The Johnstown Tomahawks’ NAHL season began three weeks ago.
But for Johnstown hockey fans, it becomes official tonight.
The Tomahawks will play their first home game in front of a sellout crowd at Cambria County War Memorial Arena. Pittsburgh Penguins legend Mario Lemieux will drop the ceremonial first puck for the 7:30 p.m. game.
Johnstown will welcome its own hockey team back to the War Memorial for the first time since the Chiefs moved to Greenville, S.C., in 2010.
“This is the big game you play for. This is your home opener,” said Tomahawks first-year head coach Jason Spence, a former Chiefs player and assistant coach. “You want to show everybody what you have and you want to welcome your fans and give them the best you have. We’ve been working real hard this week to make sure we do that.”
The Tomahawks are out to a slow start at 1-3-2, but that all could change with home games tonight and Sunday afternoon against the Michigan Warriors (1-4-0).
“Everyone’s pretty excited and ready for the big game, especially for the home opener and having hockey back in Johnstown,” Tomahawks forward JB Baker said. “I just can’t wait to play.”
Lemieux’s presence won’t go unnoticed.
The Hall of Fame center led the Penguins to two Stanley Cups on the ice in 1991-92 and another as an owner in 2009. No. 66 is credited with reviving the franchise in the 1980s, saving a team that declared bankruptcy in 1998 and helping secure a state-of-the-art new arena, the Consol Energy Center, in 2010.
“This is like one of your dreams, to get to shake hands with a professional hockey player before the game,” said Tomahawks captain Mitch Kontny, who will be at center ice for the ceremonial puck drop.
“It’s something special,” Baker added.
Forward Brandon Platt is from Cranberry, Butler County. He played youth hockey games with the North Pittsburgh Wildcats at the War Memorial and attended his share of Chiefs ECHL games.
“I’m pretty excited about this game. I watched the Chiefs a lot when I was younger and I played up here,” Platt said. “I think it’s going to be pretty nuts because I’ve seen the Chiefs fans. Everybody on the team is pretty excited. The nerves are kicking in a little bit, but I think it will calm down once it gets to be game time.”
Spence has seen significant improvement despite the Tomahawks’ record. The Tier II Junior A players are striving to land a college scholarship or perhaps earn a shot at the pro game.
“The hard work and the passion and desire in these players is amazing,” Spence said. “We’re a team that got moved from a different city and has a lot of new faces but everybody already is like a family in the room. It’s great to be around. Everybody wants to do all they can to do the best they can for the team.”
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