Hockey: Pa. city losing hockey team, just like ’Slap Shot’
By JOE MANDAK
Associated Press Writer
JOHNSTOWN, Pa. — In the 1977 cult hit movie “Slap Shot,” when player/coach Reggie Dunlop learns his minor-league hockey team will fold, he boosts player morale by planting a phony story in the local paper: The Charlestown Chiefs are moving south.
And now, 22 years after they were founded in a moment of inspiration from the film, the real-life Johnstown Chiefs really are moving to Greenville, S.C.
But the move is doing anything but boosting the morale of this gritty town, where the economy and its people never recovered from the steel industry meltdown of the 1970s and the last of three titanic floods.
The movie, starring Paul Newman, was shot in Johnstown as a barely disguised homage to the beloved Johnstown Jets. The team folded the year the movie was released, after floodwaters damaged ice-making equipment at the team’s riverside arena.
The Johnstown Chiefs were founded in 1988, and a succession of owners has labored to keep the team alive, largely because “Slap Shot” stoked interest in the city’s tragicomic love affair with what the movie called “old-time hockey.”
“’Slap Shot’ was a big factor in me, personally, having the team here, owning the team,” said majority owner and head coach Neil Smith, 56, who played for the New York Islanders’ farm system. “I was fascinated by that: the original building, the small town, the whole thing.”
Formerly the general manager who led the New York Rangers to their last Stanley Cup championship in 1994, Smith bought the cash-strapped Chiefs in 2002. He promised not to move them for at least two seasons but sought a local buyer sentimental enough to keep the team in town and rich enough to write off the team’s perennial losses.
(Movie irony: The rich owner in “Slap Shot” folded the team as a tax write-off.)
Trouble is, hockey in rough-and-tumble Johnstown, about 60 miles east of Pittsburgh, sells better on DVD these days. Now, Smith’s pipe dream is selling out the team’s farewell game Saturday at the 4,001-seat arena, built in 1950.
Despite a top ticket of $14 and no seat more than 15 rows from the ice, the Chiefs have only 900 season ticket holders and appeared lucky to draw two-thirds as many fans on a recent Wednesday night. Smith needed 2,700 fans each night to break even.
The Chiefs have rarely been a winner and, reportedly, never a moneymaker. What’s unclear is whether a rebound is on the horizon.
The movie was set in the fictional Federal League. But a Federal League also exists on paper and hopes to begin play in the fall with a team in Johnstown, commissioner Don Kirnan said.
Smith’s minority partner, attorney Ned Nakles, is selling his 10 percent share but forming a nonprofit to retain rights to the Chiefs name, logo, records and statistics — just in case.
Given Smith’s battles with various partners (he’s suing one group for $300,000 in allegedly unpaid bills) and a rugged economy, it’s surprising the Chiefs have lasted as long as they have.
Living amid that economic reality is Bill Felix, who owns a candy store down the street.
“Eleven dollars, seven dollars, seven dollars ... ,” he drones, ticking off sales figures for recent days, recounting chilly nights spent in a sleeping bag in the back room of his run-down store.
Bad news? Sure, but it’s the Chiefs’ move that brings tears to his eyes.
“The first day (I heard of the move), I was in a lot of depression — more than the business, the recession, you know, the non-important things,” he said with a wry smile. “Losing the Chiefs, you couldn’t go any lower than what was happening in the world.”
But Smith, who named himself head coach to save time and money when his predecessor left this season, hasn’t been cast as the villain.
“I can stand there behind the bench, if you can imagine, and I’ve never had a negative word said,” Smith said. “That’s a real credit to the people of Johnstown.”
That includes Scott McLachlan, who has run Scott’s By Dam Bar, the city’s unofficial game-day hangout, for 18 years. Fans from both sides pack his tavern before and after home games, and he feeds most opposing teams. Thankfully, the mortgage is paid.
“I’m gonna lose probably about 30 to 40 percent — between $80,000 and $100,000 a year I’m gonna lose” when the Chiefs leave, McLachlan said.
Reg Kent and his wife, Barbara, are game-day regulars.
Kent inspired Paul Newman’s Reg Dunlop character, and taught the actor how to use a hockey stick. Kent was the Jets’ leading scorer for several of his nine seasons in the 1960s and 70s, when players were local matinee idols.
“I started back in ’65 when the town was vibrant: The mills were working around the clock; the mines were ’round the clock,” Kent said. “There’s been a pretty big change here in this town.
“It’s just kind of a slow death.”