By Todd Franko (Contact)
Published February 2, 2009
I spend too many hours on the road for youth hockey. But doing so keeps me out of trouble — and housework. Sunday, I was in Johnstown, Pa. for my 8-year-old son’s game.
Johnstown is also home to a minor league hockey team, the Johnstown Chiefs. They play in the same league — the ECHL — that some in Youngstown would like to see as a tenant at the Chevrolet Centre.
Two words distinguish Johnstown minor league hockey from the other cities that host minor league hockey teams such as Wheeling, Wilkes Barre, Dayton and Toledo: “Slap Shot.”
If you are unaware of “Slap Shot,” click here.
Actual movie clips that are absent of profanity are nearly impossible to find.
The 1977 movie is to hockey what “Caddyshack” is to golf and “Major League” is to baseball (Those latter movies still rank behind “Slap Shot” in most folks’ list of favorite sports movies of all time).
Thus, minor league hockey is as attached to Johnstown as golf is to Augusta, baseball is to Cooperstown and football is to Canton.
So imagine my bemusement with the following conversation.
Before our 8-year-olds game on Sunday, I was talking to the other team’s coach at the Cambria County War Memorial Arena. The arena, a 1940s version of the Chevrolet Centre, is where the movie was filmed and houses a mini museum for “Slap Shot.”
The team we played was actually here in Youngstown the week before to play us. The coach said he went to check out a Mahoning Valley Phantoms game at the Chevy Centre.
“That’s the kind of hockey I wish would come here.”
Huh? Say that again?
I laughed and said that you probably don’t know this, but this hockey (Johnstown minor league hockey) is the kind that some Youngstown leaders want to bring to Youngstown.
The guy winced at the thought. The Johnstown team pulls up to 1,700 people on good nights, he said. That’s it. And he said it is just not good hockey.
Now that’s just one guy’s opinion. But note that the guy has coached the Johnstown area high school hockey squad for 20 years. And in the early 1970s, he also housed the player whose hockey stories inspired his sister to write “Slap Shot.”
So he’s been hit in the head a few times with pucks and sticks.
And his opinion is that top junior hockey would be better for his city than low-level minor league hockey.
The Youngstown hockey debate is nearing a fork in the road as plans for the 2009-10 season start to get sealed at the league management level of things. Contracts need to be signed, etc.
Bruce Zoldan, who owns the Phantoms and is involved in discussions for future hockey at the Chevy, would like to keep Youngstown a junior hockey city.
Junior hockey is high-level amateur hockey in a way that Division I football is high-amateur competition.
The current Phantoms by no means are the hockey equivalent to Jim Tressel’s Ohio State Buckeyes. But their skill level could draw parallels to the Akron or Bowling Green football programs.
As there are varying levels of Division I football, there are varying levels of junior hockey. There are two higher levels of junior hockey than the current level here. Those levels would get you a competitive atmosphere more equal to Tressel’s Buckeyes, or at least Dave Wannstedt’s University of Pittsburgh football. That’s the level of hockey Zoldan would pursue, from what I hear.
But there are some city leaders eager to apply the term “professional” to any sporting effort brought to the Chevy, including hockey. They want a minor league team here.
By that distorted measure, you could reason that the strippers at Babylon in Austintown are professional dancers.
Does that make them worthy to bring into the DeYor Performing Arts for a dance event?