Lacing Up: Filling the Void
In remembrance of the late Ashley Gallant, originator of “Lacing Up,” Matt Paul, Joshua Neal, and, at times, guest writers will hold a week-long email discussion, which will be published on FF Monday mornings. If you have any topics you would like to see us discuss, or if you would like to be a guest in our series, please let us know through the comments section below or on our Contact page, linked at the top of FF.
Joshua Neal Well, Matt, it’s time to get fired up with another edition of Lacing Up as we approach the Christmas holiday. Usually, the best part of the long break for students from school, adults from work, and families from the normal monotonies that separate them is enriched by the ability to catch a hockey game, whether in person or on the television. Personally, I loved coming home for Christmas break because it meant I could sit in front of the television and take in a game with my whole family. Despite the fact that I’d watch the other 78-or-so games at school or on my own, being able to watch the games over Christmas break was always a treat for the other 4. This year, that’s not going to happen… at least on an NHL level. So, Matt, since this is a hockey blog and it’s safe to assume the readership here shares similar sentiments, let’s talk about some alternative outlets to see some hockey – both over the Christmas season as well as we enter into a new year. Let’s start closest to home (for us), which happens to be a new development in hockey even in the face of the NHL’s issues: the Johnstown Tomahawks. Matt, want to talk about what to expect if you’re looking to take the family out for a game?
Matt Paul: It really is a shame, Josh, that this holiday season won’t be capped off with the Winter Classic. Not much beats a hockey game, a Christmas tree, and a bottle of beer (if you’re not too hung over) on New Year’s Day. But, as you mentioned, the lack of an NHL season may be a bummer, but we have alternatives.
In Johnstown, for example, the recently relocated Tomahawks have put together an impressive inaugural season to date, owning a 15-8-6 record, good for fourth place in the NAHL’s North Division. I can’t speak from experience, Josh, as I haven’t yet been to a game (shockingly), but I can say that those who have been to games have left excited. Not only is the on ice product good and the ticket prices reasonable, but the auxiliary entertainment and promotions are fantastic.
Take, for example, this past weekend. On Thursday, the Hanson Brothers of “Slapshot” fame, with the help of the Tomahawks, hosted a viewing party at Westwood Plaza Theatre. The next night, they were on hand to entertain the crowd as the Tomahawks shut out the 2nd place Jamestown Ironmen 5-0. Then, the following night, the Stanley Cup was on display, while Pittsburgh Penguin forwards Matt Cooke and Chris Kunitz watched the game, greeted fans, and signed autographs. Everything put together has helped the team draw an average of 2,217 fans per home game, good for fifth in the league.
But for those not in Johnstown, a trip to the “Flood City” might not be the most appealing, so let’s talk about another option at the pro level: the Wheeling Nailers (which spent years as a Johnstown Chiefs rival and more recently as an adopted team for Johnstown’s ECHL fans).
Josh: The ECHL entertained hockey fans from the Johnstown area for many years, as you’ve mentioned, the Chiefs (of Hanson Brothers’ fame) called the city home for quite some time. News came through that the team would be moving to Greenville, South Carolina, and so it was. The nice thing about the Tomahawks is that Johnstown once again has hockey – and it’s great to hear that the Tomahawks have been competitive. As you’ve noted, the Wheeling Nailers play in the same ECHL circuit as the Chiefs and are a convenient adopted team for held-over Chiefs fans. They were even gracious enough to come play a few of their own home games in the Johnstown War Memorial last season. Though that won’t be happening this year, the trip out to Wheeling, WV is a relatively easy and quick one.
Though the Nailers haven’t been competitive this year with their on-ice product (8-10-2-3 in 23 games this year), the entertainment value of the game of hockey is something that remains at all levels of the game. These are professional players and the games tend to be pretty fast-paced and high-scoring. So if Wheeling is a closer drive for you, or if you’re looking for something at the ECHL level, the Nailers and WesBanco Arena might be a good place to look around. Tickets are incredibly reasonable, and the promotions are great as well. If you’ve got a fever, and the only prescription is “more cowbell,” the team does a New Year’s Eve Wheeling Nailers Cowbell giveaway. Hard to beat that.
But the area isn’t just restricted to professional hockey, Matt. There are some pretty competitive collegiate hockey clubs around the area as well. The first that jumps to mind is Robert Morris University. Care to talk about them at all?
Matt: Josh, I’d be glad to get into some college hockey talk, but my knowledge is limited to knowing of some local programs, so I might have to introduce those teams and then toss to you.
As you mentioned, the RMU Colonials have a well-established team that is becoming a quality producer of NHL hopefuls. Former FF writer Andrew Chiappazzi has dedicated much of his time to developing Colonials Corner, a blog dedicated to all Colonials sports — but no doubt, he focuses a lot of energy on the hockey program.
Moving eastward, there’s a new team on the block at Penn State University, where the Nitanny Lions are in the inaugural season of what could become a powerhouse at the Division I level. Sitting in the middle of the Pittsburgh and Philadelphia NHL markets, PSU is in a prime location to use its name recognition to draw top-notch recruits.
Josh, beyond my weak introductions, what can you add?
Josh: Well, Matt, I know that RMU plays some very high level collegiate hockey, and as you’ve mentioned, they’ve sent some players on to the next level. In our area, though, I think that the Division I program at Penn State might be the bigger news and perhaps a bigger draw for a school with a much larger alumni network/athletic following. A well populated state like Pennsylvania has the unique distinction of keeping most of that population on either side of the state, without too many big cities in between. Penn State couldn’t be more centrally located, and the program will certainly become very popular with the recent increase in popularity that NHL hockey has had. Hopefully the lockout doesn’t reverse this progress, because I think that the Penn State program could really inspire high school level hockey all the way down to youth hockey to become even bigger here in Central Pennsylvania. Interestingly, Pens fans have probably heard that there is a big connection between the Penguins’ past and the PSU program: namely, that former player and former head coach Ed Olcyzk’s son, Tommy serves as captain. Whether your memories of Edzo be fond or not-so-much-so, it’s nice to see someone with some level of ties to the area usher in a new “hockey era” of sorts in Central Pennsylvania. Matt, anything in closing before we wrap up this week’s edition?
Matt: Josh, there’s one other way for hockey fans to catch some puck in the coming days/weeks. The Ice Hockey World U20 World Championships begin on December 26 in Russia, and while I don’t expect many locals to be in attendance, a good number of the games are scheduled to be on the NHL Network. And, if watching highly-skilled future NHL stars wasn’t exciting enough, there are four Pittsburgh-local players fighting for roster spots on Team USA: J.T. Miller and John Gibson return from last year, while Vince Trocheck and Riley Barber join the mix for the first time. For a real good read on these players, check out the Penguins web site. It’s also worth checking out the IIHF web site for team/roster and tournament information and the NHL Network web site for television scheduling.