The ‘24 in 24’ series features an in-depth look into all 24 NAHL teams, with a new team being highlighted daily, leading all the way up until the start of the regular season on Saturday, September 8th.
‘24 in 24’ will go in-depth into each NAHL team and will include interview with all 24 NAHL head coaches as they prognosticate and break down their outlook for the upcoming season.
A new era begins as the NAHL moved its footprint east over the summer to Johnstown, Pennsylvania. However, the city of Johnstown is anything but new to hockey. For the better part of 50 years, fans in Johnstown have had a team to call their own. This included the famous Johnstown Jets of the NAHL (back before the NAHL was a junior league), who became the basis for the iconic sports movie ‘Slapshot.’ It also included the Johnstown Chiefs, who were founding members of the ECHL. However in 2010, the Chiefs moved to Greenville, South Carolina, and the town was without a hometown team.
On May 3, 2012, that all changed as the Alaska Avalanche were acquired and relocated to Johnstown, later being introduced as the Johnstown Tomahawks. Although the Tomahawks will bring a new and different brand of NAHL hockey to the historic Cambria County War Memorial Arena, their new head coach Jason Spence, already believes the community is more than ready to embrace their new team.
“Coming back to Johnstown, where I played so much of my career and have such great memories, was one of the main reasons I had interest in the head coaching position,” said Spence, who played seven years in Johnstown as a member of the Chiefs and spent two years as an assistant in the ECHL. “I remember my time playing junior hockey and the impact it had on my career, so I want to help these young men have a great experience and then have the ability to move onto the next levels like I did.”
Spence, who has lived in Johnstown for a number of years, said that the reception from the community thus far has been great. “The town has had two years with almost no hockey, so we came in at the perfect time because this community is hungry to have a team again. The reception that the staff and the players have had thus far and been incredible and we haven’t even played a game yet,” said Spence. “We have made it a point to get out in the community and let people see us. Johnstown is a blue collar town and its citizens appreciate hard work and dedication. They know the game and appreciate it when they see good hockey, and I think they are excited to see the caliber that the NAHL brings to the ice.”
Spence knows a winner isn’t built overnight, which has been one of the more challenging things thus far for the coach. “We have had only three months to put together a team, so that has been challenging for our coaching staff. I did my research on the players who could have potentially come over from the Avalanche, but our goal this summer was to find the best caliber players for each position. Once they got to main camp, it was their chance to show their stuff and see how they fit into the puzzle.”
A uniqueness stands out about Spence and that is his attention to the team as a whole. When asked about the prospective players that could have an impact on this year’s Tomahawks roster, Spence deferred. “The one thing about this team thus far that is really special to see is that they have built themselves into a tight-knit and collective unit. There are no individual agendas, egos or little groups,” said Spence. “I don’t want to single guys out because everything is going to be done as a team. The players have really bought in and really want it bad. We have the guys this year that are going to work hard and you get the feeling it is already something pretty special.”
The Tomahawks did announce their training camp roster, which consists of 31 players. A handful of those in camp are players who played with the Alaska Avalanche last season, including forwards Gage Christianson, Mitch Kontny, Brandon Brossoit and Evan Hesse, all of whom scored at least 25 points last season. Christianson would be a nice addition, as he led the Avalanche in scoring last season with 53 points. Defensively, Kristaps Bazevics, Jeff Bergh, Jesse Kessler and Casey Nelson all saw time in an Avalanche uniform last season. In goal, Bodhi Engum is the only returner on the training camp roster.
As for the goals for the first-year Tomahawks, the sky is the limit. “We want to win the Championship,” said Spence. “It isn’t meant to sound cocky, but if we don’t have the highest goals possible then we shouldn’t be here. We believe we have the pieces in place to do it. This team is close knit and would do anything for one another. We are going to have to work hard and be prepared because the North Division is going to be a challenge this year. I think that in the end, we will have a lot of team speed, grit and determination that will hopefully give us a lot of success this season.”
Next up in the NAHL 24 Teams in 24 Days series, the Janesville Jets.