Not so long ago, Johnstown’s hockey future seemed precarious at best.
The odds of an anchor tenant landing in Cambria County War Memorial Arena next season seemed slim about a month ago.
Now, there is reason for at least some optimism. At least, some restrained optimism.
War Memorial General Manager Mike Silva of SMG said five leagues have approached him – and in turn, the county – about possibly putting a team in Johnstown.
Multiple published reports in The Junior Hockey News (JuniorHockey.com) have tabbed Johnstown as a future North American Hockey League city.
JuniorHockey.com even went as far as stating that the NAHL’s Wenatchee (Wash.) Wild is “working on a sale agreement and move under USA Hockey’s exigent circumstance provision,” adding, “Johnstown, Pa., has been mentioned” as a relocation possibility.
A lot of work must be done both by those leagues hoping to put a team in the War Memorial and by SMG/War Memorial Authority to make hockey a reality at either the Junior A or professional level.
But at least it appears there is a chance to fill the void left by the departure of the once immensely popular Johnstown Chiefs two years ago.
When asked about the NAHL rumors, Silva confirmed interest by both parties.
“The North American Hockey League is one of the leagues we’re looking at but there is nothing I can talk about now,” Silva said Thursday afternoon.
“Right now there are five leagues that have contacted us.
“There are both pro and junior leagues (involved in discussions).”
In its second season, the Federal Hockey League has made another pitch to Johnstown, according to FHL Vice Chairman Andy Richards.
Actually this is the second time the pro league has sought a home in Johnstown.
The first time was right after the Chiefs announced that they were relocating to Greenville, S.C., after 22 ECHL seasons.
The FHL has its pluses, such as lower operating costs and lower ticket prices than the ECHL. That league is not affiliated with the NHL or AHL, which means the talent level isn’t on par with the ECHL.
Currently, the FHL plays in arenas smaller than the War Memorial, and one team dropped out during the
2011-12 season, creating a perception problem that probably won’t be ignored by the arena authority.
The NAHL is intriguing for a number of reasons. It is the only Tier II Junior A league in the United States.
In its 36th season, the NAHL is established as a developmental league for future college and pro players.
The league has 28 teams and is the largest USA Hockey sanctioned Junior A loop.
Wenatchee is expected to join the British Columbia Junior Hockey League, which would free up an NAHL franchise for relocation.
“The Wenatchee Wild’s NAHL franchise is expected to be sold to a group with plans to place the team in Johnstown, Pennsylvania,” JuniorHockey.com wrote on Monday.
“That group has been put together by a former minor professional, Rick Boyd, a fixture in the Johnstown community as both a player for the ECHL Johnstown Chiefs and now as a youth hockey coach.”
Boyd played on the first Chiefs team in the All-American Hockey League in 1988 and came out of retirement multiple times in the mid-1990s to play for Johnstown in the ECHL.
A fiery captain willing to play a tough brand of hockey, Boyd was among the most popular players to wear a Chiefs uniform.
When reached Thursday, Boyd declined to discuss many details, though he said he soon would be able to address the situation publicly.
“With respect to the guys, we’re not going to talk to anybody right now,” Boyd said.
Silva also was closed-mouthed when asked if any meetings between the NAHL or other leagues are set with SMG and the War Memorial Authority.
“Nothing I can talk about,” Silva said. “I want everyone to get fair consideration. It’s something we’re pursuing vigorously. We’re pursuing all of the options.”
Typically, ECHL schedules for the upcoming season are at least tentatively set before the current season’s playoffs each year.
The time frame for adding teams or making a master schedule might vary league-to-league or at other levels. But it’s probably close to crunch time as far as finalizing a 2012-13 schedule is concerned.
“I know the ECHL schedules came in around March or April,” Silva said. “I don’t know how the other leagues work. That’s something we’re trying to consider when we’re deliberating.”
Johnstown and the Wheeling Nailers have participated in a hybrid schedule that produced varying results the past two ECHL seasons.
The Nailers fared well on the ice but fans haven’t exactly lined up for tickets to cheer on a former divisional rival.
The Nailers were put up for sale last month, clouding the team’s future in Wheeling.
Even if a new owner keeps the team in Wheeling, there is no guarantee that owner would continue playing games in Johnstown.
As for the NAHL, neither Commissioner Mark Frankenfeld nor director of communications Alex Kyrias could be reached Thursday.
During an interview last month, Kyrias spoke about Johnstown and the NAHL possibilities.
“There is nothing formal at all but it fits the footprint,” Kyrias said then, referring to the NAHL’s North Division, which has a team in Jamestown, N.Y., and four Michigan-based squads.
“The league is the largest and oldest in the United States, and we have a good track record of developing players for their next step, whether it’s college or pro.”
Will the NAHL brand soon be a part of Johnstown’s storied hockey history?
Or will another league, professional or junior, skate at the War Memorial?
Either scenario is better than another winter without Johns-town having its own team.
Not so long ago, Johnstown’s hockey future seemed precarious at best.
- Mike Mastovich
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