March 30, 2010
For Dave Hanson, the lines between fiction and reality have always been a little blurry, as a former NHL player most famous for having portrayed a fictitious hockey goon in the classic Paul Newman comedy "Slap Shot."
In 1975, he laced up the skates with the Carlson Brothers, the siblings who inspired the Hanson Brothers, on the Johnstown Jets of the North American Hockey League.
The team played in a city where steel mills were closing and the Jets were close to folding. There were brawls during warm-ups, fights with fans, players spending a night or two in jail. You know: old time hockey.
In 1977, Hanson joined Jeff and Steve Carlson as the breakout stars in "Slap Shot," which chronicled the Charlestown Chiefs of the Federal Hockey League.
Their story was inspired by the Jets' penalty-laden games and by Johnstown's struggles; the main plot of the film saw Newman's Reg Dunlop invent a story, to motivate his team, that the Chiefs were being relocated to Florida when they were really about to fold.
"The movie's more fact than fiction," said Hanson.
In 2010, the real-life Chiefs in the ECHL will relocate from Western Pa. to Greenville, S.C.
"It's life imitating art, imitating life," said Dave Hanson, whose experiences in Johnstown and with the film are chronicled in his book "Slap Shot Original" published in 2009.
"The Chiefs are moving south, but instead of going to Florida to hang out by the pool, they're going to South Carolina."
But this may not be the end of the "Slap Shot" legacy in Johnstown.
"Who owns da Chiefs?" was a classic line from "Slap Shot" because the players didn't know who actually ran the franchise, much like in Hanson's days with the Jets.
Smith bought the cash-strapped Chiefs in 2002. He promised not to move them for at least two seasons but sought a local buyer sentimental enough to keep the team in town and rich enough to write off the team's perennial losses. (Movie irony: The rich owner in "Slap Shot" folded the team as a tax write-off.)
Trouble is, hockey in rough-and-tumble Johnstown, about 60 miles east of Pittsburgh, sells better on DVD these days. Now, Smith's pipe dream is selling out the team's farewell game Saturday at the 4,001-seat arena, built in 1950.
Despite a top ticket of $14 and no seat more than 15 rows from the ice, the Chiefs have only 900 season ticket holders and appeared lucky to draw two-thirds as many fans on a recent Wednesday night. Smith needed 2,700 fans each night to break even.
The echoes to the movie "Slap Shot" are deafening: Beloved losing team in an economically strapped area is forced to vacate the arena. Hanson said he didn't realize back in 1977 that the film would become a symbol of minor league hockey's ills and unique thrills.
"We were 20, 21 years old. This was just something fun for us to do at the end of a hockey season. At that time, it didn't mean anything to us other than having a good time [with] free beer and free food. Not even acting," he said. "But to capture that era was pretty unique.
"The one thing about Johnstown, that a lot of people don't know, is that they have a rich history in hockey," said Hanson. "They've had hockey since the 1940s. They consistently rebound and come back a year or two later with a new team."
According to the Internet Hockey Database, nine teams have played in Johnstown since 1941. There's already speculation about No. 10 -- with a Hollywood twist.
The Federal Hockey League, a feeder league for the AHL and ECHL, will begin operation in October. While Vice President of Hockey Operations Chris Firriolo said the FHL isn't a direct homage to the League of the same name in "Slap Shot," he noted the "connection and coincidence" of potentially having a Johnstown franchise join it.
Will it happen? Firriolo said the six-team league will close membership for its inaugural season in April, but that a former ECHL owner has expressed serious interest in a Johnstown franchise. Talks with the Cambria County War Memorial Arena have occurred, and there's hope that a franchise could be in place in 2010 or 2011 if the arena believes the upstart Federal League is the best option.
But would they be called the Chiefs? From the AP:
Smith's minority partner, attorney Ned Nakles, is selling his 10 percent share but forming a nonprofit to retain rights to the Chiefs name, logo, records and statistics-just in case.
Firriolo wouldn't say getting the name was essential, but c'mon: Federal League, Johnstown, Chiefs ... old time hockey, right Dave Hanson?
"The cool part, to this day, is the amazing popularity it still has," he said. "It'd be certainly appropriate."