Shortly after a freak spring snowstorm hit the region, Johnstown found out the city could be in for an Avalanche.
The North American Hockey League has approved the sale of the Alaska Avalanche to the recently formed Johnstown Sports Partnership.
The group has to complete a few more minor steps in the process and will relocate to the city for next season, when the Tier II Junior A team will play at Cambria County War Memorial Arena.
Former Johnstown Chiefs tough guy Rick Boyd has been working to bring a junior team to Johnstown since it was announced that the ECHL’s Chiefs were leaving after the 2010 season.
“It’s really hard to explain,” Boyd said Tuesday in an exclusive interview with The Tribune-Democrat. “I’m still overwhelmed. I went back to my hotel and took a shower to make sure I wasn’t dreaming.”
Boyd, who said he likely will serve as the squad’s general manager and director of hockey operations, was in Erie when he got the news that the team would be relocating nearly 4,000 miles to Johnstown.
“In trying to put this together, it was finding the right league and the right time,” Boyd said.
More details surrounding the team will be announced at a press conference at the War Memorial lobby at 10:30 a.m. May 3.
The ECHL’s Wheeling Nailers have played 10 regular-season games in Johnstown each of the past two seasons, but the team recently was sold and the agreement with the War Memorial dissolved.
That opened the door for an ownership group headed by Pittsburgh businessman Jim Bouchard to bring in a team from a junior league, like the NAHL. The Wenatchee Wild initially looked to be a good fit for Johnstown, but when the deal fell through the team’s managing partner, Bill Stewart, agreed to help bring another team to western Pennsylvania.
That ended up being the Avalanche, which finished third in the NAHL’s West Division last season – three points behind second-place Wenatchee – but was next-to-last in the 28-team league with an average attendance of just 387 fans per game.
The franchises in Fresno, Calif.; Corpus Christi, Texas; and Wenatchee each averaged more than 3,000 fans per game over the course of the 60-game regular season.
By comparison, the Nailers averaged 1,591 fans over their 10 games in Johnstown this season.
“We’re hoping to get as many fans or more than what Wheeling was getting,” Boyd said.
“We know that we’ve got to educate the hockey fans to the entertainment value that this really has. It’s going to be an affordable night out for the family with good hockey.”
The NAHL, which primarily features players ranging from age 18 to 20, has dozens of alumni playing in the National Hockey League, including stars such as Tim Thomas of the Boston Bruins and Patrick Kane of the Chicago Blackhawks. So the NAHL still offers fans a chance to catch a future NHL player, but at a much less-expensive ticket price than in the ECHL.
Not only that, Boyd said, but it will also give local fans a team to call their own, something that never really seemed to happen with the Nailers, who were rivals of the Chiefs before playing here on a regular basis.
“I saw Wheeling and Reading play at the War Memorial,” Boyd said. “I paid attention to the fans. They were bored. It wasn’t our team. They’re die-hard hockey teams, but it wasn’t their team.
“This is going to be Johnstown’s team, the county’s team,” Boyd said.