The Johnstown Tomahawks players displayed resiliency, a dash of philosophy and a dose of reality after learning the Tomahawks Charity Classic was cancelled on Tuesday morning.
Due to some incredibly inopportune timing involving the tentative agreement on the NHL’s collective bargaining agreement, the young Johnstown players lost an opportunity to skate side by side with Penguins such as Matt Cooke, Chris Kunitz, James Neal and Brooks Orpik. There will be no scoring attempts against Stanley Cup-winning goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury.
Of even greater significance, the Pittsburgh Kids Foundation-Haiti and Johnstown Tomahawks Foundation charities lost donations associated with an event that took only seven minutes to sell out nearly 4,000 seats at Cambria County War Memorial Arena.
“It was really disappointing. We were all really looking forward to playing with NHL guys,” said Tomahawks defenseman Jesse Kessler. “We had raised $100,000 towards charity and it was really exciting for our guys to be a part of something like that. It feels good to be able to help others like that.”
The game was cancelled after a 90-minute conference call involving Tomahawks President James Bouchard, GM Rick Boyd, Dr. Brad Henderson of Pittsburgh Kids Foundation-Haiti and the Penguins’ Cooke, a key organizer among the locked-out players.
Bouchard cited insurance issues that prompted the Penguins to advise the players not to risk participating in the event as the major stumbling block, though he added the hectic pace associated with reforming the team in Pittsburgh and preparing for an abbreviated training camp and game schedule also were factors.
Fans will be issued “100 percent” refunds beginning at 10 a.m. on Monday at the War Memorial or electronically if they purchased tickets on Ticketmaster.
“There really wasn’t anything to do with our organization,” Kessler said. “It’s just the way the timing worked out and the lockout ended. The opportunity we had dissipated. It is what it is. It happened and we still have three games this weekend.”
Those home games will be against Port Huron on Friday and Saturday (both at 7 p.m.), and Soo on Sunday (1 p.m.).
The Tomahawks are coming off a tough 0-2-1 road weekend against the Michigan Warriors. Including a New Year’s Eve shootout loss to Kalamazoo, the Hawks are 0-2-2 in their past four games. Prior to that rough stretch Johnstown had gone 5-2 and moved into the thick of the NAHL North Division hunt.
Tomahawks captain Mitch Kontny said the players have no time to sulk over the cancellation.
“Obviously it’s disappointing, but we all knew there was a chance of the NHL getting back in the swing of things with the union and the players getting a deal,” Kontny said. “Our games are obviously more important and coming off a weekend like we had, we’ve got to get back in the swing of things.
“It would have been a great experience. Anyone who grows up and plays hockey wants to play in the NHL. It would have been fun to skate alongside of those guys. It would have been a dream come true if it were to happen.”
The Tomahawks and their fans had geared up for a milestone night.
“The players were very excited and now they’re very disappointed. There were numerous parents coming in to watch them,” Bouchard said. “This is the whole goal of the Tomahawks, to create a great hockey experience for the the little guys and little girls who play youth hockey. We want to grow hockey in Johnstown.
“This also would have given our players the experience to feel what it’s like to be a pro for a night, something they will remember for the rest of their lives.”
Bouchard harbored no animosity toward the Penguins or the players.
The Tomahawks president pointed to the team’s close ties to the Penguins. Hall of Fame owner Mario Lemieux dropped the ceremonial first puck at the home opener. Broadcaster Phil Bourque made an appearance at a greet-the-fans event in August. Cooke and Kunitz signed autographs for hours during a recent game.
War Memorial acting General Manager Tom Grenell emphasized the Tomahawks’ effort to bring such a huge event to Johnstown was impressive, even though the game never materialized.
“Credit to the Tomahawks for swinging for the fences. What a bold initiative,” Grenell said. “We made it to the warning track and it got caught. Have you ever seen anything before like this? The initiative to take this on.
“I’m still impressed. I’m just happy they tried. I want to speak about how proud all of us are to have the Tomahawks as our partner. We’re disappointed. Everybody knows that. But what a great try.”
Grenell said the arena staff and authority encouraged the Tomahawks to continue “swinging for the fences.”
Boyd indicated the team will follow that path.
“The cancellation of this event is very unfortunate, and our entire hockey family is disappointed that, as a community, we are not able to proceed with the game, which would ultimately help benefit two wonderful non-profit organizations,” Boyd said. “While the NHL players return to work, we look forward to working with them in the future to create opportunities to raise awareness and funds for such worthy causes. We would like to acknowledge and give sincere gratitude to our fans and the community for the overwhelming support they have shown for this event.”