By Mike Mastovich
For The Tribune-Democrat
JOHNSTOWN, Pa. – Johnstown Chiefs fans realize the ECHL’s leading scorer or a 30-win goaltender probably won’t wear the team’s black and gold uniform this season.
That’s simply the reality in a recruiting world where most of the 23 ECHL members are in markets that dwarf Johnstown and arenas that are palaces in comparison to the 58-year-old Cambria County War Memorial Arena.
But in his first season here, Chiefs coach Ian Herbers revealed a knack for signing quality players with excellent character. That’s a combination that usually produces a winner, here or in any hockey city.
Players such as veteran captain Randy Rowe or alternate captain Jason Spence bring intangibles that can’t be measured on those official statistics sheets turned into the league office after each game.
They play with heart and desire. Last season, they weren’t alone, either.
That’s a reflection on Herbers, who never attained NHL super stardom but had enough grit and skill to play 65 games in the show as part of a 12-year professional career that took him throughout North America and Europe.
“We’ve been here together since (Saturday) morning,” Rowe said as the Chiefs opened training camp Saturday at the War Memorial. “There were eight guys here Friday and now there are 18 or 19. The guys that are in here, we all get along. You don’t really see that too often in training camp.”
After only one day in camp, it’s too early to call this a tight-knit family. But there already were signs of camaraderie.
“You usually see a guy sitting here, a couple guys over here, and a couple guys sitting over here,” Rowe said, pointing to the locker room. “But a bunch of guys here now, we’re all talking and playing like we’ve been together for a month or two. It shows a lot about the character that Ian brings in.
“There are a lot of guys that want to play the game for the love of the game and not worrying about who’s getting called up or going where or when they’re going. The more the team is together at the start, the better it is for the long run.”
The ECHL is a grueling 72-game endurance test. Herbers’ first Chiefs team learned as much the hard way.
An injury and call-up ravaged Chiefs team struggled to a 3-11 mark in December.
That type of stretch might have spelled the end of a season in other years. Instead, the Chiefs went 25-12-5 after January 1 and finished 5-0-1 in their final six regular-season games.
Johnstown swept a best-of-3 playoff series against Dayton before falling to eventual Kelly Cup champion Cincinnati in the second round.
Had the Chiefs been a selfish bunch – players out to improve their personal statistics after the sluggish December – forget about the playoffs.
But with that leadership and character Herbers stressed, the Chiefs made something positive happen.
“There are so many ups and downs during a season,” Herbers said. “Guys with strong character are going to battle through the tough times.
“December was a tough time for us with call-ups and injuries, guys who were sick and a few guys who weren’t playing at the top of their game at that time,” he added. “We were on the road. It just kind of all hit at one time. But we came back after Christmas and were fresh. We made a couple moves, kept battling and plugging away. Those are the kind of guys that you want.”
Herbers believes he has more than a few such players in his locker room now, with more to come once the NHL and AHL rosters stabilize.
One training camp session – especially one held minus some of the key players still in the AHL – won’t reveal much about the Chiefs’ talent level for the upcoming season.
But such a session and those that follow this week might indicate quite a bit about the character that will provide the foundation for the next 72 games.