The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

April 14, 2013

Eric Knopsnyder | It was a love affair on and off ice

Eric Knopsnyder

— The words were barely spoken above a whisper, but the reverential comment echoed off the walls of McMorran Place in Port Huron, Mich.

“Do you really get 4,000 people for a game?” a Fighting Falcons fan asked a Johnstown Tomahawks supporter after a North American Hockey League playoff game.

The disbelief was understandable. After all, an announced crowd of 470 – which included plenty of Johnstown fans – had just watched the Tomahawks stay alive with a 2-0 victory on the road.

The idea of a crowd nearly 10 times that size supporting a junior hockey team in Johnstown left the Port Huron fan incredulous.

And while the Tomahawks never got a crowd of 4,000 in their inaugural season – Cambria County War Memorial Arena doesn’t hold that many fans – they did attract 75,830 for the season, or 2,527 per game.

Numbers like those get noticed.

Word quickly spread around the league about just how great of a hockey town we have here.

“Everyone talks about it,” said Tomahawks forward Matt Williams, who lived with my wife and me after being traded to Johnstown in early February.

He’s right.

And it’s not just the attendance that is being talked about. In one short season, the Tomahawks have gained a reputation as one of the top organizations in the NAHL.

Steve Williams, Matt’s father, told me as much and even emailed The Tribune-Democrat sports department to rave about the Tomahawks.

“As a parent who has a kid there, (it) was unbelievable the way the team was run from (team President) Rick Bouchard to (General Manager) Rick Boyd to (head coach) Jason Spence and to the community!” he wrote. “My son played in the league the last two years and was a part of four organizations – by far, Johnstown was the best!”

Statements like those are music to the ears of those of us in a city that gets more than its share of bad news.

It was a big blow for the city and its hockey fans when the Johnstown Chiefs left after the 2010 season.

The Wheeling Nailers played 10 games here in each of the next two seasons, but that did little to fill in the hole in the hearts of local fans aching for their own team.

When the decision to bring in a junior team  was announced last year, there was plenty of skepticism about how it would fly here, given Johnstown’s pro hockey history.

But the community has embraced the team, and the players have become a part of the community. The Tomahawks have helped younger players learn the game, turned out for events in and around the city and taken part in charity fundraisers.

Throughout the season, I’d ask fans what they thought of the new team. The reaction was overwhelmingly positive. A few still miss their old teams, of course, and many said that if the group headed by Jim Bouchard had owned the Chiefs, that the ECHL team would have never left town. But most were simply thrilled with the new product, on and off the ice.

My wife, Tami, and I certainly fall into that category.

We decided just before the start of training camp to be a billet – or host family – for three players, and it was one of the best decisions we’ve ever made. At the time, we thought we’d use the tickets provided to billet families on an occasional basis. As it turned out, we became diehard fans. She was at every home game and only a work conflict forced me to miss one home game. We also made five road trips, seeing them play in Port Huron (twice) and Kalamazoo, Mich., as well as Jamestown, N.Y., and Wenatchee, Wash.

It wasn’t always easy. Because of roster turnover we ended up with eight different Tomahawks living with us at some point during the season. There were plenty of tears shed when one of our boys left. It didn’t matter whether the decision was his or the team’s, it still hurt to see him go. The good news is, we’ve kept in touch with almost all of them. We’ve kept track of them in far-flung locations like Medford, Ore.; Amarillo, Texas; and Portland, Maine. We even plan on taking one on vacation with us.

Since we had two empty bedrooms at the end of the season, we also offered to host players who were skating with the team in hopes of making next season’s roster. In total, we had 18 players spend at least one night at our house.

Throw in the number of Tomahawks who spent time there while visiting our players and that number doubles to about three dozen junior hockey players who came and went through the doors of our home in the past eight months. At times it felt like we were living in a frat house.

We’ve played host to parents – both biological and billet ones – and had friends and family members over to watch road games broadcast via the Internet.

The number of good people we’ve met through the Tomahawks, and hockey in general, is truly incredible. And what the team has done – whether that’s judged by the number of tickets sold, the charities helped, the relationships forged or the goodwill generated – in the past year is amazing.

We can’t wait to see what they do for an encore.

Eric Knopsnyder is the editor of The Tribune-Democrat. He can be reached at 532-5091.

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