Carolyn Kaster/Associated Press
Carolyn Kaster/Associated Press
PITTSBURGH — The gritty western Pennsylvania city whose rich minor league hockey history helped inspire the cult movie hit “Slap Shot” is getting another chance to support a hockey team.
A group of investors is relocating a junior league franchise from Alaska to Johnstown, where the comedy movie about a minor league hockey team that turns to violent play to gain interest in a failing factory town was filmed.
James Bouchard, the chairman and chief executive of private investment firm Esmark Inc., is heading the deal bringing the North American Hockey League’s Alaska Avalanche to Johnstown, about 60 miles east of Pittsburgh.
Bouchard’s group, Johnstown Sports Partners LLC, announced the deal at a news conference Thursday in a ticket lobby packed with fans and local dignitaries at the Cambria County War Memorial Arena, where the yet-to-be-renamed team will play.
“Slap Shot” was based on the Johnstown Jets and released the year the team folded, 1977. The movie starred Paul Newman as player/coach of the fictional Charlestown Chiefs, and much of it was filmed in the city and the 4,000-seat War Memorial Arena.
The movie helped inspire a group to found the Johnstown Chiefs, another minor league team, in 1988. The Chiefs never turned a profit in the flood-ravaged, former steel town before moving to Greenville, S.C., in the ECHL two years ago.
“When you say `Slap Shot’ and Johnstown, it’s nationally recognized,” Bouchard told The Associated Press. “We’re going to play up on the heritage of the movie and all that stuff.”
Bouchard said the city’s hockey history has left it with “pent-up demand. You’ve got a lot of people that love hockey from when the Chiefs and the Jets were here.”
Although the team has yet to announce a new logo or team name, Bouchard has hired two former Chiefs players to key positions. Former tough guy Rick Boyd is the general manager and director of hockey operations, while Jean Desrochers is director of business operations.
The team can’t use the name Chiefs, which is still owned by the ECHL, and the NAHL already has a franchise named the Jets, in Janesville, Wis. The team needs to pick another name, colors, and a logo by next week in order for uniforms to be ready for the 56-game season beginning this fall.
Hockey in Johnstown pre-dates America’s involvement in World War II. The minor league Johnstown Bluebirds played in the defunct Eastern Hockey League in 1941 and 1942 until the military draft intervened.
The Jets were founded in 1950 and played in three minor leagues until they folded in 1977, after the city’s third historic flood (two others in 1889 and 1936 each nearly destroyed the city). The 1977 flood dealt a near crushing blow to the local economy and badly damaged the ice-making equipment at the War Memorial, situated next to the Conemaugh River.
The NAHL team is steps below minor league. Players aren’t paid, although the team covers some of their expenses. The new owners are hoping lower overhead will help keep ticket prices low for a city with a median household income of about $21,000.
Bouchard said kids 5 and under will get in free, while students, veterans and active-duty military will pay $8. Adults will pay $10 or $12, depending on the seat. He estimates 28 homes games will pump up to $4 million into the local economy each year.
The league’s players are typically 16 to 20 years old. They will likely live with local families and attend high schools or community colleges while playing for a shot with a major college, minor league or higher level junior team. Bouchard, whose 17-year-old son plays hockey for a Pittsburgh-area school district and a club team, says major colleges increasingly look to junior teams to supply scholarship-ready talent.
Patrick Kane of the Chicago Blackhawks and Tim Thomas of the Boston Bruins are among the National Hockey League players who got their start in the NAHL, which has 27 teams in 14 states and the Canadian province of British Columbia.
Scott McLachlan already considers himself a fan.
McLachlan has run his self-named Scott’s By Dam Bar, the city’s unofficial game-day hangout, for 20 years. Home and visiting fans packed his bar before and after Chiefs games — he estimates he lost $50,000 a year in revenue when the team moved to South Carolina — and he’s excited about rooting for and sponsoring the new team. In a tiny market like Johnstown, sponsorships sometimes take the form of in-kind contributions, like meals.
“If I can feed the team, I’ll feed the team,” McLachlan said. “I’ve already talked to one of the gentlemen involved with the new team and told him we’re willing to help the team any way that we can.
“I’m just excited there’s going to be hockey in the War Memorial.”