For the Mirror
JOHNSTOWN - Jesse Stuver loves hockey.
He has had at least four center-ice season tickets at the Cambria County War Memorial since 1998, and those same seats have been occupied by his family for nearly 50 years.
Johnstown Tomahawks goaltender Chris Truehl makes a save against Port Huron during a game on Dec. 15.
When the last large-scale renovation was done to the building, the old seats were put up for sale, Stuver, 34 of Johnstown said.
"We even bought those seats," he said. "And, we still have them."
But the Chiefs left town and relocated to Greenville S.C. in 2010, creating a two-plus year hiatus from having a hometown hockey team. Stuver said he was ready for a new team to call Johnstown home.
"I think the town was ready for hockey, too," he said.
Luckily for local fans, it was announced in April that the Tomahawks would be that new hometown team.
But Tomahawks President Rick Bouchard faced a significant challenge getting fans to buy into junior hockey after so many years of professional hockey, albeit at the minor-league level.
"The challenge was educating fans what junior hockey was and educating them to the talent level these players play at," he said.
Head coach Jason Spence, who played for the Chiefs for seven seasons, said that junior players, ranging in ages between 16 and 20, play a more exciting style of hockey than the Chiefs did.
The Chiefs, and (and prior to them, the Johnstown Jets), participated in various minor leagues, such as the East Coast Hockey League, that were affiliated the National Hockey League teams and featured professional players.
Junior players are not paid and are housed by Johnstown-area families.
"Speed and quickness are a great part of the game. The players aren't playing for money, and many are playing to try and get a scholarship," Spence said.
"There are scouts at every game from Division I colleges. They are always being watched. With the scouts being there, they can't take a shift off, and I think the Johnstown community has really liked watching that work ethic."
Stuver said affordable ticket prices, which range from $6 to $12, also add to the appeal. The Tomahawks are averaging 2,217, fifth-best in the North American Hockey League.
"I think it's fair," he said. "It's an affordable night, and there's good hockey."
Bouchard said that fans bought in to the fast-paced play style quickly because fans in the area appreciate good hockey.
He also attributed much of the early success to community involvement and appealing promotions.
"We knew we had to reach out to the community, and we promised we would bring some excited things," he said.
Bouchard said that he set a goal for the team to help grow the game on all levels near Johnstown and for the team to get involved in the community.
Some players have done that by working at local businesses and visiting hospitals and schools.
"That's just the type of people we have and the type of players we will continue to have," he said.
The Pittsburgh Penguins involvement in promotions has been a big draw for fans, according to Bouchard.
"The Penguins have been very supportive of what we've been trying to do here," he said. "We had Mario Lemieux drop the puck, Matt Cooke and Chris Kunitz sign autographs, and we had the Stanley Cup here. We're working on some really cool things. We plan on staying involved with the Penguins."
Local businessmen and women have also reached out to the team, helping to keep revenue coming in, Bouchard said.
Stuver, manager of Stuver's Riverside Nursery in Johnstown, said that his family's business is the Tomahawks sponsor for their "three stars of the game."
"As a family we do what we can to help local businesses, and this is a local business," he said.
Stuver said that he thinks Tomahawks support will continue, adding that management is greatly responsible.
"They're run well on and off the ice," he said. "Everything seems more organized."
Bouchard said a Jack Ham bobblehead night is planned for February. Ham is one of the team's owners, along with former NFL player Shane Conlan.
Once the team set its foundation and got support in Johnstown, Bouchard said it was important to reach out to surrounding areas, including Altoona.
The Tomahawks (16-9-6) have scheduled an Altoona community day on Sunday at 6 p.m. against division foe Kalamazoo.
"We reached out to the Altoona Curve, and they've helped support us. We'll help support them too," he said. "The Curve does such a tremendous job, and they've given us ideas to help grow our fan base."