The Johnstown Tomahawks had a Hockey Hall of Famer in uniform Saturday night at Cambria County War Memorial Arena.
Pittsburgh Penguins legend Mario Lemieux dropped the ceremonial first puck in front of an enthusiastic and extremely loud sellout crowd of 3,721 at the Johnstown Tomahawks’ home opener.
“He came through and shook everybody’s hand,” Tomahawks coach Jason Spence said of Lemieux’s pregame visit to the home locker room.
“He thanked everybody for having him there. There were a lot of starry eyes in there, including myself.”
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Lemieux helped introduce a new era of hockey in Johnstown, which hadn’t had its own team since the Chiefs moved to Greenville, S.C., after 22 ECHL seasons in April 2010.
Lemieux wore a white Tomahawks jersey as he walked to center ice to drop the puck. The two-time Stanley Cup-winning center and member of the current Penguins ownership group then shook hands with Tomahawks captain Mitch Kontny and Michigan Warriors captain Martin Gruse.
As he left the ice, Lemieux stopped to chat with one of the youth hockey players holding a flag as part of an elaborate pregame program.
“It was a great motivation,” Tomahawks forward Cody Boyd said of Lemieux’s pregame pep talk. “Everybody’s eyes just went straight to Mario. He’s a really cool guy, really nice, polite. It was awesome. It was great to have him here.”
While Lemieux didn’t address the crowd or meet with the media, Tomahawks General Manager Rick Boyd fought back emotions as he spoke about his memories of skating onto the War Memorial ice in 1988 as a member of the inaugural Johnstown Chiefs team and how that moment changed his life. Rick Boyd is Cody’s father, and the family resides in Johnstown.
“I sat in that section over there when the Johnstown Chiefs played last game and it really tore me up,” Boyd said, holding a microphone and pointing across the arena. “It was right around that same time we started talking about how to bring hockey back to Johnstown. Two years later we’re starting a new era.”
Tomahawks majority owner Jim Bouchard purchased a NAHL Tier II Junior A franchise in Palmer, Alaska, and announced in April the team would relocate to Johnstown. Local businessman Jim Vasilko, former Alaska Avalanche owner Mark Lee and ex-NFL stars Jack Ham, a Johnstown native, and Shane Conlan also joined a group of minority owners.
Boyd and former Chiefs all-star Jean Desrochers, who is the Tomahawk’s business manager, are key parts of the operational phase of the team. The Cambria County commissioners, local leaders and businesses also stepped up to make the Tomahawks a reality over the past few months.
On Saturday, the team was welcomed home in spectacular fashion after starting the season with a 1-3-2 record on the road. Michigan won 3-2 in an overtime shootout, but the home team still earned a point in the standings.
The Tomahawks hosted a HockeyFest outside the arena. Napoleon Street was closed from Route 56 to Market Street, allowing hundreds of people to participate in a wide array of events ranging from a barbecue to street hockey for kids. A live band played in the background.
“What we need now is the ambulance circling the arena,” one fan quipped, referring to a scene from the movie “Slap Shot” filmed at the War Memorial.
An hour before the opening faceoff, lines formed as people entered the arena.
Once inside, the crowd saw an end-to-end, top-to-bottom pyrotechnics display complemented by multiple loud booms. The player introductions also featured blasts of smoke shooting from two columns and a flame bursting into the air after each player’s name was announced and he skated onto the ice.
Fireworks were set off near each goal cage. Large sparklers erupted above the ice and the white sparks cascaded from the ceiling. One of the blue lines on the ice had been specially prepared to be lit on fire. The flame extended from one half-wall across the ice to the other wall.
“When they skate through that door I want you to make them feel as welcome as you did me,” Rick Boyd said while addressing the fans, who responded to the request. “We have 26 unbelievable young men here who are here to play hockey for you guys.
“None of this would be possible without the generous support of the locals and the great ownership group. So many good people are involved. All I want to say is thank you guys so much.”