Jason Spence has been through his share of New Year’s Eve games in Johnstown both as a player and an assistant coach.
Spence knows New Year’s Eve and hockey go together in Johnstown much like the big, lighted ball and Auld Lang Syne do in Times Square.
“I think it’s not so much about a team, as it is about the city,” said Spence, a former Johnstown Chiefs blue-collar forward from 1999 to 2003 and again from 2007 to 2009. “Over the years, there have been different teams and different leagues, but there’s always been hockey.”
Tonight, Spence will get his first taste of the holiday tradition as coach of the Johnstown Tomahawks. The NAHL Junior A Tier II squad will face the Kalamazoo (Mich.) Junior K-Wings at 6 p.m. at Cambria County War Memorial Arena.
“I’ve always said I respect the tradition of hockey in Johnstown and the Chiefs and all the other teams that have played before us,” said Tomahawks President Rick Bouchard. “We want to bring a new game to town but still respect the hockey that has been played here in the past.”
The Tomahawks wisely opted to continue the New Year’s Eve game. Considering the history, the choice was quite logical.
New Year’s Eve hockey was a huge success for the former ECHL Johnstown Chiefs, especially during the team’s so-called glory days in the 1990s and again from 1998 through 2006.
The Chiefs went 13-4-3 all-time on New Year’s Eve with 11 sellouts in 20 games.
The first six New Year’s Eve games from 1989 through 1994 were sellouts when the arena’s seating capacity was 4,040.
The Chiefs had a sellout of 4,063 in 1998 when the Hanson Brothers made an appearance. The team also had four consecutive sellouts on New Year’s Eve from 2003 through 2006.
On the ice, the Chiefs were 8-0-2 in their first 10 New Year’s Eve games and later won five straight New Year’s Eve games (2002 through 2006). Johnstown also had a four-game winning streak (1996 through 1999), though the franchise dropped its final three New Year’s Eve dates.
“Being in some of those games, I remember the first one I was in I had to hear from everybody else what kind of night it would be,” Spence said. “There were times during the season when there weren’t a whole lot of people in the stands, but you knew every New Year’s Eve there was going to be a lot of people in the stands and you’d get amped up for that.
“I’m excited for my players. It’s a big night.”
The Tomahawks (17-9-6) have been especially successful on home ice with a 9-4-2 mark at the War Memorial.
The Johnstown front office has done its part to make hockey’s return to the Flood City an event. So far, Mario Lemieux has dropped the ceremonial first puck at the opener, the Hanson Brothers returned earlier this month, and Penguins Chris Kunitz and Matt Cooke made an appearance alongside the Stanley Cup.
“New Year’s Eve is part of the tradition and history of Johnstown,” Bouchard said. “Just walking around town and talking to the people the past few days, I got a feel for it. Just seeing the snow falling and looking at the hills and Inclined Plane, you get the feel for it. It’s old-time hockey.”
Bouchard said tickets to tonight’s game still are available.
“We expect to follow the tradition of teams of the past and sell it out,” Bouchard said. “Hopefully the fans will come early, so I don’t have to delay the start of the game like I did the last couple games when the walk-up crowd was so great.”