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Spirit of Johnstown hockey will live on

February 17, 2010 - Neil Rudel

John Mehno, as always, did a nice job with this column on the Johnstown Chiefs set to leave for Greenville, S.C.

Though the Chiefs have struggled financially for a number of years, and been on the brink of leaving several times, this news is particularly sad for anyone who goes back a long time with hockey in Johnstown.

And that includes me.

I grew up in Johnstown, and any kid who liked sports felt a hockey influence. I didn't skate well enough to play on the ice, but street hockey -- when the side streets were glazed -- was our favorite sport. We'd be out there gliding along in hunting boots with our sticks and pucks "carrying the mail," as Mike Lange would put it.

My two brothers and our friends would play on Paulton Street and Kemmer Drive with piles of snow as goals and encourage the occasional car that came by not to wreck our "rink."  It was typically 3-on-3 with a center, defenseman and a goalie and, yes, we had a goalie stick. We'd check and occasionally drop the gloves.

Not like the Chiefs, of course.

Actually, in those days -- in the late 1960s -- it was the Johnstown Jets, and the stars were Dick Roberge, Neil Forth and Galen Head. The action was fast, and the players, though not Gordie Howe and Bobby Hull, were skilled.

Of course, there were plenty of goons, like Blake Ball, Dave Birch and Gary Wood as the fighting was part of the draw. I am not exaggerating: 35 seconds into a season opener, the Jets and Syracuse got into a bench-clearer in which shovels were needed to scape the blood from the ice.

The classic movie "Slap Shot," filmed in Johnstown in 1977, wasn't much of a stretch. 

The game was a happening in Johnstown with characters such as Fred Dryer, the PA announcer, "Johnstown goal scored by No. 11, Dick Roberge," a call that would be followed by loud horn, "assisted by ..."

The blue-line seats at the Cambria County War Memorial could be had for $3.50.

Frank Dell would call the games on WJAC (850) Radio. Hockey play-by-play is the most difficult because of the speed of the game, but when the Jets would score, there would be a slight pause as Dell scrambled for a makeshift horn (which was really an empty roll of toilet paper) and he'd toot "budoobudoo, budoobudoo, budoobudoo."

After leaving Johnstown for good in the late 1970s, I didn't get back to many games but the spirit of Johnstown hockey will always be special and actually probably helped keep the team there -- given the shrinking market -- as long as did it.

The Flood City may not have the Chiefs or even minor league hockey anymore, but it will always have great memories.

Ironically on Monday, a day after the news broke, "Slap Shot,"  was playing on the Versus Network.




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