The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

Tomahawks

December 16, 2012

MIKE MASTOVICH | ’Hawks making ‘All the Right Moves’

JOHNSTOWN — The Johnstown Tomahawks celebrated a “Slap Shot” extravaganza as part of a special weekend at Cambria County War Memorial Arena.

But the NAHL Tier II Junior A team has followed a script from another motion picture filmed in Johnstown, as the Tomahawks seemingly have made “All The Right Moves” this season.

You want star power?

The Tomahawks had Pittsburgh Penguins Matt Cooke and Chris Kunitz in the building on Saturday night along with the coveted Stanley Cup. On the ice, coach Jason Spence’s boys skated against first-place Jamestown (N.Y.).

The popular Teddy Bear Toss to benefit Toys for Tots coincided with the first Johnstown goal. Santa Claus also made an appearance to check his naughty and nice list.

Of course, a night earlier, Johnstown’s favorite hockey sons, the bespectacled Hanson Brothers, owned the arena during a 5-0 victory over Jamestown.

Dave Hanson and real-life brothers Steve and Jeff Carlson had a crowd of 3,388 on their feet and cheering throughout their pregame and first-intermission routine. Many fans donned black-rimmed glasses to pay homage to the Hansons. Some wore shoulder-length wigs, a style statement paying homage to the Hansons’ long locks.

“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 Tomahawks President Richard Bouchard.

This certainly was a monumental hockey weekend at the War Memorial. But it’s not exactly out of the ordinary for the Tomahawks, a first-year organization that has displayed savvy and class while executing a number of quality promotions, giveaways and community-oriented activities.

Remember, Mario Lemieux dropped the ceremonial first puck for the Tomahawks’ home opener. How many times do you see a legend such as No. 66 perform in such a role? Even before Mario stepped onto the ice, a pyrotechnics display unlike any previously seen at the War Memorial wowed the fans.

The HockeyFest held outside the War Memorial in the hours leading up to the home opener was simply an extraordinary event.

The Hawks’ organizational skills and planning were evident in all the small and big details of an outdoor event that attracted some 2,000 fans who sampled barbecue, purchased Tomahawks merchandise, played street hockey, listened to a rock band and even had a shot at drenching “Chicken Charlie” in a dunking booth.

The feel-good event served as a reunion with many former Johnstown Chiefs fans and staff mingling among new hockey fans on Napoleon Street.

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

As someone who covered 19 homegrown ECHL seasons and two import ECHL abbreviated schedules since 1991-92, I admit, the Tomahawks’ ownership, administration and staff have truly impressed me.

The first clue surfaced at one of their well-run media conferences during the summer. All the details were covered. Seating. A front table with name tags in front of the six or eight participants. Two large televisions showing NAHL highlights. Prominently displayed logos.

A few weeks later in August, the Tomahawks held a “Select-a-Seat Open House” at the arena. Penguins broadcaster and three-time Stanley Cup ring-owner Phil Bourque was the featured guest. Bourque signed autographs for hundreds of fans and then told stories about his first training camp with the Penguins, which was held 30 years earlier at the War Memorial.

Most of the arena floor – the ice was down – bustled with activities with tables set up for merchandise and ticket sales, coloring for younger children and chances to shoot pucks at nets set up for older kids. The then-new logo was displayed prominently and Chopper, the new red eagle mascot, greeted fans.

Once again, the details were covered.

People have noticed.

“The community has been absolutely phenomenal. I stand and hand out programs at the games,” Bouchard said. “I watch all the Tomahawks jerseys, shirts and hats coming in. The fans really appreciate hockey being back here and they’ve really taken to our team. They’ve taken to the talent level. They get it.”

That’s right. The team president hands out programs and greats fans at the turnstiles.

Of course, the most important piece to the puzzle is what it’s all about – the hockey.

Coach Jason Spence’s Hawks have stepped up in that area, too, winning eight of nine contests prior to Saturday’s game against first-place Jamestown (N.Y.). The Tomahawks had an 8-3-2 home record.

Meanwhile, the Tomahawks’ attendance climbed to an average of 2,101 prior to Saturday’s sellout crowd of 3,725. Johns-town ranked sixth in the

24-team league in average attendance and led the North Division.

Bouchard always believed if fans accustomed to the pro game gave the Tomahawks a look, the team would win over the skeptics. After 22 ECHL seasons of the Johnstown Chiefs and decades of pro history involving the Johnstown Jets, Wings and Red Wings, Bouchard realized it would take time.

“That was a challenge. They didn’t know what the level of hockey was in our league,” Bouchard said. “They didn’t realize what great people our players are and how they were going to go into the community and do the things they’ve been doing like going to the hospitals and the schools.

“My challenge was just to get them to a game and see what these young men are about,” he added. “The Johnstown people are the most intelligent fans in our league. They know what hockey is about. They know about talent. When people came to the games they saw the talent level.”

They saw, and many keep coming back to see the Tomahawks’ next moves.

Mike Mastovich is a sports writer for The Tribune-Democrat.

 

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