Rick Boyd didn’t look forward to his conversation with Jason Spence on Monday.
The Johnstown Tomahawks general manager and the NAHL organization had made a difficult and potentially unpopular decision to not renew Spence’s contract as the Tomahawks coach.
But just as he did as a player with the former Johnstown Chiefs franchise, Boyd stuck by his principles and discussed the situation with Spence.
That didn’t make the situation any easier to digest nearly 24 hours later.
“I like Jason and this is one of the toughest things I’ve had to do,” Boyd said after the team made public the move on Tuesday afternoon. “It’s not something I wanted to do, but our commitment is to our 23 players. We owe it to our fans to be up front and honest. It was a decision that was made and I felt had to be made to get where we want to be in this age group. It’s with the best interest of our players and the City of Johnstown.”
Tomahawks assistant coach and director of scouting Mike Letizia will assume the head coaching duties until a replacement is found, Boyd said, though the GM said Letizia is not the interim head coach.
Spence coached the Tomahawks in both of the team’s NAHL seasons.
He did a solid job in leading the team to two Robertson Cup playoff berths, but the Tomahawks were eliminated in the first round each year. This past season, the team ended on a trying stretch with only two wins in the final 16 games, including three one-goal playoff losses.
“I was at the rink. We had a meeting at the arena. That’s when I heard the news,” Spence said, recalling Monday’s events.
Spence, like Boyd, was a Chiefs’ fan favorite willing to play a physical, blue-collar game. His popularity was evident in the fact that the Tomahawks had a Jason Spence bobblehead promotion during the 2013-14 season.
The ’Hawks went 28-27-5 and finished fourth this season, including a 17-11-2 home record. The team ranked third in NAHL attendance with an average of 2,514 fans a night at Cambria County War Memorial Arena.
Port Huron swept Johnstown in a best-of-5 first-round series, with the Tomahawks being eliminated on home ice in Game 3 on April 11.
“I never met a guy that worked harder than Jason did,” Boyd said. “It appeared to me down the stretch that the players didn’t respond to him. I don’t like this part of it. Jason is a Johnstown guy. He’s a hard worker.
“Players today are different. You have to be a coach, a psychologist, a mentor and a parent,” Boyd added. “You have to wear a lot of hats.”
Boyd said his intention is not to discredit Spence. He believes Spence has the potential to have success coaching another team in either junior or pro hockey.
“We were close (to winning in the postseason),” Boyd said. “He did a good job with what he had to work with. We want to give someone else the opportunity.
“What you have to do is look for experience in somebody that’s dealt with this age bracket. We’re not starting from scratch. We have a good class of returning players. It’s our responsibility to get somebody who will make them better.”
As has been the case throughout his time in Johnstown as a player and assistant coach with the Chiefs and as the Tomahawks head coach, Spence displayed class despite the difficult situation.
“Definitely, I’m fortunate that I had two years here. I love Johnstown,” said Spence, who had a 55-48-17 regular-season record and 1-5 postseason mark. “I don’t think I have to tell you that. 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. I’m a member of that community now. I don’t have anything bad to say about anybody. I hope they succeed.”
Spence said he will step back and ponder his future in the game. He and his wife Marci reside in Johnstown.
“Those are all things I have to really think about. This just came up (Monday). I’ve been on the phone all day,” Spence said. “I’ve talked to some owners. I’ve got to put my head together with my wife and my family and see what options are the best for us.”
Boyd said as news of Spence’s impending departure spread through both conventional and social media, his cell phone began ringing with coaches inquiring about the vacancy.
The general manager said the organization will gather a list of candidates and hold interviews. Boyd believes Letizia’s name probably will be in the mix.
“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.”
Spence thanked the fans and Johnstown community for their support throughout his career as a player and coach. He still had positive words for the Tomahawks.
“The whole process was fantastic. I couldn’t ask for more from the players and the ownership. They’ve been great,” Spence said. “I have a fantastic assistant coach, one that works endless hours and works really hard to make the team better. When players move on and go to college, and when players get something that you’ve been teaching and you can help them succeed in their life, that’s rewarding. Over the past couple years we’ve made some good kids into better men. I’ll always be proud of that.”
Spence said he most appreciated the feedback the hockey fans in the arena and on the streets provided during his time with the Tomahawks.
“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 said. “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.