JOHNSTOWN, Pa. — Hockey has a long history in Johnstown. From the time the Cambria County War Memorial Arena was built in 1950, the Flood City has hosted many memorable teams and players. But the modern hockey scene in Johnstown owes a lot to the Johnstown Chiefs of the East Coast Hockey League.
The Chiefs were named after the fictitious Charleston Chiefs in the movie Slap Shot, which was filmed in Johnstown. They played for 21 seasons in the ECHL before relocating to Greenville, S.C. in 2010.
The Slapshot Cup tournament, held over the weekend at what is now known as First Summit Arena, was a great opportunity for hockey players from around the world to reunite and play competitive hockey. One notable group was a team of Johnstown Chiefs alumni.
Gerry Zaccaria, who was part of the initial Chiefs team in 1987-88, remembers an extremely passionate fan base in Johnstown.
“Back in the days, hockey was insane here,” Zaccaria said. “People were dying for hockey when we first came here. When the Chiefs came back to Johnstown after eight year of dormancy, the fans were absolutely starving for hockey.”
Before the Chiefs arrived in 1987, the town had gone eight years without any sort of professional hockey team. Times were hard in Johnstown back in the 198’s, Zaccaria said, but the former checking-line forward hinted that hockey helped rejuvenate the area.
“The people of Johnstown had nothing at the time,” Zaccaria said. “Everything shut down. The mills shut down, the people were depressed. Hockey helped heal that.”
Zaccaria remembered a time when thousands of people crammed into War Memorial Arena. The Chiefs were so popular, Zaccaria said, that tickets to attend a Chiefs game were hard to come by.
“Thousands of people used to line up outside the arena,” Zaccaria said. “Most of them didn’t get in. So many people game to these games and the house was always full. There was never a dull moment here.”
REUNITED AND IT FEELS SO GOOD
The Slapshot Cup tournament was a great chance for the former teammates to lace the skates together again. Zaccaria said that the team tries to make it a tradition to meet up and play every year at the tournament..
“Obviously, we’re getting older now,” Zaccaria said. “I try to get as many members from the first few Chiefs teams to make the trip here.”
A couple of former teammates we unable to attend this year due to injuries and sickness, but Zaccaria was still glad to see so many of his former teammates again
“It’s great to catch up with these boys again,” Zaccaria said. “We take a lot of pride when we play here. This is a great time to see everyone again. These guys are family.”
A PLACE TO ALWAYS CALL HOME
While most of the Chiefs alumni team played for many other professional hockey teams in the past, almost all agreed that Johnstown held a special place in their heart.
“Johnstown is our home,” Zaccaria said. “It’s always great to come back to town again.”
Jeff Salzbrunn, who spent one season with the Chiefs in 1988-89, reiterated that the town was so important to these players.
“Johnstown is such a great place to be,” Salzbrunn said. “There’s nothing else like it.”
One former Chiefs player even made Johnstown his permanent home. Joe Tillari, originally from Thunder Bay, Ontario, now currently resides in Johnstown.
“When I was done here in 2004, I kept playing and retired in 2010,” Tillari said. “I met my wife here my second season playing. I came back here in the summer times while I was still playing. I just liked Johnstown.”
Tillari played in many other larger cities throughout his career. Playing in Las Vegas, Manchester, N.H., and even Val Pusateri, Italy, Tallari found that Johnstown was just a special place to be.
“I love it here,” Tillari said.
Regardless of where the original Chiefs’ members are now, all of the players in that alumni locker room agreed upon one thing:
“Johnstown is home.”