Chiefs following the script

MIKE ZEISBERGER, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 9:10 AM ET

JOHNSTOWN, Pa. -- Having been abandoned almost two decades ago, the rotting steel mills here now serve as nothing more than rusting reminders of better economic times.

Times when the locals of Johnstown could afford a night of minor pro hockey without a second thought.

Times that now are a distant memory.

In a community that was the site of the cult 1977 flick Slap Shot, professional hockey has bolted out of town, just like the Chiefs did in the movie that made this place famous.

Plagued by abysmal crowds and mushrooming debt, majority owner Neil Smith, the GM of the 1994 Stanley Cup champion New York Rangers, is moving the East Coast Hockey League's Johnstown Chiefs to Greenville, S.C.

News of the Chiefs' departure spawned international headlines last week, so much so that the New York Times even sent a reporter here to document the franchise's final game Saturday.

Player/coach Reg Dunlop was not available for comment. Nor was Ogie Ogilthorpe, the noted goon of the Syracuse Bulldogs.

While Dunlop, portrayed by the late Paul Newman, and Ogilthorpe, played by actor Ned Dowd, were fictional characters, they developed cult followings of their own over the years.

And how about the Hanson Brothers? To this day, brothers Steve and Jack Carlson still join Dave Hanson in costume, complete with their trademark horned-rimmed glasses, to make appearances in various North American arenas.

Now, just days after the ECHL Chiefs dropped a 5-3 game to visiting Elmira to close the book on their tenure in Johnstown, people here admit they will miss the Chiefs.

But not as much as they miss receiving regular pay checks.

"The Chiefs leaving is a reflection of the economy here," Jeff Hill said Monday.

An economy that is so poor in these parts, fans no longer could find money for Chiefs tickets, even when the highest-priced seat was just $14.

Yet the legacy of the Chiefs -- Slap Shot's Charlestown Chiefs, that is -- has not been forgotten.

Just ask Hill.

Hill is the manager of The Aces, Johnstown's self-proclaimed top banquet facility. Yes, The Aces. The same watering hole that Dunlop, the Hansons and their Chief teammates frequented in the movie.

"To this day, people still stop by to take pictures," Hill said. "Amazing."

Nevertheless, the loss of the ECHL Chiefs already is being felt, even by Ace's Catering, as the place is now known.

"We invited lots of people to come celebrate here after the game Saturday," Hill said. "Not too many showed up.

"It's too bad. We've been a hockey town forever.

"And, one day, we hope to get a team back."

Washington Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau echoes those sentiments.

Boudreau, whose Caps will be just 90 kilometres west of Johnstown in Pittsburgh Tuesday to face the Penguins, lived in a rooming house here with now-Philadelphia Flyers GM Paul Holmgren in the mid-1970s.

Both were playing for the minor league Johnstown Jets at the time.

"We were treated like family," Holmgren said Monday. "It is truly sad the city will be without the sport and the team they care for so much."

Added Boudreau: "I'm hoping that another team moves in there because I know there's a very good core of hockey fans in Johnstown."

Boudreau will get his wish, at least temporarily. The Wheeling Nailers, the ECHL affiliate of the Penguins, just announced they will play one exhibition and 10 regular-season games in Johnstown next season.

Meanwhile, minority owner Ned Nakles has formed a non-profit corporation to maintain the ECHL rights to the Chiefs' name, stats and logo. He hopes the dream of reviving the franchise here one day remains alive.

So, too, does Dave Hanson, who, along with wife Sue, understandably skipped the team's final game here in order to watch their son Christian, a forward with the NHL's Maple Leafs, play the Boston Bruins at the Air Canada Centre Saturday.

Hanson, who first met Sue here, said pro hockey has had a presence in Johnstown since the 1940s. He would like to see that streak continue.

And, really, who is going to argue with one of the Hanson brothers?

Now, please pass the foil.

MIKE.ZEISBERGER@SUNMEDIA.CA


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