Jon Cooper stepped off the bus in front of the Cambria County War Memorial, dodging raindrops and wading through a crowd of waterlogged fans on his way to his team’s morning skate.
If the head coach of the Tampa Bay Lightning needed any more proof that Johnstown, Pa., was the right town to wear the mantle as the inaugural winner of Kraft Hockeyville USA, it hit him as he stepped on the ice to a thunderous ovation from the near capacity crowd that circled the arena.
Welcome to Kraft Hockeyville USA, Jon.
“Did you see the amount of people out there? It was unreal. I don’t know how to describe the pregame skate in front of a packed house,” Cooper said.
“I see why they were crowned Kraft Hockeyville.”
As Cooper spoke, his words were drown out by the thunderous ovation that greeted the Pittsburgh Penguins as they hit the ice for their practice session. Even with several established stars not making the trip, including Sidney Crosby, Marc-Andre Fleury and Phil Kessel, the throng of fans wearing the black and gold was happy to welcome those who made the two hour trek to their hometown.
“What a cool thing to be a part of,” said Penguins veteran forward Matt Cullen. “I didn’t really know what to expect coming in on the bus this morning but to see all the people waiting out in the rain and then to come out on the ice… It’s pretty cool to see. It shows that the Penguins have a lot of support in this area. It also shows that the game is alive and well here.”
Coming to Johnstown is something of a homecoming for most of these players. Whether it’s a small Canadian farming community, or a town in the Iron Range of Minnesota, they are the products of local communities, where hockey is woven into the fabric of daily life. So skating here in front of 4,000 small-town fans brings most of these players back to their roots.
“Rinks like this are what we grew up on. Your best memories growing up are playing those 7 a.m., games,” said Lightning forward Tyler Johnson, who grew up in Spokane, Wash. “So to be able to come back here and play in a building like this and have the fan support is pretty awesome.”
Despite coming off a long season in which they made it to the Stanley Cup finals, the Lightning didn’t hesitate when approached about playing an extra exhibition game. They know this is more than just another game; this is a chance to honor the past while making a little history of their own.
“The benefits of what this game meant not only to us, but to the hockey community and the NHL and Johnstown, Pennsylvania, far outweighed playing an extra exhibition game,” Cooper said. “It’s well worth it. I’m so glad we came to this.”
Also not lost on those participating in the game is the fact this building and town is where the iconic movie “Slap Shot” was filmed. On the way to the rink and inside the locker room, players were reciting their favorite lines. If that wasn’t enough, the Hanson brothers were on hand to greet the Lightning as they returned to their locker room.
“I remember growing up and watching that movie and we still say lines from that movie,” said Lightning veteran Ryan Callahan. “I walked in here and saw the Hansons dressed and couldn’t help but start laughing. It brings back memories of when I was a kid and watching that movie. It was really cool to be a part of that skit and to meet those guys.”
For all the hoopla surrounding the game, both teams know there is still work to be done.
“There is a game tonight and we need to work on things and accomplish some stuff, but at the same time you come into an atmosphere like this and you want to enjoy it,” Callahan said.
“Not every team gets to come in here and do this. We’ll enjoy ourselves, but once the puck drops we’re all professionals and know that we have to play a game.”