The Wenatchee Wild will arrive at Cambria County War Memorial Arena tonight, just about six months later than what once had been expected.
The West Division-leading Wild will face the North Division fourth-place Johnstown Tomahawks at 7 p.m.
A year ago, Wild President Bill Stewart traveled across the country to visit Johnstown with hopes of moving the Wild’s NAHL franchise from Washington to Johnstown.
At the time of that Feb. 16, 2012 trip, Wenatchee was in line to put a team in the British Columbia Hockey League (BCHL), which is a better geographic fit for the West Coast city.
But the BCHL put those plans on hold for at least a year in March. In turn, the NAHL Wild stayed put in Wenatchee.
Previously, Stewart had promised Wenatchee fans the NAHL franchise would move only if the city had a BCHL team in 2012-13. Stewart kept his word.
That might have been a devastating blow to Johnstown’s hopes of landing its own NAHL team, but this complex saga had yet one more turn.
At about the same time, the Alaska Avalanche also needed a new NAHL home. That team’s relocation to Johnstown has been an overwhelming success on and off the ice.
“I think there is going to be a love affair for a long time between the community and the Tomahawks,” said Stewart during a Thursday telephone interview.
Stewart believed in Johnstown so much that he attempted to purchase minority ownership in the Tomahawks after James Bouchard became majority owner last spring. When the NAHL Board ruled that he couldn’t have a financial stake in two markets, Stewart offered his services as a consultant to James Bouchard, his brother Rick Bouchard (the Tomahawks president) and GM Rick Boyd.
“I have a lot of respect for Bill and the Wild organization,” Rick Bouchard said. “Bill actually came to Johnstown after we got the team and helped us out a lot. We brought him in to help consult us as we grew in the early stages of the organization.
“I flew out when we played Wenatchee out there so I could see how he runs his operation,” added Bouchard, referring to a two-game split between the teams on Nov. 30 and Dec. 1 at Town Toyota Center.
Stewart will return the favor. Once again, he’s flying to Johnstown for tonight’s game and a Saturday rematch at the War Memorial.
“I’ve been impressed with the Tomahawks,” Stewart said. “I think they played two of their best games of the season here in Wenatchee (Johnstown won 4-3 in overtime and lost 1-0). They were close games, probably the most intense games we’ve had.”
Johnstown (22-16-10) has 54 points, 12 back of division-leading Soo. The Tomahawks have earned points in six of their past 10 games (5-4-1) and are 12-8-4 at home.
“I think Jason Spence is doing a really good job,” Stewart said of the Tomahawks first-year coach.
The Wild (33-7-4) leads the West with 70 points and ranks third overall in the league. Wenatchee has scored a division-best 151 goals and allowed only 98.
“Wenatchee is a great club,” Rick Bouchard said. “I consider them one of the top clubs in the league and the top club in the West for sure. It’s an East vs. West battle. This will be a good measuring stick and a chance for the fans to see a team they haven’t seen yet.”
Coach Bliss Littler’s squad is an impressive 15-2-1 on the road.
“We tend to play better on the road,” Stewart said.
The Tomahawks won over Johnstown’s fans with a consistently solid on-ice effort and a community-oriented approach.
The team has had events featuring Hockey Hall of Famer Mario Lemieux, the Hanson Brothers, Penguins Matt Cooke and Chris Kunitz, and a bobblehead night for minority owner and Pro Football Hall of Famer Jack Ham.
“I was very impressed with Rick Boyd, Rick Bouchard and Jim Bouchard,” Stewart said, recalling his earlier Johnstown visits. “Everything they told me they were going to do when I was planning on selling them Wenatchee, they’ve lived up to everything.
“They’re one of the top ownership groups in the league.”