Jason Spence used up his cell phone’s battery on a trip from Johnstown to his parents’ home in Nova Scotia, Canada.
Once the Johnstown Tomahawks coach got to his destination, Spence had to get creative to secure cell service across the border.
“I drove to Canada to see my parents and I made 60 or 70 phone calls to kids in colleges,” Spence said Wednesday night. “I was on the phone all day and all night. We’re trying to get the best team possible we can get on the ice.”
Make no mistake. Spence would prefer to be preparing for a NAHL Robertson Cup playoff series instead of racking up cell phone minutes. But his Tomahawks dropped three straight one-goal heartbreakers against top-seeded Port Huron, Mich., in the best-of-5, first-round playoff series.
The Tomahawks’ season ended with a disappointing thud as the team closed the regular season on a 2-8-3 stretch to fall from second in the North Division to the No. 4 seed. Including the three playoff setbacks, Johnstown won only two of its final 16 games overall.
“To lose three games in a row in the playoffs by one goal each game, you don’t want to make excuses, but we never came up on the right side,” said Spence, who led the Tomahawks to a 28-27-5 regular-season record and 61 points. “One of the biggest things this year was consistency. The highs and lows were a problem. We needed to be at the top of our game every time we hit the ice.
“Through the season we had problems in every area at one point of the year,” he added. “When we were scoring goals, we had some defensive errors. When we were stopping everything, we were losing one-goal games and we weren’t scoring goals. We’ve just got to push through that.”
On the positive side, the Tomahawks continued to be a huge hit in the community and drew 75,421 fans for an average attendance of 2,514 at Cambria County War Memorial Arena. That total ranked third in the 24-team lead and made the ‘Hawks one of only five teams to average 2,000 or more fans.
“I tell all of our players that these teams that come into the War Memorial, their eyes start looking around because of the history of the building and then they see the big crowds and they get fired up to play,” Tomahawks President Richard Bouchard said. “Visiting teams that come in really want to stick it to us when they get there.”
The Tomahawks were named NAHL Organization of the Year in 2012-13, the team’s first season in Johnstown.
The organization improved in many areas off the ice. Players participated in numerous community events, made appearances in schools and hospitals, and performed charity work.
“I feel that our players and the coaches did a really good job,” Bouchard said. “The players were involved in all of the community service with the schools and hospitals. They took it from last year and knocked it out of the park again. I couldn’t be more happy about how the team was involved in the community. They never complained. They asked where they could go to be a part of the community.”
That camaraderie made it even more difficult for Bouchard to watch the players leave the arena after another first-round playoff elimination.
“When the season ends like it did so quickly, it’s sad,” Bouchard said. “A bunch of them didn’t leave for a while and some are still in Johnstown to say good-byes. A couple of the 20-year-olds said this was the best couple years of their lives. They just didn’t want to leave quite yet. That’s the tough part, saying goodbye to those 20-year-olds.”
When asked what plans the organization has for the immediate future and next season, Bouchard said, “It’s only our second year in. We did some exit interviews with the players and coaches the day after we lost. We’ll see what happens. We haven’t made any plans at this point, and the coaches haven’t given us any ideas of what they’re thinking about for the future.”
Spence is certain of his goals.
“I want to finish what we’ve started,” Spence said. “I want to win.
“We’re getting ourselves ready for next year,” he continued. “It’s an ongoing thing. You’ve got to try to make yourself better every day.”
Spence pointed to the players eligible to return from the current roster as well as those the Tomahawks have tendered offers to over the past few months.
“We’ve got a really good group coming back,” Spence said. “All around we’ve got a lot of leadership. We’ve got some really good tenders and kids coming in as well. I’m excited.”
The team will remain active throughout the offseason with youth camps, summer festivals and other appearances.
“Our Tomahawk Youth Hockey Camp will be at Planet Ice in July,” Bouchard said. “We’re really excited about that. Our numbers have grown since last year. We promised we’d help grow youth hockey in Johnstown.”
Bouchard said the team appreciated its fan base, which continued to support the Tomahawks throughout the tough final few weeks of the season that included eight one-goal setbacks among 13 losses. The Tomahawks also had to contend with a quirky home schedule that included only four games played at the War Memorial from Nov. 24 through Feb. 13.
“We finished third in the league in attendance. We beat a couple of the teams that had been around a few years like Amarillo with bigger populations,” Bouchard said. “I’d just like to thank the fans. They came even though we had that goofy schedule for a while.
“I couldn’t give more credit to the Johnstown fans. They supported us even through the losing streak. They came right to the end.”
Mike Mastovich is a sports writer for The Tribune-Democrat. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/masty81.