JOHNSTOWN, Pa. – The Penguins watched it on their two-hour bus ride east from Pittsburgh. Lightning goalie Ben Bishop downloaded it on his laptop for the flight from Tampa. And just about everyone was on a mission to find the statue of the dog that supposedly saved the town from the 1889 flood.
It’s safe to say that no movie is more associated with a town and a sport than “Slap Shot,” the 1977 classic starring Paul Newman. Every hockey player from Peewees to the pros has his or her favorite scene, and everyone can recite its most famous lines at the drop of a puck.
“I love that movie and have seen it a million times,” said Tyler Johnson of the Tampa Bay Lightning. “I think everyone talks about that, even those who aren’t hockey fans.”
With Johnstown’s selection as the inaugural winner of Kraft Hockeyville USA, not only is the town in the spotlight, so too is the movie that was filmed here and is based on the former East Coast Hockey League team, the Johnstown Chiefs.
The Hanson brothers even made a special appearance after the Lightning practice, enlisting veteran forward Ryan Callahan to help the “put on the foil” before posing for photos with the players.
“I remember growing up and watching that movie. The boys have been throwing out lines from the movie all week,” Callahan said. “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.”
Even head coach Jon Cooper couldn’t help but get caught up in the movie’s mystique.
“It’s a movie you grew up on. Everybody can rip off a million lines from the movie,” he said. “Even though the game has changed from how it’s perceived in Slap Shot, it’s still a classic.”
Several members of the Penguins took the ice for warm ups wearing Hanson brother glasses, including Russian superstar Evgeni Malkin.
“We just wanted to do something to have some fun and make people smile,” Malkin said.
NBCSN aired a cleaner version of the movie following its broadcast of the Kraft Hockeyville NHL preseason game.
Bob Costas, the long-time NBC sports personality better known for his work in baseball, football and as the host of the Summer and Winter Olympics, actually got his start in hockey. His first professional game was an Eastern Hockey League game between the Syracuse Blazers and Johnstown Jets at Cambria County War Memorial Arena in 1973.
It’s been more than 40 years but Costas returned to Johnstown to anchor NBCSN’s coverage of Kraft Hockeyville USA.
“I was surprised that the Cambria County War Memorial is still standing,” Costas said. “And I was also surprised when I checked it that it was built in 1950, because when I walked in there in 1973, it seemed old.”
It was like a triumphant homecoming as Costas posed for photos and signed autographs before hitting the airwaves.
“This is probably the only time that I am actually a really good fit for one of our hockey broadcasts,” he joked.
Holly Lees considers herself just “an old married grandma who loves hockey.” But her essay not only captured the spirit of an entire community, it turned out to be the winning essay that catapulted Johnstown back into prominence as the inaugural winner of Kraft Hockeyville USA.
“I didn’t give it a second thought. They told us to write these essays. Since I’m a billet mom I felt like it was an obligation to do it,” she recalled. “It was a Sunday morning and I sat down in my pajamas and wrote the letter. I started with “I want to nominate Johnstown because …’ and when I started to list the reasons it just flowed right out of me… It was all from my heart.”
Lees never gave her essay a second thought until April when Johnstown was selected as one of the 10 finalists. From there the town rallied around the bid and the end result was $150,000 for some desperately needed renovations to the Cambria County War Memorial Arena.
This week Lees has been front and center throughout the festivities, introducing Jeremy Roenick at a Monday night gala and dropping the ceremonial puck with her grandson, Bailey Quinn, and granddaughter, Morgan Lees.
“It’s pretty overwhelming,” she said. “I’m happy, I’m excited. I’m excited for the Junior hockey team that’s here. I’m excited for the little guys and gals who are learning to play hockey. And I’m excited for the future of hockey here in Johnstown.”
Is it hooky or hockey. For a large number of local school kids it was the latter as they took the day of from class to watch the Pittsburgh Penguins and Tampa Bay Lightning practice at the Cambria County War Memorial Arena on Tuesday morning.
“I was asking a lot of the kids if they were skipping school,” said Penguins forward Matt Cullen. “They must’ve got a free pass out of school. It’s pretty cool for those kids.”
Organizers worked with the local school board to try to get the kids the day off, but the school calendar was already set by the time Johnstown was named Kraft Hockeyville USA.
While tickets for Tuesday’s practice and game were in high demand, organizers made sure that every youth hockey player was given an opportunity to attend one of the events.
“We wanted to get as many kids into this rink as possible. That’s what it’s all about. It’s about the kids. They’re the future of hockey. We wanted to get kids engaged, let them have a moment here with one of their heroes and watch that flourish into a love of the sport,” said Chris Glessner, 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.