By Mike Mastovich
JOHNSTOWN, Pa. – For a few moments on Thursday afternoon, wins, losses, point totals and the ECHL playoff chase didn’t seem to matter quite as much at the Cambria County War Memorial.
The Johnstown Chiefs had just completed an hour of practice when Coach Toby O’Brien and his players invited Special Olympics figure skaters onto the ice for a skate and photo session.
Cheers and smiles were in order from the 33 athletes and their coaches taking part in the Special Olympics Pennsylvania Winter Games.
“That was so cool,” said Special Olympics skater Alice Williams, a 30-year-old from York who recently won a gold medal during an international event held in Canada. “Oh yes, it’s cool that we got to skate with the Chiefs.”
Professional hockey players and Special Olympians skated hand-in-hand. Some of the athletes wore the Chiefs’ gloves and posed with the players’ hockey sticks. O’Brien carried a young boy as he skated across the ice.
There were hugs and high fives.
Then the group gathered for a snapshot. At the prompting of one of the three photographers, a loud chorus of “Cheese!” rang out as cameras clicked.
“It’s exciting to see how excited they get when they ask us for an autograph,” said Chiefs forward Chad Cavanagh. “We should be asking for their autographs, because they’re pretty special kids.
“It’s amazing watching them do their routines. Sometimes we take for granted how good we have it. And it’s just amazing to see how hard they work and the effort they put forth.”
As the Special Olympians and Chiefs exited the ice through the narrow corridor under Sections 4 and 5, a group of parents and volunteers cheered and thanked the players. The Chiefs in turn thanked them for the opportunity to make a difference.
“Things are going real well,” figure skating venue coordinator Lin Huber of York said. “We had photos on the ice with the Chiefs. We skated with the Chiefs after their practice. We gave them our hour for lunch for them to practice. Toby gave the kids trading cards of the players.”
The Chiefs originally were to practice at the new arena in Ebensburg. But a mechanical malfunction resulted in melted ice that temporarily closed the rink.
The seventh-place Chiefs play tonight and Saturday at Toledo. O’Brien had hoped to hold at least one practice before the games.
Huber offered ice time, and O’Brien suggested that the team interact with the Special Olympians, just as the Chiefs have done for years.
“What a great time,” O’Brien said. “This is what it’s all about.”