By Mike Mastovich
JOHNSTOWN, Pa. – Brent Bilodeau needed six years and 414 games to establish the Johnstown Chiefs’ all-time record for most regular-season games played.
The retired defenseman probably didn’t figure his mark would last less than one year.
But Bilodeau, a former first-round draft pick of the Montreal Canadiens, is glad that feisty, veteran right wing Dmitri Tarabrin is the man who broke the record when he played in his 415th game for the Chiefs on Sunday.
“I’m very proud of Demo. He deserves it,” said Bilodeau, an assistant coach of the ECHL’s Las Vegas Wranglers, before Saturday’s game at Victoria, British Columbia. “Demo is a survivor. He battles and he stays alive. He’s done that his whole life.
“He’s had some low times in his life and some up times. He keeps plugging away and keeps working. He’s a perfect example of representing the work ethic of Johnstown. He’s a hard-nosed, blue-collar type of person.”
Tarabrin tied Bilodeau by appearing in his 414th regular season game with the Chiefs on Saturday night against his former team, the visiting Wheeling Nailers.
The 29-year-old native of Moscow must skate at least one shift today against the Reading Royals to break the record on Cambria County War Memorial Arena ice.
“I remember the day I traded for him,” Chiefs General Manager Toby O’Brien said. “I traded Jon Sorg, a fairly popular defenseman, to Wheeling for Dmitri Tarabrin (in 1998-99). The folks in Wheeling said, ‘Holy, cow.’ He was a fan favorite down there.
“He became a fan favorite here in Johnstown. He made Johnstown his home. He’s gone through some highs and lows as everyone does. Right now he’s climbed back on a high. He has a great family with his wife, Deena, and his daughter, Sasha. He’s having a great year, like when he first came here.”
That’s the most amazing part of this uplifting story. Tarabrin isn’t simply hanging around, putting in his time. The 5-foot-8 forward has some of the best numbers of his eight-year professional career.
He has 18 goals and 41 points in 50 games, tying his career high for goals set in 2002-03 and needing only a point to tie his career-best 42, also three years ago.
Bilodeau played 779 games during 12 pro seasons in the AHL, ECHL and former IHL and WCHL. He can relate to Tarabrin.
“You need a little bit of luck with the injuries,” said Bilodeau, whose career was threatened by knee injuries and a blood disorder prior to his joining the Chiefs. “You need perseverance and love of the game. Demo still loves the game. When you play that many games and you still love the game, that’s a great achievement. You are always looking forward to coming to the rink. You’re playing a game for a living and that’s the greatest thing on earth to do that.”
Chiefs fans have adopted Tarabrin as an honorary Johnstowner. Tarabrin in turn has made Johnstown his family’s home.
He even remained in town during the 2001-02 ECHL season. That year, Tarabrin failed to make the roster on former coach Scott Allen’s team. The Chiefs advanced into the second round of the playoffs and it seemed as if Tarabrin, who had a job working for a Johnstown construction company, might have been forgotten.
But the next fall, with O’Brien as the new head coach, Tarabrin showed up at training camp. He wasn’t expected to make the roster. He did, then put up the best statistics of his career.
This October, Tarabrin was in a familiar position. The Chiefs had a new coach, Frank Anzalone, new ownership, and a very hands-on approach by the Tampa Bay Lightning, the team’s new part-owner/affiliate.
Few gave Tarabrin much of a shot to stick, but he did.
“To accomplish what he’s accomplished, whether you’re in the ECHL, NHL or any league, is a feat to be proud of,” O’Brien said.