JOHNSTOWN, Pa. — Straight out of two seasons with the Kingston Canadians of the Ontario Hockey League in 1982, Phil Bourque was a fresh-faced 20 year old in Johnstown for his first training camp with the Pittsburgh Penguins.
A walk-on without a professional contract, Bourque was still with the team late into camp at Johnstown’s Cambria County War Memorial when he was signed to a three-year deal, sending him to the AHL.
“It was just an invite in 1982,” Bourque told Pittsburgh Hockey Digest. “I ended up getting a contract and signing my first contract right here in this building. It was the first stepping stone of my professional career. [Johnstown] has a special place in my heart.”
“The Old Two-Niner” was back in Johnstown on Friday night to drop the ceremonial first puck at the Johnstown Tomahawks’s home opener. The Tomahawks, fresh off of an NAHL Regular Season Championship and a trip to the Robertson Cup tournament for the first time in franchise history, thanked Bourque by scoring 19 seconds off the opening face-off and going on to a 5-2 victory over the New Jersey Titans.
“I love Johnstown,” Bourque said. “I don’t get back here enough. I love the people, and I love their passion for hockey.”
DIFFERENCE FOR AMATEURS: THEN AND NOW
A native of Massachusetts, Bourque chose to go north of the border to truly begin his hockey career in the OHL. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the quickest route to the NHL was through major junior hockey in Canada, Bourque said.
Because of the development of USA Hockey, there are now three tiers of sanctioned junior leagues in the United States. That combined with the evolution of college hockey, he may have done things differently if he was getting his start today.
Players in the NAHL like the Tomahawks are afforded high-level coaching and play against other top players, but retain their NCAA eligibility. Players in Canadian major junior do not.
“I would definitely do it differently,” Bourque said. “Division I hockey is different than it was 30 years ago. Now, you can get your education and have a Plan B. I didn’t have a Plan B. I was all in on hockey, and if it didn’t work out, I don’t know what I would be doing. I would be pumping gas or who knows what.”
EVOLUTION OF HOCKEY IN PITTSBURGH
Bourque has been a part of the the Pittsburgh hockey community for well over 30 years now, and he has seen the how the hockey scene has grown significantly in Western Pennsylvania. From the USHL’s Fall Classic to new D-I programs to the Tomahawks’ performance last year, hockey is locally very strong and healthy.
“Obviously the UPMC Lemieux [Sports Complex] and their programs there, as well as the Pens Elite Program, has really expanded,” Bourque said. “The respect that we get in this area — even with teams in Johnstown that go and play in tournaments outside of Pittsburgh, and they do well. This area now has a whole different level of respect for youth hockey, for junior programs, for bantam and midget teams.
“It’s a combination of more rinks, better coaches, and more interest. Kids aren’t playing football like they did 35 years ago. They are saying, ‘Hey dad, I want to play hockey, I want to be a Pittsburgh Penguin.’ That was not a conversation that kids were having with their parents 35 years ago.”
THAT GUY TO THE BOURQUE’S LEFT
Mike Lange was hospitalized and missed the entirety of the playoffs last season due to complications from pneumonia, and it had to make you wonder if the end of his illustrious career was coming to a close. Of course, it was recently announced that Lange, though with a voice that is not quite 100% yet, will be back to call all of the Penguins’ home games this season.
Bourque “thanks his lucky stars” that he gets more time with the hall of famer.
“He is like family to me,” Bourque said. “He’s got a heart of gold.”
Bourque knows that Lange won’t be calling games forever; however, Bourque keeps nudging him to keep going.
“I keep telling him, ‘Five more years, Mikey, I just need five more years,'” Bourque said. “I always sit to his right every time he opens up the night with, ‘It’s a hockey night in Pittsburgh.’ It’s always a great day for hockey, and I thank my lucky stars every time I get one more game with him really.”
TOMAHAWKS EARN THREE OF FOUR OVER THE WEEKEND
The Tomahawks split the weekend series with New Jersey after their win on Friday night and a shootout loss on Saturday. After running away with the East Division last year, the Tomahawks find themselves in the middle of the pack right now with eight points in eight games played.
Johnstown travels for three straight weekends to Maine (Lewiston), Maryland (Odenton), and Wilkes-Barre/Scranton before hosting the Northeast Generals (Attleboro, MA) during the last weekend of October.