Only days before the home opener, the Johnstown Tomahawks received a huge boost to the franchise’s second North American Hockey League season.
Last year’s leading scorer Cody Gylling returned to the Tomahawks following his recent release from the Fargo Force in the United States Hockey League.
The Force had selected Gylling in the sixth round of the league’s 2013 draft after his breakthrough season with the Tomahawks in 2012-13. Johnstown retained his NAHL rights.
“I’m excited to come back. I had a great time in Johnstown my first year and really enjoyed it,” Gylling said Thursday night. “It was a great experience. It was pretty easy to come back here. I’m excited for the upcoming season.”
Gylling had a team-high 45 points, with 16 goals and 29 assists as the Tomahawks won over Johnstown hockey fans during a 27-21-4-8 season.
Coach Jason Spence’s team will begin its second season against Port Huron at 7:30 p.m. Saturday at Cambria County War Memorial Arena. The ‘Hawks and Fighting Falcons will meet again at 3 p.m. on Sunday at the War Memorial.
“Cody’s going to be a big part of the team,” said Spence prior to Thursday’s second Tomahawks home opening dinner event at the Boulevard Grill in Southmont. “He’s a natural scorer. He can really shoot the puck. He complements the linemates really well, and he’s really smart.
“He’s going to be chomping at the bit because we have unfinished business this year.”
The Tomahawks had 27 players and will need to reach the league limit of 25 by Saturday.
Gylling will reunite with a strong nucleus of returning players such as forwards Brandon Reinholz, Zach Wallace, Jordan Watt, JB Baker and Jaycob McCombs. Also back are defensemen Cody Bentzel, Mitch Hall, Jesse Kessler and Dakoda Menslage.
“We’re really close. It was really nice seeing everyone again,” said Gylling, a 5-foot-9, 175-pound forward. “We were a really close group last year. it’s nice coming in and seeing some old faces and the new faces too. It seems like we already have a pretty tight group.”
Among the additions is experienced goaltender Alex Okicki, who had 18 wins and a 2.74 goals against average last season playing with the former Kalamazoo team in the NAHL.
“That’s big,” Gylling said. “We had a key departure of (last season’s goaltender) Chris Truehl to Air Force. It was cool picking (Okicki) up. Alex had a great year last year. It’s going to be better playing when he’s on our side.”
Other new players are: Defensemen Brady Bender, Shane Cuckovich, Trevor Heuser, Ryan Bittner and Alex Jaeckle; forwards Matthew Meier, Eric Tien, Joe Drabin, Collin Finkhouse, Griffin Leach, Tyler Basham, Connor Gilmartin, Trevor Recktenwald and Shane Bednard; and goaltenders Brett young and Colin DeAugustine.
Gylling hopes his second stay with the Tomahawks eventually will lead him back to the USHL, which is considered a step above the NAHL, a Tier II Junior A league.
“Cody was in Fargo, and they said he had what it takes but he was a little inconsistent at that level,” Spence said. “This experience will be good for him and hopefully he gets back up there. The most important thing for guys like Cody is the showcase that is coming up (Sept. 18) when 300 scouts will be looking at him and the others. It’s a big deal.”
If he’s not in Fargo, Gylling couldn’t think of a better place to be than in Johnstown.
“It was a combination of the town welcoming the team, we had great support of the team, and we had a good team last year,” Gylling said when asked what made the Tomahawks’ debut season so special. “Obviously we would have liked to go a little further in the playoffs. I really enjoyed the company of the guys. It was a pretty memorable year.”
Notes: The Tomahawks’ second HockeyFest will be held on Napoleon Street in front of the War Memorial beginning at 5 p.m. on Saturday. Last year, more than 2,000 people attended the pregame event, which included a number of activities, food and beverage options and entertainment. ... Bill Guerin will have a tough act to follow. The former Pittsburgh Penguins Stanley Cup-winning forward will drop the ceremonial first puck on Saturday. Last season, Penguins owner and Hall of Famer Mario Lemieux dropped the first puck in front of a sellout crowd. ... Tickets remain available for Saturday and Sunday’s games. ... Last season, the Tomahawks attracted 75,830 fans in 30 home dates for an average of 2,527, fifth-best in the NAHL. The Tomahawks had 11 crowds of 3,000 or more at the War Memorial ... The Tomahawks were named NAHL Organization of the Year in 2012-13.
Mike Mastovich is a sports writer for The Tribune-Democrat. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/masty81.