Cambria County War Memorial Arena will rock again tonight.
The boys are back in town.
The Johnstown Tomahawks, Chapter II, begins at 7:30 p.m. against the Port Huron Fighting Falcons.
Actually, the city’s diehard fans can get an early start at 5 p.m. as HockeyFest begins with a number of activities and entertainment on Napoleon Street in front of the arena.
“I expect that the nerves will be there,” said Tomahawks coach Jason Spence, who led Johnstown to a 27-21-4-8 record and playoff berth during its inaugural North American Hockey League season. “It will be an exciting atmosphere with everything going on from Bill Guerin to the crowd and the HockeyFest, everything all wrapped into one.”
Former Penguins Stanley Cup winner Bill Guerin will drop the ceremonial first puck, following the lead of Penguins owner and Hall of Fame player Mario Lemieux, who dropped the disc before last year’s home opener.
The Tomahawks quickly became a hit in the arena and throughout the community, attracting 75,830 fans during 30 home dates, an average of 2,527, fifth-best in the NAHL. There were 11 crowds of 3,000 or more fans, including seven sellouts.
“The fans help a great deal,” Spence said. “We have to play the game inside the glass, though. We can’t be starry-eyed looking at all the people.
“The players want to succeed not only for themselves but also for the fans,” added Spence, himself a fan favorite as a rugged forward for the Johnstown Chiefs in the ECHL. “You can’t grip your stick too tight. You’ve got to relax and let it happen.”
General Manager Rick Boyd, Spence and assistant coach Mike Letizia have assembled a solid team for the second season.
Four of last season’s top-six scorers return this year. That foursome accounted for 62 goals and 140 points in 2012-13.
What: Port Huron Fighting Falcons vs. Johnstown Tomahawks in the season opener for each team.
When: 7:30 tonight.
Where: Cambria County War Memorial Arena.
Special events: HockeyFest beginning at 5 p.m.; former Pittsburgh Penguins Stanley Cup winner Bill Guerin will drop the ceremonial first puck; pregame fireworks.
In all, eight players are back from the first Johnstown Tomahawks team.
Last season’s success on and off the ice had an impact on player recruitment.
“Within the ranks of 17-, 18-, 19-year-old hockey players throughout the country, the City of Johnstown is pretty well known because of the way the players know they’re going to be treated throughout the town,” said Tomahawks President Richard Bouchard.
Players wanted to return to Johnstown. Others wanted to join the team.
The combination enabled the Tomahawks to assemble a diverse cast that includes returning forwards such as leading scorer Cody Gylling (16 goals, 29 assists, 45 points), Jordan Watt (20-17-37) and Brandon Reinholz (19-13-32) as well as high-scoring defenseman Jesse Kessler (7-19-26). All finished among the team’s top six point scorers.
Also back are forwards Zach Wallace and Jaycob McCombs, and defensemen Mitch Hall and Cody Bentzel.
“We have a lot of leadership,” Spence said. “The guys who are back have done a good job of guiding the new additions. They’ve let them know about our community and what Johnstown wants. It’s a really good clicking locker room right now.”
The Tomahawks will miss top goaltender Chris Truehl and his 17 wins from last season. Truehl advanced to the Air Force Academy.
That doesn’t mean the goalie position will be a trouble spot. Experienced netminder Alex Okicki joined Johnstown after winning 18 games and posting a 2.74 goals against average with the former Kalamazoo team in the NAHL last season. Colin DeAugustine of the Pittsburgh Elite U18 team in the MWEHL, and Brett Young of the Little Caesars U18 team in the HPHL are the other goalies.
Other new players are defensemen Brady Bender, Shane Cuckovich, Trevor Heuser, Ryan Bittner and Alex Jaeckle; and forwards Matthew Meier, Eric Tien, Joe Drabin, Collin Finkhouse, Griffin Leach, Tyler Basham, Connor Gilmartin, Trevor Recktenwald and Shane Bednard.
“This year we’ve maintained the speed but we’ve added a little more size and grit, especially up front,” Spence said. “We’re going to be a real strong defensive team. We’ve really been working on the defensive zone. At the same time we’re going to try to be real strong in all areas of the ice.”
Notes: Last year, more than 2,000 people attended the pregame HockeyFest, which included a number of activities, food and beverage options and entertainment. ... Tickets still are available for tonight’s and Sunday’s games. ... The Tomahawks were named NAHL Organization of the Year in 2012-13. ... The Tomahawks maintain a strong connection to the former Chiefs, with General Manager Rick Boyd, a former captain and fan favorite who played six years with the Chiefs; Spence, who played and was an assistant coach for the Chiefs; and Director of Business Operations Jean Desrochers, a former Chiefs all-star who played four seasons here.
Mike Mastovich is a sports writer for The Tribune-Democrat. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/masty81.