The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

January 22, 2012

Mike Mastovich | Making a Federal case in Johnstown

Mike Mastovich

— Two years ago, Andy Richards saw an opportunity and made a pitch to bring a team from the then-fledgling Federal Hockey League to Johnstown.

The Johnstown Chiefs had just announced the ECHL team’s pending departure for Greenville, S.C., after owner Neil Smith had finally lost too much money to remain in one of the most storied hockey cities in North America.

Federal League vice chairman Richards figured the timing was right, even though the league had yet to field a team or play a game.

After being jilted by the Chiefs, Cambria County War Memorial Arena manager SMG had every right to be skeptical in 2010. It was too soon to gamble on a league that might fold in a few months and leave an even more bitter taste in the hockey community’s figurative mouth.

So, Richards’ pitch basically faded into the background at the War Memorial.

“We had gone to SMG when the Chiefs moved out of town a couple years ago when we were just starting up the league,” Richards said during a Thursday telephone interview. “There was reluctance and hesitancy to proceed on anything serious with us, which was understandable.”

And, it wasn’t too long until Wheeling Nailers owners Jim and Rob Brooks announced a plan to bring the Nailers to Johnstown for 10 regular-season dates in 2010-11. Once the Chiefs geographical rival, Wheeling became the only on-ice link Johnstown had to the ECHL.

The Nailers returned for another 10-game set in Johnstown this season. Results have been mixed over the two years. The Nailers have been solid partners. Wheeling’s owners, management and players have done their best to adapt to a unique situation. The team has won more than it’s lost in Johnstown, but attendance hasn’t been strong.

Now that the Nailers are for sale, Johnstown’s pro hockey future again is unclear.

The Brooks brothers announced Thursday the team is on the selling block, confirming news that broke a day earlier. Ideally, the Brookses want to see local ownership step in and keep the team in Wheeling.

We know how that turned out in Johnstown. Here’s hoping Wheeling has better luck attracting investors in the ECHL’s challenging business model.

If no new owners emerge by March, the Brooks brothers said the team will go dark, which would mean no ECHL hockey in Wheeling and no hybrid dates in Johnstown.

Even if local ownership emerges in Wheeling in the next few weeks, there’s no guarantee that owner or ownership group would want to continue to split its home schedule between two cities.

Richards, sensing another opportunity, has his sights set on Johnstown again, and he hopes to plead his case to SMG and hockey-minded inviduals and businesses here.

“Obviously the 10-game experiment isn’t working out too well, and with Wheeling selling their team or mothballing it, and with us starting year three, we’d like to get in that marketplace,” Richards said of Johnstown.

“We’re not perfect. We have challenges on a daily basis, but we’re working toward something that could be pretty entertaining. We’re on the cusp of signing a couple deals with 4,000-seat arenas in the next three or four weeks to get us in the direction where we want to go.”

The Federal League currently has seven teams, most in Northeastern cities that aren’t quite household names, and all playing in arenas that aren’t even as big as the War Memorial, which is the smallest used in the ECHL.

Richards said the Federal League’s operating budget typically ranges from $400,000 to $500,000 compared to the estimated $1 million-plus for some ECHL squads.

The weekly salary cap is about $5,500, which is a fraction of the ECHL cap.

Those factors enable the league to provide affordable ticket costs – an average of $13.

Of course, as those bargain numbers might suggest, the talent level is quite a few notches below the Double-A ECHL.

The ECHL has served as a consistent feeder to the AHL and has produced 482 “graduates” who went onto the NHL. The Federal League has a ways to go in that area.

“We’ve established some credibility among the player and the coaching fraternity,” Richards said. “We’ve already moved 60 guys up to play in other leagues. Some are convenience call ups. We’ve had a lot of kids go to Reading, Toledo, Wheeling, Elmira, Trenton, Bridgeport, the SPHL. We’re serving a purpose in the professional community.”

Those hoping lightning can strike twice in roughly one pro hockey generation will point to the beginnings of the Chiefs and the five-team East Coast Hockey League in January 1988.

The East Coast League once was known for its brawling, sometimes crazy antics, and high-scoring games during those early days. Ticket prices weren’t very high. The costs of operating a team weren’t quite as challenging as they are two-plus decades later. Fans loved the rough-and-tumble game and packed the War Memorial on a consistent basis right into the mid-1990’s.

As the league evolved and the talent level rose from top to bottom in hockey, the game changed. Labor agreements, hospitalization and travel expenses impacted the cost of business. Ticket prices increased.

Minor league hockey became a tougher sell in just about any market but especially so in Johnstown, where the population has nose-dived in the past two decades and the economy has been, well, sluggish.

So, is the time right for the Federal League?

Richards thinks so.

Whether he can convince the right parties will be a challenge.

And, there’s that small matter of finding a local ownership group willing to take on a hockey team.

Where have we heard that one before?

Mike Mastovich is a sports writer for The Tribune-Democrat.