JOHNSTOWN, Pa. - When Logan Glessner stepped foot on the pristine ice at the Cambria County War Memorial Arena on Sunday morning, it was one small step for the 8-year-old hockey player with the Johnstown Warriors and one giant leap for youth hockey in the area.
Joining Glessner on the ice was Don Clark, a local legend in the Johnstown hockey community who first came to town with the Jets during the 1951-52 Eastern Hockey League season and never left.
To be the first person to step on the ice at the newly renovated War Memorial Arena, which holds so many memories, and to be involved with the Kraft Hockeyville USA festivities was the culmination of a lifetime’s worth of work.
Clark, who is 85 years young, laced up his skates for the first time in 30 years and took a seat at center ice for a quick photo op as the past, the present and the future came together to kick off the biggest event in this hockey-mad community’s history since Paul Newman came to town to film the iconic movie, “Slap Shot.”
“That’s what this is all about,” said Logan’s father, Chris, who is the vice president of the Warriors Youth Hockey program and a driving force behind much of the efforts of the local organizing committee to stage a memorable event.
“It gave me chills, as a father, to see my son be the first player to skate out on the ice and to be there with Don Clark, a local hockey hero. He set the tone here in Johnstown and created the hockey culture that is still going strong today.”
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It was a fitting segue between the kick off a fun week centered around Kraft Hockeyville USA festivities and Tuesday night’s NHL preseason game between the Pittsburgh Penguins and Tampa Bay Lightning to be televised live on NBCSN.
And while all eyes will be on Phil Kessel, Ben Bishop and the rest of the NHLers on Tuesday, the weekend belonged to the grassroots system that cultivated the dreams of every NHL player.
It started early on Saturday with an 8 & Under jamboree involving players from the three local associations, the Jets, Jr. Tomahawks and Warriors.
Working with Glessner and other dedicated local coaches, USA Hockey’s Roger Grillo kept the action and the enthusiasm flowing with three cross-ice games involving kids as young as 5.
That was followed by a Try Hockey For Free event, that Membership Director Kevin Erlenbach called the backbone of the weekend.
“While everybody is excited about the NHL game, and rightfully so, it’s important to remember that every player’s hockey journey begins like this,” Erlenbach said while helping parents get youngsters outfitted with OneGoal starter gear.
Then it was onto the ice where kids slipped and skidded around the rink at the Planet Ice in nearby Richland Township.
Ensuring that the entire hockey community was represented, the day wrapped up with U.S. National Sled Team player Dan McCoy leading a sled hockey demonstration and pick up game with the local sled team, the Sitting Bulls.
McCoy, a native of Cheswick, Pa., brought his gold medal from the 2014 Paralympic Winter Games, and posed for photos and signed autographs before impressing the local fans with his sled hockey skills.
“Once we found out that we were named Kraft Hockeyville, we knew that we wanted to get as many people in the community involved as possible,” Glessner said. “That’s why we reached out to families in the community, whether they’re involved in hockey or not.”
That community involvement has been front and center since Kraft Heinz first announced the event back on Jan. 1 during NBC’s broadcast of the NHL’s Winter Classic. Johnstown rallied around their community to edge Decatur, Ill., once a record 20 million votes were tallied.
In addition to earning the title of Kraft Hockeyville USA, Johnstown received $150,000 to upgrade the War Memorial with new lights, sound system, NHL-quality boards and glass.
It was only fitting that the first teams to hit the ice would be a group of 10 and 12 & Under players with the Johnstown Warriors, who call the War Memorial home. With the help of former Penguins Jason Wooley and Ryan VandenBussche, Grillo and a group of coaches ran several station-based practices that are the cornerstone of the American Development Model.
“It’s an honor to be out here, to be in Johnstown, Pa.,” Vandenbussche told NHL.com. “USA Hockey is doing a great thing by reaching out to the youth and promoting the game of hockey, which I think is the best game in the world.”
“Any time you get a chance to go out with the little guys… I was once a little kid who looked up to NHL players and now it's nice to be on the other side,” Woolley added. “They’re all out there, working hard, having fun and smiling, and that's what it's all about.”
While Grillo and NHL alums like Wooley and Vandenbussche may be the ones in front of the camera and the microphones at the end of the day, it was the local youth hockey organizers and coaches who made this event happen, just as it is their efforts that make it possible for these kids to live out their dreams of one day reaching the NHL.
“At the end of the day it’s a team effort,” Grillo said. “It was great working with so many great volunteers. They are the real stars of the show.
“I know that being out here today was a thrill for these kids, and it was a thrill for me. As I told them, I’m the world’s biggest 9-year-old.”