Ex-Pen Guerin is a hit in opener

JOHNSTOWN – Bill Guerin’s pregame speech to the Johnstown Tomahawks was short, poignant and certainly meant only for inside a hockey locker room.

More than 20 sets of young eyes stared intently as the four-time NHL All Star and US Hockey Hall of Famer chose his few words carefully as he paced the home locker room of the Cambria County War Memorial Arena.

Again, these words are meant only for inside a hockey locker room.

“It’s great,” Guerin said, “you walk in and they’re just kind of blank faces. For them, they’re getting ready to play a game so they’re focused, I don’t even know if they listened to what I said. They’re focused, these guys. And I’m looking forward to a good game.”

The Tomahawks lost the opener, 3-1, to Port Huron.

Port Huron and Johnstown play again at 3 p.m. today.

Guerin was in town to drop the ceremonial first puck on the Johnstown Tomahawks’ second season. He did so in a red Tomahawks home jersey with Guerin on the nameplate and No. 13 on the back. Tickets were sold for a chance to win the jersey.

Guerin was a trade-deadline acquisition for the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2009, helping the Penguins to the franchise’s third Stanley Cup.

Asked what it might be like for a young hockey player to meet a player of Bill Guerin’s stature, the humble Hall-of-Famer said, “I don’t know about my stature, but an NHLer I don’t know if I ever met an NHLer until I played in the NHL, but whatever I can do to influence somebody’s game or career. It’s nice to come and give back, to get involved in local hockey teams and communities. The [Tomahawks owners] are friends from Sewickley and they asked me to do it and I jumped at the opportunity.”

The actual puck drop was delayed about 40 minutes after the pregame fireworks display filled the arena with smoke. The display was impressive, and the smoke clouded fans’ view of the former Penguins forward as he stood at center ice with the team captains.

The second season of junior hockey in Johnstown started with a bang and continued into the night with fast, hard-hitting hockey.

“[The owners] do things one way and that’s first class,” Guerin said. “It’s not just for fun. They create a good environment they create a good opportunity for these young kids and that’s great. They put a lot of money into it and they want to see it be successful. This community’s got a rich hockey tradition and people know about Johnstown all over the world. It’s a place that should always have a hockey team.”

The Tomahawks second season is still only the beginning according to War Memorial General Manager Tom Grenell.

“This is the beginning of something very special,” he said. “I think they were able to go out and build up and show that they are a premium franchise with premium quality players. I’m expecting much faster hockey this year and I’m expecting it to domino down to youth hockey. We offer affordable tickets across the board.”

Saturday’s game was attended by 3,025 fans. They were loud, energetic and clad in red, white and black Tomahawks gear.

“We would like this to become a five-county regional asset, not just the Johnstown Tomahawks,” Grenell said. “I think it fits in nicely with Penn State going Division 1. Some of these kids are likely to end up at Penn State. How cool would it be to see an 18-year old play here and then as a 19-year old at Penn State?”

The off-ice product is almost as good as the on-ice draw.

“We like to do some Altoona Curve-like things at the game,” Grenell said. “We’re trying to create more than just an event. We’re trying to make this a destination. Tomahawks games at the War Memorial are a destination for everyone.”

Before being drafted fifth overall by the New Jersey Devils in the 1989 NHL entry draft, Guerin played two years at Boston College. Before that, Saturday’s guest of honor played juniors throughout North America, living a life much like the young Tomahawks players.

“I can relate because I did it,” Guerin said. “And I sat in locker rooms like that and worse; long bus trips, weekend trips and week-long trips. That’s the bond that hockey players have, we’ve all done that, so you can relate to each other no matter what age you are or what level you get to.”

George Lugar of Johnstown, winner of the Bill Guerin autographed jersey, said of Tomahawks games, “It’s good hockey, and it’s something fun to do. These kids play with a lot of heart. It was great winning the jersey, but I got to get a picture with my kids and Billy Guerin. That was better. That will be a better memory than a signature.”