Somewhere, Reggie Dunlop is spinning in his grave.
In a scene straight out of the last reel of the classic hockey movie Slapshot, Johnstown Chiefs owner and former New York Rangers GM Neil Smith announced that the team would move to Greenville, S.C., for the beginning of the 2010-2011 season. Just as in the movie, the Chiefs died at the box office right along with a steel town whose economy had nothing left to give.
Where are the Hanson brothers when you need them?
Johnstown's place in hockey lore is safe forever thanks to the 1977 flick, starring Paul Newman (who did all of his own skating and on-ice stunt work for the film). But 60 years of hockey history will end on Sat., Apr. 2, when the final horn sounds at the ancient Johnstown War Memorial.
Pro hockey in Johnstown survived through those 60 years and three leagues. But it could not survive the latest economic downturn. Neil Smith had been trying to find local investors to take the club off of his hands, but found no interested parties. The Chiefs almost didn't take the ice this season after they lost their NHL affiliations and a ton of money. But they were spared by one of Smith's New York buddies, who was able to write a big enough check to carry on another year.
Attendance has cratered this season, with an average of just 1,975 fans through this past weekend. The team has been largely out of the playoff hunt since the first week of the season, playing mostly with players on loan from other organizations or signed as free agents. The team's lease on the War Memorial ends after this season and there is nothing to recommend the old building save the ghosts of hockey past.
While the end is sad, it was a while in coming. The city's steel industry gave out for good in the late 1970s and early 80s and new high-tech industries took hold in State College some 50 miles to the east.
While hockey is undergoing its second great boom in the Pittsburgh area 50 miles to the west, the only spill over in the Johnstown area has been at the high school level and Penguin games on FSN (Fox Sports Network).
The future isn't that bright either. The Penguins are committed at the moment to keeping their ECHL affiliate in Wheeling, W.Va., in order to keep the Columbus Blue Jackets from claiming the panhandle of West Virginia and Eastern Ohio as their territory.
The Flyers and Capitals are intent on keeping their AA-level talent closer to home. Unless the state of Pennsylvania gets directly involved as it did in locating the Pens' AHL affiliate in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, there is no future in Johnstown.
The Chiefs were the last ECHL team still standing in its original city. They'll pack up next season for Greenville, which had a team in the early part of this decade and actually won the Kelly Cup in 2002. But Greenville has precious little hockey history, and the team folded when it hit its first off-ice speed bump in 2006, when attendance wasn't any better than it is presently in Johnstown.
It's the nature of minor league hockey for teams and leagues to come and go as passing fancies. But when they park the Zamboni for the last time some day in South Carolina, they won't be leaving behind the history they did in Johnstown.