By Mike Mastovich
JOHNSTOWN, Pa. – The last time the South Carolina Stingrays visited Cambria County War Memorial Arena, current Rays coach Jason Fitzsimmons was the team’s goaltender.That was Game 4 of a Riley Cup first-round playoff series on March 29, 1995.
The Johnstown Chiefs won 7-5 and forced a decisive fifth game in Charleston that the Stingrays won.
“Game 4, they spanked us. It was a big game for Johnstown because it sent it to a Game 5 in Charleston,” said Fitzsimmons, who brings his Stingrays to the War Memorial for a 7:30 game on Friday. “I remember it being a tough building to come into and play.
“I just love the nostalgia of playing here. Every hockey player has seen the movie ‘Slap Shot’ 20 times. To come to where the movie was made and see almost the original setting in some areas, that is fun. All the ‘Slap Shot’ quotes will be going around the room. It is almost vintage.”
You have to dig even deeper in the record books to find the last regular-season game between the Chiefs and Stingrays at the War Memorial. That was a 5-3 South Carolina victory on Jan. 28, 1994.
Johnstown visited South Carolina twice last season and lost 4-2 and 4-3 in the first meetings of the teams since the 1996-97 season.
The Chiefs are 1-5-0 all-time against the Rays during the regular season and 3-8-0 overall.
“I’m a huge proponent of seeing new teams,” said Johnstown General Manager Toby O’Brien. “They’re in the doldrums, too, if you look at their record. They’re going to be dangerous. They’re probably looking at us as a winless team that is dangerous to play, too.”
South Carolina is 2-5-5 after Wednesday’s 3-2 loss at Trenton.
“We’re going through a tough spell,” said Fitzsimmons, who can relate to the 0-6-4 Chiefs’ early struggles. “Every hockey game is a one-goal hockey game, and we’re losing. We’ve got a good hockey team. We’re kind of getting the short end.
“It’s going to be a tough one (Friday). Trust me. I was hoping Johnstown would have a win under their belt by the time we got here. You don’t want to be the first team to lose to them. From all reports they work hard and don’t deserve to be 0-6-4. You can throw the records right out the window when the puck drops.”
The records didn’t mean a whole lot back in 1995, when the underdog Chiefs stretched South Carolina to five games.
The visiting Chiefs shocked Fitzsimmons and the Rays with a 6-5 overtime win in Game 1. Quiet, low-scoring defenseman Martin D’Orsonnens’ goal from the point netted the game-winner at North Charleston Coliseum.
South Carolina pelted the Chiefs 6-1 in Game 2.
The series moved to Johnstown, where the Chiefs had two controversial goals negated. Referee Steve Lemay said the first goal never went in even though video replays and the goal judge, whom Lemay refused to acknowledge, said otherwise. Lemay said the other non-goal was negated by a high-stick. South Carolina won 4-3.
Game 4 went to the Chiefs, 7-5, as former Rays forward Brian McCarthy netted a hat trick.
South Carolina coach Rick Vaive guaranteed a victory in Game 5 at Charleston, and the Stingrays delivered, 5-3.
“Johnstown won the first game, we came back to win the next two,” Fitzsimmons said. “In Game 1, you guys went up 4-0 in the first period. I made 4 of 8 saves. We came back and forced OT.”
Fitzsimmons split his two games as a goalie at the War Memorial. Now, he will have a chance to coach there.
“I loved playing in this rink. I love coming here,” Fitzsimmons said. “Johnstown has a lot of everyday people, hard-working people. That’s the way they build their team here. You know you’re in for a tough game when you play Johnstown.”