The Johnstown Tomahawks filled a void for the city’s hockey-starved fans while also pumping a boost into the region’s economy during their inaugural North American Hockey League season.
The Tomahawks are a Tier II Junior A team comprised of up-and-coming amateur players usually ranging from ages 17 to 20.
“They have brought the War Memorial back to the forefront of many hockey enthusiasts’ destinations. They’ve grown the hockey business,” said War Memorial Acting General Manager Tom Grenell. “Their level of professionalism and what they have been doing for the region is second to none.
“This mirrors the AAABA Tournament and the Sunnehanna Amateur in that you are more apt to see a future star. These players are on their way up.”
Johnstown’s newest team played in front of seven sellout crowds at Cambria County War Memorial Arena and had the fifth-best attendance in the 24-team league that stretches from coast to coast with teams in Texas, California and Washington. The Tomahawks played in the North Division, frequently facing teams from Michigan and New York.
“It’s like a pro game on game nights,” Tomahawks President Richard Bouchard said. “The buzz has been great. The restaurants and bars downtown have been doing really well.”
The ECHL’s Johnstown Chiefs relocated to Greenville, S.C., after the 2009-10 season after playing 22 seasons in Flood City.
In the Chiefs’ absence, the War Memorial and ECHL got creative, working a two-year deal with the league’s Wheeling Nailers.
Formerly the Chiefs’ biggest rival, the Nailers played 10 of their home games in Johnstown for two seasons.
But it wasn’t quite the same as Johnstown having its own team.
That all changed when Johnstown Sports Partners LLC, a private investment group led by Esmark, Inc. Chairman and CEO James Bouchard, acquired the NAHL’s Alaska Avalanche in early May and relocated the team from Palmer, Alaska, to Johnstown.
The Bouchard brothers immediately forged a solid relationship with the region’s business community and especially the hockey fans. Richard Bouchard brought in former Chiefs standouts Rick Boyd and Jason Spence to serve as general manager and head coach, respectively. Former Chiefs stars Jean Desrochers and Joe Tallari also took on prominent roles with the team.
Local native and four-time Super Bowl winning Steeler Jack Ham and former NFL player Shane Conlan each joined the ownership group as well as local businessman Jim Vasilko.
The Tomahawks made a commitment to invest $100,000 to market the team locally throughout a 60-game regular season and three playoff dates.
The team’s staff and young players immediately blended into the community, interacting with school students and youth hockey players.
“The entire Tomahawks organization has been extremely accessible to the youth hockey community,” veteran Westmont Hilltop High School hockey coach Art McQuillan said. “They’ve done clinics. They’ve lent their time for on-ice practices. It’s been a very positive experience for the younger kids to have access to these players that they look up to.”
The players were visible in the community.
“It’s a quality of life thing that the Tomahawks have brought to the region,” Grenell said.
The team’s financial impact hasn’t been huge for the arena – its authority estimated it only profited $8,254 for the entire season – but the team has a wider footprint than just the arena.
“Just having the team and the office and everything back here made a big impact for all of downtown,” said Scott McLachlan, who with his wife, Cindy, has owned Scott’s By Dam restaurant and bar adjacent to the War Memorial for 21 years. “You could see the difference.
“It’s a big boost to me and my business,” he added. “Not having the Chiefs here for two years … Game nights are phenomenal for me. People came back to see me. What I’m starting to see is the people who followed the Chiefs from out of town are coming back. People from Virginia, Maryland and D.C. are starting to come back. People from Pittsburgh are starting to come back. That’s a huge difference.”
The nearby Holiday Inn hosts visiting teams’ players and often attracts out-of-town fans visiting for weekend games.
“We started a partnership with the Tomahawks last summer in preparation for their first season here,” said Melissa Radovanic, Corporate Director of Sales and Marketing for Crown American Hotels. “Our agreement with them is that all of their visiting teams stay at the Holiday Inn. From a spectator standpoint, a lot of times on game night, Harrigan’s (cafe) would get very busy. Also, after the game, Harrigan’s also was very busy.
“You’d see people going into the businesses downtown. You could see the impact.”
That impact has far-reaching implications.
“We estimated it before the season to be between $4 and $5 million annually,” Bouchard said of the spinoff to the local economy. “Just being around town in the week before a game and walking around on game nights, it’s all of that and more. We’ve had groups come in from Toronto, and we’ve had groups come in from Baltimore. The parents and families come in to see the players.
“The economic impact has been tremendous and it’s going to continue to grow.”
Mario and the Hansons
The Tomahawks made all the right moves away from the arena.
The first home game of the season was preceded by an outdoor festival that included a barbecue, a live band, a dunking booth and street hockey and other games for kids. Approximately 2,000 people attended the festival before heading into the sold-out game.
Pittsburgh Penguins Hall of Famer and two-time Stanley Cup winner Mario Lemieux dropped the ceremonial first puck on opening night.
The Tomahawks also had successful promotional events such as an appearance by the infamous Hanson Brothers of “Slap Shot” fame, a Jack Ham bobblehead night that included a visit by the Steelers Hall of Fame linebacker, and an autograph session with Penguins Chris Kunitz and Matt Cooke that coincided with the Stanley Cup being displayed at the arena.
“I think it has exceeded everyone’s expectations,” Grenell said.
McLachlan’s restaurant and bar is packed before and after games. Other downtown eateries also benefit from people filling the city streets.
“It’s a blast,” McLachlan said. “The hockey people mingle, and people get to meet one another and share experiences. Hockey people blend together. It helps me and it helps them. We have fun with people and that’s what you’re supposed to do.”
McLachlan roots for the hometown team, but he’s just as friendly to his visiting customers.
“I get a lot of people from the opposing teams, too,” he said. “I love my Tomahawks. I loved my Chiefs. But when the game’s over, business is business and you have to take care of people.”
The Tomahawks have influenced the young players skating at the War Memorial, Planet Ice in Richland Township and the North Central Recreation Complex in Ebensburg.
Johnstown’s players, coaches and staff actively support youth hockey. The team hosted dozens of young players before the Stanley Cup went on display at the arena so that the youngsters could have team photographs taken alongside hockey’s most coveted trophy.
“We’d like to see youth hockey springboard up because of the Tomahawks being here, much like in the 1990s when the Mario Lemieux effect occurred,” Grenell said. “Youth hockey is good for the region and good for the War Memorial.”
Richard Bouchard agreed.
“One of our top goals was to grow youth hockey in western Pennsylvania and mainly in the Johnstown area,” he said. “I’ve had numerous parents call me and tell me that they’re putting their daughters and sons into youth hockey. We’re planning some summer camps.
“We take a huge interest in growing youth hockey and using the Tomahawks name to grow Johnstown hockey.”
Even though he resides in Minnesota and travels back-and-forth to Johnstown, Richard Bouchard feels right at home here.
“The best moment for me is when the fans of Johnstown come up to me and say, ‘Thanks for bringing hockey back to Johnstown,’” he said. “It started the first week of the season, and it still happens now. I can see in their eyes what hockey means to them and it’s very gratifying for the ownership group to see what this means to the people of Johnstown.”