Matt Cooke and Chris Kunitz soaked up the atmosphere and interacted with thousands of fans at Cambria County War Memorial Arena on Saturday night.
The two Pittsburgh Penguins wingers sat at a table a few feet away from the Stanley Cup, which was on display so that a long line of fans stretching around the arena concourse for the better part of two hours might pose for photographs.
“We’re getting a chance to talk to the people,” said Kunitz, who joined Cooke as part of a Johnstown Tomahawks promotion during a NAHL game against the Jamestown (N.Y.) Ironmen. “It’s a pleasure to be in an atmosphere that’s excited about a game that I love to play. It’s a shame that we don’t get to go out there and do it and get to see our fans, but a lot of them are here. Obviously they’re supporting a local team.”
The players’ proximity to the Cup at the back of the War Memorial made sense. Both Kunitz and Cooke played key roles in the Penguins 2009 Stanley Cup run.
The line formed well before the game and remained intact deep into the final period.
When it became evident there wasn’t enough time left for Kunitz and Cooke to sign autographs for the remaining fans who had patiently waited, the two Penguins took stacks of previously signed photos and walked the line, shaking hands, posing for photographs and handing each fan an autograph.
“First of all, a classic, classic arena to actually be at,” Cooke said. “Growing up as a kid and watching the movie, it’s pretty special to be in the exact arena. To see 4,000 fans here crazy about developmental hockey is a pretty fun thing and a pretty exciting thing. I think it’s a great thing for the town of Johnstown. It’s fun to be a part of it.”
Kunitz and Cooke fit in perfectly in the building where “Slap Shot” was filmed.
One thing was amiss though. The Penguins would have preferred to be on the ice playing instead of waiting for the NHL lockout to end – if the work stoppage indeed does conclude in time to salvage at least a portion of the season.
The NHL and NHL Players Association had met Wednesday and Thursday with a mediator. But just as had been the case during two similar meetings in late November, the discussions weren’t very productive.
Games through Dec. 30 already have been wiped out – 526 total – as well as the Winter Classic and NHL All-Star Game.
Even President Obama urged the two sides to work out an agreement.
The NHL filed a class action complaint in federal court on Friday in anticipation of the players union acting to decertify in order to proceed with its own class action and antitrust actions.
“I really don’t have an opinion on that anymore,” Cooke said. “The roller coaster ride of what is, what might be or what should be is too much to keep track of anymore.”
Some players have taken their games to Europe. Others, like the Penguins, have worked out on their own at Southpointe with star captain Sidney Crosby leading the charge.
The labor unrest has players wondering how they’ll be received by the people who pay to watch them play.
“There’s a little bit of apprehension,” Kunitz said. “What if there are fans that are angry at you? But everybody (Saturday) was great. They’re excited to see hockey when it comes back on. They can’t wait to see it. Just like us they want us to get back on the ice as soon as possible.”
The big crowd and long autograph line pleased Cooke.
“We’re locked out and people are starving for hockey,” Cooke said. “You don’t have any expectations of what you’re going to see or find. We were received unbelievably. A lot of fans are dying for hockey.”