The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

December 30, 2012

Top 10 sports stories of 2012 | No. 1 Tomahawks bring hockey back to Johnstown

JOHNSTOWN — It started when the North American Hockey League approved the sale of the Junior A Tier II Alaska Avalanche to Johnstown Sports Partners LLC in late April.

The sale signaled the return of hockey to Johnstown.

And the Johnstown Tomahawks have dominated headlines ever since.

“We promised Johnstown a show when we bought the team,” said Tomahawks President Rick Bouchard. “We want to grow hockey in the community.”

So far, the Tomahawks have delivered on that promise.

The season started on the road before a sellout crowd packed Cambria County War Memorial on Sept. 29 to witness the rebirth of hockey in Johnstown and watch Hall of Famer and Pittsburgh Penguins co-owner Mario Lemieux drop the ceremonial first puck.

The Tomahawks lost to the Michigan Warriors, 3-2, in an overtime shootout but, for the 3,721 in attendance, Johnstown’s new team – the Chiefs of the ECHL packed up for Greenville, S.C. in April 2010 – was reason to celebrate.

Since that loss in the home opener, the Tomahawks have played an entertaining, winning brand of hockey. Attendance ranks fifth in the NHL with an average of 2,217 fans, behind only a small handful of larger-market teams, and the positives for the local economy has been an added bonus.

Johnstown, coached by popular former Chiefs tough guy Jason Spence, entered Sunday’s home game against the Kalamazoo Jr. K-Wings in fourth place in the North Division. The Tomahawks are 17-9-6 (40 points) and lead the division with 107 points scored despite playing the fewest games in the North.

If high-flying, winning hockey wasn’t enough for the rabid fan base in Johnstown, the franchise has hit a series of home runs promotionally.

Besides Lemieux dropping the first puck, the Tomahawks have maintained several of the traditions established by the Chiefs, including a New Year’s Eve home game and the Teddy Bear Toss, which gained significant attention when some of the 3,500 teddy bears distributed were tossed on the ice after a member of the Jamestown Ironmen scored the lone goal of a game played Dec. 15.

Fifteen minutes later, play resumed.

“People make mistakes and people get on board,” said Spence, who had been through his share of Teddy Bear Tosses during his career with the Chiefs. “That stuff happens. … As long as it’s for a good cause.”

The Stanley Cup appeared at the War Memorial the same night, along with Pittsburgh Penguins Matt Cooke and Chris Kunitz.

The previous night, the famed, or infamous, Hanson Brothers showed up and the long hockey weekend also included a special screening of “Slap Shot” at Westwood Plaza Theatre.

“This weekend really fits into what we said we were going to do right from the start of the season and that is to bring hockey back to Johnstown in a big way,” said Bouchard.