Walking through Planet Ice in the hours leading up to Ziggy’s Fundraiser was like hitting the rewind button on a highlight tape of Johnstown Chiefs history.
This was a reunion, a gathering to help out a friend.
The halls and a small room were covered with articles and memorabilia from the team’s past.
Longtime fans wandered the hallways, often embracing friends they hadn’t seen for years or at least in two months.
The Chiefs alumni game and silent auction to help offset Dave “Ziggy” Zeigler and his family’s medical expenses also revealed a lot about Chiefs hockey.
The players, coaches, general managers and, especially, the diehard fans absolutely loved their team and the city.
Some of the top names in Chiefs history returned for the alumni game, providing a bittersweet punctuation mark on the final page of the team’s final chapter in the ECHL.
Four former coaches and three former general managers participated as well as numerous Chiefs, Jets and Wings players.
Once majority owner Neil Smith and investor Steve Posner moved the team to Greenville, S.C., after years of financial losses, a huge part of the city’s – and the league’s
– history was pushed aside.
The move had been predicted, if not expected, for more than a decade as the large-market ECHL gradually outgrew the small-market Chiefs.
But it still was like a punch to the gut when the team officially played its final game in April.
“It's hard to take,” said former Chiefs goalie, General Manager and coach Toby O’Brien, now a scout with the NHL’s New York Islanders.
“It’s like part of who you are is not there anymore. So many friends, so many memories. It’s a shame that it’s not here anymore.”
Ironically, members of the Wheeling Nailers staff were on hand Saturday in support of Zeigler, who is battling brain cancer. Those staffers also passed out a schedule of
10 Nailers home games that will be played at Cambria County War Memorial Arena next season.
The Nailers and Chiefs once were fierce rivals. Now Johnstown’s fans can only turn to Wheeling for an ECHL fix.
After that, it’s difficult to predict what might happen in the pro game here. The odds of landing another ECHL-level team are definitely stacked against Johnstown.
“Once you lose a franchise, it’s always tough to get it back or stay at that same level in the community,” said former Chiefs coach Ian Herbers, now an AHL assistant coach in Milwaukee.
“Hopefully, it does come back. It would be great for the city and great for the community if it does.”
O’Brien believes there still might be some high level of hockey that would be a good fit for Johnstown.
“I think hockey could come back here but it has to be done right,” O’Brien said. “It can’t be a second-rate league. It can’t be a Single-A league. It can’t be a start-up league. The fans and the people here know hockey too much and there is too much professional history here for that to happen.”
O’Brien said possibilities outside of the pro game might be an option.
“I could see Tier I junior hockey coming here such as the United States Hockey League that plays in front of sellout crowds throughout the Midwest,” O’Brien said. “The budgets are much less and it’s in communities much like Johns-
town. They’re in hometown, mid-sized cities. I could see something like that working here.
“But to see pro hockey come back here, my only thing is if anyone does it, it has to be done right or if it isn’t, hockey will never come back after that.”
Former Chiefs coach Frank Anzalone said Saturday’s turnout is an indication of how important pro hockey is to at least part of the Johnstown population.
“There is no question that the Johnstown Chiefs through all the years they’ve been here, there has always been a closeness and allegiance to the city,” Anzalone said. “It’s sad that they don’t have a team anymore. But having said that, I think a lot of people are enamored with this opportunity to help out. I knew there would be a lot of people here. I think it’s a great show of faith in what has been accomplished here over the years. It’s a great showing for the city.”
Gerry Zaccaria played on the inaugural 1988 Chiefs squad in the former AAHL. Those early Johnstown teams were treated like royalty throughout the city back in the days when ticket prices were closer to $5 than $20, and the arena was packed.
It’s difficult for him to grasp that the ECHL team has moved.
“Johnstown is a special place,” Zaccaria said.
“The people here are magical, all hard working and down to earth. We always had a great relationship in that first year with the people.
“We had a real great chemistry within the team and with the fans. That’s why it was magical.
“Hopefully somebody will come in here and revive the team,” Zaccaria said.
For at least one night, hockey was back.
The stands were packed and the boys and their fans raised a lot of money for Ziggy.
There were hugs and handshakes and reminiscing throughout the building.
All of that goodwill made it even more difficult to envision a winter without Johnstown Chiefs hockey.
Mike Mastovich is a sports writer for The Tribune-Democrat.