Cambria County War Memorial Arena rocked like it was, well, 1989 on Monday night.
The Johnstown Tomahawks played their first New Year’s Eve game in the city and a sellout crowd of 3,725 armed with heavy-duty promotional cowbells loved every minute of this hockeyfest.
The only thing missing was a storybook ending.
The Tomahawks fought back to tie the game and force a scoreless overtime period, but the Kalamazoo Junior K-Wings tallied three times in a shootout to edge the Hawks, 3-2.
“All this couldn’t happen without you guys,” Tomahawks coach Jason Spence said, addressing the fans while holding a microphone at center ice after the dramatic setback. “We love you guys. We have a hell of a team and we have a great bunch of fans supporting us. I say this with all of my heart, ‘Happy New Year.’ ”
The New Year’s Eve game is a Johnstown tradition established firmly in 1989 by the former ECHL Johnstown Chiefs, who had 11 sellouts in 20 games on the holiday night and 13 wins.
Johnstown’s hockey fans hardly missed a beat after going two New Year’s Eves without their own team in the building.
The crowd was boisterous throughout the game and the cowbells were so loud at times that public address announcer Al Steele even announced that ear plugs were available at the customer service desk.
“It’s been a blast,” Tomahawks President Richard Bouchard said. “I heard about the tradition. Obviously, we’re the new team. Everybody that’s told me about New Year’s Eve in Johnstown the past few months, it is exactly what they told me it would be. It’s fun. People are excited coming through the turnstiles. We’ve got a great game. They’re ringing the cowbells. It’s cool.”
Several times the sound system blared out a popular Saturday Night Live skit in which Christopher Walken and Will Ferrell’s characters demand a “prescription” of “more cowbell” during a recording session. The Tomahawks crowd responded each time.
“The old Saturday Night Live skit is fun. It was loud in the concourse an hour before the game,” Bouchard said. “What’s really cool is the youngsters. One of the goals was getting the game-day experience for the young guys and girls playing hockey. They’re going to want to come back.”
The action on the ice often was intense, too.
Tomahawks captain Mitch Kontny placed a shot from along the far boards on the right wing past goaltender Marcus Due-Boje 16:03 into the game.
But the Junior K-Wings responded with Taylor Burden’s goal only 1:14 later. The game was tied at 1-all through 20 minutes.
Kalamazoo’s Kyle Gattelaro zipped a shot from inside the left wing faceoff circle past Collin Brennan to successfully convert a power play 8:50 into the final period and give his team a 2-1 advantage.
The Hawks tied the game with some gritty play down low and a fortuitous bounce.
Defenseman Casey Nelson took a shot near the goal line on the right side of the cage. The puck hit a Kalamazoo defender at the far post and Kontny was credited with knocking in the goal at 16:11.
Johnstown outshot Kalamazoo 43-30 but K-Wings goaltender Marcus Due-Boje was exceptional in making 41 saves in regulation and overtime, and then stopping all three Tomahawks shootout attempts.
After the game, the fans were invited to the ice to mingle with the team.
“On behalf of the Tomahawks players and everyone in the organization we want to say thank you very much. It’s a privilege playing in Johnstown,” Tomahawks alternate captain Jesse Kessler said to a loud ovation after he was handed a microphone at center ice moments after the game.