The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

April 3, 2010

Mike Mastovich: 10 Defining moments in Chiefs history

Mike Mastovich
The Tribune-Democrat

JOHNSTOWN — So, this is it.

Twenty-two ECHL seasons and 1,518 regular-season games.

It ends tonight at a sold-out Cambria County War Memorial Arena.

As “Slap Shot” sports writer Dickie Dunn would say, “A Sad Commentary.”

While I might not be in Dickie Dunn’s league, my 19 seasons as beat writer have provided me with plenty of material: Great performances and individual milestones; tales of struggling teams that seemed to encounter one inexplicable misfortune after another; an arena roof and a couple concrete walls nearly collapsing under the weight of snow and ice; and, of course, a puck flying into the press box.

It’s difficult to condense 22 seasons – with 19 of those coming during my time on the beat. But my top 10 defining Chiefs moments follow.

1. Game 7 Riley Cup final, April 12, 1989. The Chiefs had swept through their first-round series against Knoxville and took a 2-0 series lead over Carolina in the final.

But the T-Birds won three straight until coach Steve Carlson’s team won Game 6 on the road to force a decisive seventh game at the War Memorial.

Carolina had three players suspended after Game 6 and the Winston-Salem team had only 13 skaters. Chiefs fans began lining up before midnight to purchase tickets.

When the box office opened at 10 a.m., two lines stretched out of the lobby and down the sidewalk. The game sold out in a record four hours, five minutes. The stars seemed aligned for a Chiefs championship performance in front of a standing-room-only crowd of 4,146.

But the undermanned Thunderbirds built a two-goal advantage and then held off multiple Chiefs comebacks.

There were ties at 2, 3 and 4 before the T-Birds reeled off three straight third-period goals in a 7-4 victory over the Chiefs. Future Chiefs coach Scott Allen had a second-period goal for Carolina.

“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.”

Even in defeat, the Chiefs were the toast of the town. A parade honoring the Chiefs rolled through town and more than 1,000 people attended a rally at Central Park, holding signs that proclaimed, “We’re Still No. 1” and “Thank You Chiefs.”

Many in that crowd probably figured the Chiefs would “Get ’em next year” or at least sometime in the future. But the elusive championship never materialized.

2. Duck! The press box puck, March 29, 1992. This date in local hockey infamy included a one-sided Cincinnati Cyclones rout of the Chiefs in a best-of-3 playoff series. Throughout the game, Chiefs players expressed their displeasure with many calls.

But the protests reached another level in the third period. Back in ’92, my lead paragraph for this game story began, “There was chaos, finger-pointing and verbal assaults. A puck was thrown into the press box with the league commissioner as its apparent target.”

What else needs to be said?

Chiefs forward Brian Ferreira scooped a puck off the ice during a break in the action and in one motion side-armed a toss into the press box. The puck came nowhere near its apparent target, Commissioner Pat Kelly, who sat in the auxiliary press box. Instead, it nearly hit me in the head. I ducked just in time as the disc caromed off the wall, leaving a scuff mark that still was visible years later. Ferreira, typically one of the Chiefs most productive and respected players, then scaled the steps, wearing skate guards, in an attempt to confront Kelly. Matt Glennon, who had been thrown out earlier in the game, joined Ferreira. Statisticians prevented the pair from crossing the small metal bridge to the box where Kelly sat, staring at them. Both players were suspended for 30 games the next season. The incident is believed to have cost coach Steve Carlson his job, despite his leading Johnstown to 36 wins and a playoff series win while finishing runner-up in the league coach of the year vote.

3. The playoff comeback against Peoria, April 9, 2002. The Chiefs dropped a pair of one-goal games to highly regarded Peoria at Carver Arena. Winning the best-of-5 first-round playoff series seemed unlikely. But coach Scott Allen guaranteed the team would return to Peoria for Game 5.

The Chiefs responded with resounding wins, 6-1 and 3-1 at home. Once back in Peoria, Freddie Deschenes shut out the Rivermen 4-0 as the Chiefs won the series.

4. The playoff upset over Roanoke, April 8, 2000. The Chiefs had missed the playoffs four consecutive seasons. Early in that stretch, players refused to report to Johnstown and agents advised their clients to avoid the city.

One Norfolk, Va., newspaper columnist had labeled Johnstown a non-entity. But that image began to change in the late 1990s under GM Toby O’Brien and coach Allen.

Finally, the Chiefs advanced to the 2000 postseason for a series against heavily favored Northeast Division champion Roanoke.

With Deschenes posting two shutouts and nearly getting a third, the Chiefs upset the Express, winning the series-clinching fourth game in Roanoke.

5. Mark Green scoring 50 goals in 50 games, Feb. 15, 1992. The 6-foot-4 left wing from Clarkson became the first and only player in Johnstown hockey history to net 50 goals in the first 50 games of a season. A rookie, Green needed two goals on this historic night against the Raleigh IceCaps. A sellout crowd of 4,040 at the War Memorial saw history when Green tallied his second of the night 8:22 into the second period of a 5-4 win. Defenseman Dave MacIntyre played the puck off the boards in the defensive zone and sent a long pass toward Green, who was just inside the red line. Ferreira tipped the puck just in time to prevent what back then would have been called a two-line pass. Green skated to the left circle and faked Raleigh defenseman Kris Miller before beating goalie Mike Mudd high on the right side.

6. Jeff Ricciardi’s overtime goal in a one-game play-in, March 17, 1993. A defenseman, Ricciardi had scored seven goals in 61 regular season games. But he saved his best for a one-game play-in against visiting Richmond. Ricciardi’s shot from along the boards deflected off an opponent’s skate and into the net 8:47 into overtime.

“I don’t know what happened,” Ricciardi said after the goal. “They say in overtime to put everything on net and maybe you’ll get lucky.”

He did.

A small crowd went ballistic as Ricciardi, who didn’t have many opportunities to celebrate, skated end to end, waving his right fist in a circle while almost kneeling on one leg. Chiefs captain Perry Florio was so excited on the bench, he gripped coach Eddie Johnstone in a bear hug, forgetting that only days before Johnstone had separated his shoulder during a collision in practice. Johnstone winced in pain.

7. The Reading Robbery, April 5, 2004. The Chiefs set single-season records for wins (45), home wins (26), road wins (19), fewest regulation losses (20) and team shutouts (seven) in 2003-04.

Johnstown finished with 97 points. But as luck would have it, the Chiefs played in the toughest division and placed fourth.

Prior to the season, Johnstown was among the teams that voted in favor of a wild-card playoff format that had the No. 5 seed facing the

No. 4 in an elimination game.

The Chiefs had eight more wins and 13 more points than fifth place Reading, a team that needed a late surge to edge out Trenton for the wild-card spot.

The Chiefs were 6-3-0 against Reading, including 4-0-0 at home. Coach O’Brien’s team went 28-6-4 after Jan. 7 and finished the regular season on a 10-1-1 run.

None of those numbers mattered after Reading’s David Masse scored a pair of goals and netminder Cody Rudkowsky was nearly unbeatable in the Royals’ 2-1 victory.

8. 1,000th game/ 1,000,000th fan/ 2,000,000th fan. Johnstown’s role as the only original member of the once five-team ECHL to stay in the same city since 1988 enabled the Chiefs to reach several milestones that were a testament to the team’s longevity and support of its most loyal fans.

A capacity home crowd of 4,074 attended the Chiefs’ 1,000 ECHL game on Feb. 22, 2003 (a 4-2 loss to Toledo).

The team welcomed its 1 millionth fan on Dec. 6, 1997, as Bruce Cumbie went through the War Memorial turnstiles before a 6-3 loss to the Huntington Blizzard. The Chiefs never will know his or her name, but the 2 millionth fan attended a Feb. 26 game against Toledo this season. The Chiefs, apparently unaware of the milestone, did not publicize the event. The ECHL office confirmed the math, though.

Entering tonight’s game 2,018,091 fans have attended Chiefs home regular-season games and the overall total including playoffs is 2,104,213.

9. Hanson Brothers return, New Year’s Eve 1998. A loud clanging noise echoed through the corridors at the Amtrak railroad station.

Steve and Jeff Carlson, also known as Steve and Jeff Hanson in the movie “Slap Shot,” were reprising their roles by shaking a soda vending machine and yelling that it had taken their quarter. The two brothers and Jeff Hanson, who completed the bespectacled trio of zany skaters in the movie, made their return to Johnstown ice on New Year’s Eve.

The Hansons had rekindled international fame in the 1990s during promotional acts and appearances. They had a series of Bud Ice beer commercials and eventually participated in two movie sequels. But they hadn’t performed their wild act in the arena where they were star players on a championship team before they began their acting careers in the same building.

A crowd of 4,063 was in a festive mood as the Hansons performed and the Chiefs, wearing Charlestown Chiefs replica jerseys, defeated the Chesapeake Icebreakers 3-0.

10. “This is the last season. It will be announced tomorrow...” Feb. 14, 2010. Citing financial losses that had built over the years as well as his inability to find a local owner or investor, majority owner-coach Neil Smith announced that the team will move to Greenville, S.C., next season. Chiefs fans had braced for such an announcement for years but the reality still was like a figurative punch to the gut.

Honorable mention moments: Former NHL goalie Arturs Irbe’s stay in 2003-04; Matt Glennon’s striptease skate in 1991-92; Lukas Smital’s record 107th goal on March 14, 2003; Johnstown’s record 10-game winning streak from Dec. 12, 1993 through Jan. 7, 1994; Tom Sasso earning rookie of the year in 1989; goalie Scott Gordon becoming the first Chief to play in the NHL and the Olympics; the Chiefs facing Manon Rheaume, a female goaltender on Nov. 6, 1993; coach Nick Fotiu pulling the team from the ice 23 seconds into a home game against Wheeling after referee Chris Rooney gave Brandon Christian a game misconduct for pummeling Martin LePage after the opening face-off; the Ned Nakles Jr.-GM Les Crooks promotions from 1993-95 such as the Elvis impersonator donut eating contest, Turn Back the Clock Night and appearances by Wild Thing and the Happy Trumpeter; and the Chiefs’ ability to cope with the partial collapse of the new roof and part of a wall at the War Memorial under the weight of ice and snow on Feb. 6, 2004.

Mike Mastovich is a sports writer for The Tribune-Democrat.