The Johnstown Tomahawks will not renew head coach Jason Spence’s contract for the 2014-15 NAHL season, the team announced on Tuesday.
Assistant coach Mike Letizia will assume the responsibilities of the head coach until a replacement is named, according to Tomahawks General Manager Rick Boyd.
“Jason has brought temendous passion and dedication to the Tomahawks organization over the last two years,” Boyd said. “However, we feel this decision, as difficult as it was, is ultimately the best course of action for our team moving forward.
“I like Jason as a person and this is probably the hardest thing I’ve had to do,” Boyd said. “The direction the team was heading, I don’t know if we were at the level of development of the players (where we needed to be). Jason had a two-year contract. It was up. The organization felt it was best to go in another direction. We’re looking for somebody who will focus on the individual’s skill development to make each player better, and that will translate into more success on the ice.”
Spence led the Tomahawks to a 28-27-5 record and fourth place in the NAHL North Division this past season. Johnstown was swept by Port Huron in the first round of the Robertson Cup playoffs, losing three one-goal games in the best-of-5 series.
Overall, Spence had a 55-48-17 regular-season record and two first-round playoff appearances. The Tomahawks went 1-5 in the playoffs under the former Johnstown Chiefs forward and fan favorite.
“Definitely, I’m fortunate that I had two years here. I love Johnstown. I don’t think I have to tell you that,” Spence said Tuesday. “The team made a decision and I have to live with it.
“I want the best for the Johnstown hockey community regardless of whether I’m coaching,” he added. “I’m a member of that community now. I don’t have anything bad to say about anybody. I hope they succeed.”
Letizia served as Spence’s assistant. He is responsible for a lot of the team’s recruiting duties.
Boyd and other team officials emphasized that Letizia will not hold the title of interim head coach even though he will take on such duties until a new coach is named.
“Mike has done a fantastic job as an assistant coach,” Boyd said. “He’s done an excellent job of recruiting. Our tenders are in the top class of all the leagues we’ve been recruiting.
“Mike is taking over the coaching duties until a replacement is found. I expect Mike will be given an interview and be a top candidate.”
The Tomahawks were named NAHL Organization of the Year in 2012-13 as the junior hockey team made a grand entrance into the city’s storied hockey tradition. The ’Hawks eliminated any doubts about whether junior hockey could survive in a market known for more than 50 seasons of professional hockey and as the city where “Slap Shot” was filmed in 1976.
The Tomahawks ranked third in NAHL attendance this season with an average of 2,514 fans (75,421). That was a slight drop from the inaugural season in which the team averaged 2,527 to rank fifth in the league (75,830).
“As an organization we are really appreciative of what Jason Spence brought not only to our organization but also to the Johnstown community,” Boyd said.
Spence said being a part of the Tomahawks organization is something he will always appreciate.
“The whole process was fantastic. I couldn’t ask for more from the players and the ownership,” Spence said of the highs of the inaugural first season and this year’s follow up. “They’ve been great. I have a fantastic assistant coach, one that works endless hours and works really hard to make the team better.
“I appreciate what people have said and when you see fans and they tell you that junior hockey has helped change their lives and brought joy to their families again,” he added. “A lot of people out there tell me daily that they like the junior hockey better than the pro hockey because they can really see the eyes of the players and everything that they work for. It’s awesome when you go out in the public and hear that. It’s something I’m not going to be a part of anymore, and that’s tough. It will take a little while to sink in.”
Mike Mastovich is a sports writer for The Tribune-Democrat. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/masty81.