By Mike Mastovich
JOHNSTOWN, Pa. – One somewhat obscure fact hidden among the statistics sheets and press releases might reveal exactly what type of coach the Johnstown Chiefs have hired.
As a 6-foot-4, 225-pound defenseman, Ian Herbers broke into the Edmonton Oilers’ NHL lineup in 1993-94, in only his third professional season.
Herbers appeared in 22 games and eventually was banished to the minors for the next five-plus seasons. His NHL hopes had been dashed, right?
Not exactly, Herbers made it back to the NHL in 1999-00, playing 37 games with the Tampa Bay Lightning and another six for the New York Islanders.
He might not have been an NHL star, but Herbers was in the show. Twice. Five years apart.
Herbers’ resume as a player is diverse, with stops in the Western Hockey League on the major junior circuit and four seasons at the University of Alberta prior to 12 pro seasons.
His coaching experience isn’t as lengthy, but Herbers spent time as a player-assistant in Cleveland, an AHL assistant to former Chiefs coach Scott Allen in San Antonio, and the past two years as an associate coach with Saginaw in the prestigious Ontario Hockey League.
“I wanted to hire a coach that would fit in with the people who are in this town,” Chiefs owner Jim Weber said during a Monday press conference at Cambria County War Memorial Arena. “I was looking for three basic attributes. The first and most important thing was the attitude. I wanted someone who had a desire to win but was also personable. The second thing was I was looking for someone with ability and knowledge, a great deal of experience in playing and coaching. The third thing I was looking for was a coach with ambition, a coach who was willing to put the time in and work hard.”
Herbers made a positive impression while meeting the local media and a handful of fans at the arena.
“I’m looking forward to the challenge of building a more exciting and competitive team,” Herbers said. “With the help of Jim, the staff and especially the fans, I want to make the War Memorial a difficult place for opponents to play every game, every shift.
“My coaching style is similar to the way I played. We’re going to have a great work ethic this season. We’re going to be well-prepared every night. We’re going to pay attention to all the small details. There will be no excuses for the guys off the ice.”
Unlike his predecessor, Frank Anzalone, Herbers seemed both comfortable and enthusiastic about speaking with the small group. He said the right things, promising a hungry team that would play a more physical style of hockey.
We’ve heard that line in the past, but Herbers’ blue-collar background indicates that the odds are much better that he means it.
The Chiefs have won more than they’ve lost the past two seasons, but the passion and figurative electricity often was missing. In reality, the Chiefs have spent the past five years hoping to recapture the atmosphere often present throughout the final three years of Allen’s tenure here. With Allen on the bench, you believed the Chiefs could win.
Believe might be the team’s current motto. But other than Arturs Irbes’ brief stay here at the outset of 2003-04 and an incredible run during the second half of that season (a surge that was followed by one of the most memorable and tormenting upset losses in team history), it’s been difficult to truly believe.
Weber is counting on Herbers and his work ethic to allow the Chiefs to take another step in the right direction. With Tampa Bay as an owner-affiliate, Anzalone’s Chiefs made the playoffs the past two years and even won a best-of-3 play-in series.
The Chiefs haven’t been a bad team in the post-Allen era.
It’s simply that there’s a feeling that this city – this 20-year-old team – deserves better.
Now, Herbers will take his shot.