovered that we
couldn’t get people to come to Johnstown,” Edwards said. “The movie ‘Slap Shot’ was a negative.
“It was not a positive for us. Out there in the hockey world, the hockey players, their agents and everyone else said, ‘Don’t go to Johnstown. It’s a dump. Everybody is trying to leave. It’s a rusted out mill town. You saw it in ‘Slap Shot.’ ”
Edwards said firing Johnstone was a mistake based upon the recommendation of former team President Les Crooks. Cutting Fotiu loose, he said, was the right move but one of the most difficult decisions Edwards made. Fotiu was popular in the community as well as the locker room.
“I brought in Toby O’Brien as general manager (in 1996). We decided that we were going to change our philosophy,” Edwards said. “First of all, we would never lie to a player in the recruiting process. If you’re going to be a role player, we’re going to tell you that. We told the truth up front.
“The second thing was that we would never lie and cheat on the salary cap. We’re not going to tell you we’re going to pay you $500 a week and then when it comes to training camp tell you we’re only going to give you $350. The third thing was that if you’re chasing the dream, we will never hold you back regardless of what’s happening at the local level. We will let you go to the next level.”
Outsiders began to notice Johnstown’s approach under O’Brien and Allen. Players began to report. Agents suddenly were calling the Chiefs instead of refusing to take phone calls from Johnstown.
Prospects wanted to skate in Johnstown, and they became active in the community.
Times were about to change.