BY ETHAN BLOUGH
About 13 years ago, Jason Spence ran through the tunnel and skated onto the Cambria County War Memorial Arena Ice for the first time.
Spence still remembers his debut with the ECHL’s Johnstown Chiefs well.
On Saturday, he’ll likely shuffle along the dasher boards in dress shoes en route to his perch behind the bench of the new team in town – the Johnstown Tomahawks.
And today, Spence will walk the red carpet to center ice to drop the ceremonial first puck for the Slapshot Cup Adult Hockey Tournament.
“Spinner,” as he’s been affectionately called in town for years, is the 2012 tournament honoree, given annually to someone who has positively influenced the Johnstown hockey community.
“He fits the criteria perfectly,” said tournament director Josh Piro. “He had a successful hockey career playing for the Chiefs, and he’s done a lot in the community as well. This was the perfect year to honor him after being named the Johnstown Tomahawks first head coach. He definitely has had a positive impact on and off the ice in Johnstown.”
Spence’s Chiefs career lasted from 1999 to 2009. He made stops in the AHL and his coaching career took him to Greenville, S.C., but otherwise, his entire playing career from 1999 to 2009 has been spent in the Flood City.
“This is a huge honor,” Spence said of the recognition. “I made Johnstown my home many years ago and I met my wife, Marcie, here. This city means a whole lot to me and I love to give back to it any way I can.”
After growing up in a small farming and fishing community in Canada, Spence said he could always relate to the fans and he thought the fans related to him as well.
“People say I always treated the fans really well,” he said. “But you treat people how they treat you, and I’ve always been treated well by everybody in town and I felt welcomed since the day I got here. I was always myself and I didn’t ever try to hide anything.”
Spence’s career as a Chiefs forward didn’t last as long as he would have liked – 262 games over seven seasons. But that didn’t stop him from embracing the community after his playing days ended.
He stayed with the Chiefs as director of community relations in 2009-10, before being named assistant coach later that year. He also stayed with the team during the move to Greenville before being named the Tomahawks coach earlier this summer.
“One thing with my career is I wish I would have stayed a little more healthy,” said Spence, who tallied 24 goals and accumulated 773 penalty minutes in 262 regular-season games with the Chiefs. “But when I was going through some down times with injuries, people in the city helped me out. They kind of pick you back up when you’re low.
“Some of the best times of my life have been here. I’ve lived here in Johnstown over a third of my life. It’s as much home to me as anywhere else.”
The 33-year-old Southmont resident was the definition of a fan favorite during his days as No. 20 in a Chiefs jersey. With more than 1,100 professional penalty minutes and 763 penalty minutes in 131 games in the QMJHL, Spence knows something about playing tough hockey.
And now he’s going to be coaching it.
“It’s a different league, but it’s still Johnstown hockey,” he said. “The players and the team know it’s a certain brand of hockey the fans want here. It’s hard hockey, blue collar. And that’s the type of team we have.”
Johnstown hockey fans would expect nothing else from a Spence-coached team.
The soft-spoken, good-hearted Spence will be heard throughout North American hockey rinks screaming directions at his young charges.
“I’m loud,” he said, “But, I’m constructive too.”
Spence’s massive mitts – once known for pummeling ECHL faces (see hockeyfights.com) – are used now for patting players on the back, tapping them on the helmet or pointing out directions on the ice.
“I’m a personable person,” said Spence, who had 217 penalty minutes in 47 games with the 2000-01 Chiefs.
“I really do care what people think. I always wanted to get better as a player and I wanted my teammates to get better around me. As a player, I made sure I did my best to make that happen, whether leading by example or by speaking. As a coach now, I want to do the same thing and do my best to make sure the team’s prepared every game.”