JOHNSTOWN, Pa. (AP) – The Charlestown Chiefs never had it so good. The Hanson brothers either, for that matter.
Sparkling dasher boards and glass. An enhanced audio system. Brighter, energy-efficient lights. And, apologies to Jack Hanson, a ton of stinking root beer. too.
Not bad Johnstown, or — for a night anyway — “Hockeyville.”
The blue-collar former steel town of about 20,000 and the arena that played a starring role in the iconic 1970s hockey comedy “Slap Shot” did a pretty good impersonation of an NHL city on Tuesday as the Pittsburgh Penguins edged the Tampa Bay Lightning 4-2 in an exhibition game.
The night in the spotlight was the culmination of months of work to bring the “Hockeyville” celebration to a city with a rich hockey history that spans more than 60 years. Fans crammed the stands at 65-year-old Cambria County War Memorial Arena, most famous for being the home rink of the Paul Newman-led Charlestown Chiefs in what is considered the gold standard of hockey comedies.
Penguins’ players watched the movie on the bus ride to the arena, while the Lightning got a morning locker room visit from the famed Hanson Brothers, enforcers who were beloved in the movie for their horn-rimmed glasses, rowdy behavior and unabashed disdain of a certain variety of soda.
“Everybody can rip off a million lines from the movie,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. “For myself, it’s a movie you grew up on. Although the game has changed quite a bit since it was perceived in ‘Slap Shot,’ it’s still a classic.”
Turns out, so is the town.
“It was very special,” said Penguins’ forward Evgeni Malkin, who nearly brought the place down when he kicked the puck to his stick while swooping in front of the net and scored the eventual game-winner in the second period.
“It’s a great city with great fans who love the Penguins.”
They love the game, too.
The city banded together last spring to beat out Decatur, Illinois, for the right to host an NHL preseason contest and the slew of upgrades for the home rink that came along with it.
“I think it’s great for the area and it brought the community together,” resident Neil Penrod said. “When’s the last time you saw this much pride in Johnstown? It’s been a long time, and I think it’s great what the NHL, Kraft and everyone is doing to bring communities like this together.”
The old barn buzzed with new life on Tuesday, the result of a $150,000 face-lift to the 4,000-seat facility. In addition to the new dasher boards and glass, the arena also received better ice-making equipment, youth locker rooms and LED lights.
It’s a big jump from where the arena was five years ago, when the storied Johnstown Chiefs of the ECHL were forced to move to Greenville, South Carolina, because of mounting financial losses.
That hasn’t been an issue since the Johnstown Tomahawks of the North American Hockey League moved into the arena, as the team ranked in the top five in attendance the last three seasons, recapturing the city’s enthusiasm for the game.
Watching elite NHL stars Tuesday should only continue to propel that momentum forward.
“It’s great to see a big, multibillion dollar organization coming to a small town like this,” Penrod said. “We have a junior hockey team, and (Tuesday) we get to watch the pros play on our little rink.”
It was another chapter to the long, storied history of hockey in the city of Johnstown.
“The people of Johnstown have obviously worked very hard to get something like this, and they deserve it,” Tampa Bay star Steven Stamkos said. “You don’t get the chance to see players up close like this every day. It’s great to see the community come together and support an event like this.”
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