By Mike Mastovich
JOHNSTOWN, Pa. – The National Hockey League’s Olympic break provided both Dana Heinze and Chris Stewart an opportunity to visit their hometown.
But don’t think for a hockey minute that Heinze and Stewart stayed away from the rink.
Both former members of the Johnstown Chiefs organization attended the Chiefs’ 4-3 loss to the Wheeling Nailers on Sunday at Cambria County War Memorial Arena.
It was a homecoming for Heinze, the assistant equipment manager of the Tampa Bay Lightning, and Stewart, assistant athletic trainer for the Carolina Hurricanes.
“This is the first time I’ve been back and been able to watch a hockey game and not have to work,” said Heinze, a Westmont Hilltop graduate in his sixth year with the Lightning. “What a joy to be a fan. I picked up my ticket at the will-call window and watched the game just like a regular fan.”
Heinze isn’t your average fan. He spent two tenures with the Chiefs (1988-92 and 1995-98) before moving on to the former International League’s Detroit Vipers. He joined the Lightning and was part of Tampa’s run to the 2004 Stanley Cup championship.
“It’s awesome coming back here,” Heinze said. “The fact that hockey is still here in Johnstown is special. For the Chiefs to be affiliated with Tampa Bay is even more special. Anytime you come to the War Memorial to watch a hockey game there is nothing better.”
Heinze remembered Johnstown and the arena when it was his turn to host the Stanley Cup during the summer of 2004. As part of a tradition that allows players, coaches and staff to possess the coveted Cup for a day, Heinze brought the hardware to Johnstown, where 2,000 fans lined the War Memorial halls waiting to see the historic trophy.
“I wouldn’t be where I’m at if it wasn’t for the Johnstown Chiefs,” Heinze said. “I’m very lucky to have been pushed out of the nest by (former Chiefs coach) Scott Allen. I couldn’t be happier for a guy like Chris Stewart who was willing to take a chance and leave here. It’s worked out for both of us.”
Stewart spent nine seasons with the Chiefs, tending to both serious and “everyday” injuries as well as helping players rehabilitate.
The Johnstown graduate caught a break midway through last season, when he was called to Lowell in the American Hockey League to replace the head athletic trainer. At the time, Lowell was affiliated with Carolina.
When the Hurricanes had an opening for an assistant athletic trainer this season, Stewart had his foot in the door. He and his family relocated to Raleigh.
“The NHL is everything I thought it would be and more,” Stewart said. “The major thing is seeing guys like (former Chiefs all-star forward) David Gove who came up and played a game for us in the NHL. I met Gove when he was a first-year pro in Johnstown. To see guys like him work their way up is a little bonus.”
Like Heinze, Stewart appreciated an opportunity to watch the Chiefs play rather than partake in the busy game-day routine.
“It’s a lot different,” Stewart said. “It’s a weird situation sitting in the stands and watching the game. I’m used to being on the bench. I’m just glad to be back and see these guys play.
“I’ve been gone from the team for about a year and a half, so it’s a little sentimental. I had a lot of ties here in nine years. You want to be down there with them.”
Carolina played at Tampa Bay in December. Heinze had a photographer snap a pre-game photo of two Johnstowners in the NHL.
“We stood on the bench before the game,” Heinze said. “It was a proud moment. I’m lucky. I know how fortunate and lucky Stew has been. It was great to be with my friend from Johnstown.”