By Mike Mastovich
JOHNSTOWN, Pa. – Brent Bilodeau (Pictured) and Jeff Sullivan joined the Johnstown Chiefs together in 1999 and were part of a nucleus that helped the struggling ECHL team emerge from a four-year postseason drought to pull off a stunning first-round playoff upset.
The pair of no-nonsense defensemen liked the city and the organization so much, they decided to stay.
Actually, Bilodeau and Sullivan made Johnstown their hockey home for six straight seasons, breaking franchise records and making four playoff appearances. They epitomized the revival of an organization that supposedly had faced ECHL extinction for the better part of a decade.
Saturday at Cambria County War Memorial Arena, an era in Johnstown professional hockey concluded.
Bilodeau and Sullivan had previously announced their respective decisions to retire after the current season.
With the Chiefs stumbling to one of their most disappointing records in years, Saturday’s regular-season finale against visiting Atlantic City is the last professional game for Bilodeau – who has played more career games than any other Chief since the team was formed in 1988 – and Sullivan – who collected more penalty minutes than any player in Johnstown pro hockey history dating to 1941.
“I’m sure it will be tough. We’ve been here six years,” said Sullivan, 26, the soft-spoken veteran who packs a wallop on the ice. “The team has grown on us. We’re part of the team. It (emotions) will be there, but we’ve got to deal with that.”
As often is the case on the ice and in the locker room, Bilodeau and Sullivan are on the same page as far as their approach to this milestone moment.
“Definitely, it’s going to be a little different. It’s the final game,” said Bilodeau, 32, a former first-round draft pick of the Montreal Canadiens in 1991. “I’ve had a lot of good years and a lot of good memories here. It’s going to be tough.”
Chiefs fans usually are a blue-collar bunch. But there almost certainly will be a sentimental atmosphere as the final seconds wind down.
“I can’t say enough about Billy and Sully,” said Chiefs coach Toby O’Brien, who was the general manager when the two players joined then-coach Scott Allen’s lineup in October 1999. “They came in here when we were rebuilding. They became real keys to the foundation that allowed this franchise to rebuild.”
Sullivan has played through bumps and bruises, a broken orbital bone near his eye that required him to wear a protective mask, and busted fingers. But the injury bug got even this time, limiting Sullivan to 27 games.
It probably would have taken a tank to keep him off the ice Saturday.
“I’ve been skating the last few days, but the ankle is not completely 100 percent,” said Sullivan, who has been out three weeks.
O’Brien and Allen signed Bilodeau just prior to training camp in 1999. The big defenseman had just suffered through two injury-plagued seasons in the International Hockey League. Blood clots in his leg threatened not only his career, but his health in general.
Bilodeau hoped for a fresh start with the Chiefs after spending nearly his entire career in the AHL or IHL. He played 70 games and collected 34 points that first year.
“I’ve missed one game due to injury,” said Bilodeau, who holds the Chiefs’ record with 413 games played. “Definitely I’ve been very lucky to have been able to play that many games. Right now, I don’t think about it. I’m definitely proud of it, but later on in life I’ll probably look back and say, ‘Wow, how did I do that?’ ”
Through a strong affiliation with the NHL Calgary Flames, Johnstown brought in solid players such as Sullivan, John Tripp, Derrick Walser, Jody Shelley and Brett McLean. Goaltender Frederic Deschenes was a rock in net. Returnees such as Joel Irving and Mike Vellinga made an impact during that pivotal 1999-2000 season.
The Chiefs surprised the ECHL and earned a spot in the playoffs. Then, Johnstown created more shockwaves by upsetting highly-touted Roanoke in a best-of-5 series.
The Chiefs also advanced to the 2001 and 2002 playoffs. The latter season, Bilodeau and Sullivan were part of a gritty team that shook off a 2-0 deficit in a best-of-5 playoff against Peoria to win three straight.
Last season, the Chiefs won a team-record 45 games, but fell in a stunning one-game playoff against Reading.
“My first year we won in the first round against Roanoke, and that was a big turning point for this organization,” said Bilodeau, who served as captain for four seasons and as a player-assistant coach twice.
He ticked off some of his best memories in Johnstown.
“The comeback against Peoria in the playoffs. The regular season last year was an excellent season. Of course, the many great people that Cass and I have met in Johnstown and the friendships that we’ve made are special. Different players, like Sully and his wife, Pam, and people in Johnstown. There are great people here.”
Bilodeau and his wife, Cass, are active in the community. A former WNBA player, Cass, even assisted the Pitt-Johnstown women’s basketball team one season. Sullivan, a commercial fisherman in the offseason, and his wife, Pam, wed last August.
Bilodeau and Sullivan are avid outdoorsmen who appreciate this region’s hunting and fishing opportunities. They also have read to elementary school students and rang bells for the Salvation Army at Christmas as well as other charities. Each has helped during Special Olympics Pennsylvania Winter Games.
“Billy has the most games played. He’s taken an active role as a player-assistant coach. He’s active in the community,” O’Brien said of Bilodeau. “He’s played with broken bones on several occasions. Jeff Sullivan is a leader, a team guy, a guy who played with broken bones. I’ll never forget the day he played with a face guard because he had a broken orbital bone in his face. He took off the face guard to fight in Wheeling.
“Both of them are like a part of the family. We could not as an organization have done some of the things we did to put this organization back on the map without the commitment made and some of the things that they did for the Chiefs.”
Bilodeau and Sullivan, this year’s captain, motivate their teammates with their actions and the knack for saying the right words at the right time.
“I learned a lot playing with both of them,” said Chiefs rookie Joe Tallari, who is on recall to AHL Bridgeport after scoring 32 goals with Johnstown. “Bilodeau works so hard and he’s such a smart player on the ice. It definitely shows, the experience that he has. He can control a hockey game. I learned about perseverance from him.
“Sullivan was injured early in the year and he battled back. It’s been a real honor to play with both of them. I learned a lot from both of them on and off the ice. They make you a better person off the ice as well as on the ice.”
Sullivan was honored with a bobblehead promotion last season. Two long lines of fans curled around the front and back of the War Memorial. Thousands of people arrived hours before the game.
“The fans always treated me with respect,” Sullivan said. “I’ve tried to do the same for them. That’s what makes the game, the fans.”
Bilodeau, who intends to coach, and Sullivan, who will begin working in construction, have 60 more minutes of hockey in Johnstown.
Their legacies will last much longer.
“It does mean something going out together,” Bilodeau said. “We’ve been through a lot together.”