By Mike Mastovich
JOHNSTOWN, Pa. – Lightning struck the Johnstown Chiefs on Monday.
This bolt had nothing to do with afternoon thunderstorms outside Cambria County War Memorial Arena.
New team owner and president Jim Weber had barely introduced himself to the Johnstown media and a small group of Chiefs fans in the War Memorial lobby when he delivered some news that is certain to have a huge impact on his ECHL team’s fortunes.
“Our goal is to succeed on the ice,” said Weber, a Lancaster businessman who purchased a share of the Chiefs last week and took over day-to-day operations. “I’m sure you’ve heard that before. I’m sure other people have said our goal is to succeed on the ice. But I did something a little different. I don’t want this to be something I’m just saying on introduction day.
“At this time, I want to announce that I have sold part of my interest in the team to the Tampa Bay Lightning and they are part-owner of the Johnstown Chiefs, effective immediately.”
Now, that’s the type of introduction you don’t see very often. Not even for a franchise such as the Chiefs, which has had six ownership groups since January 1988 and held several similar “meet-the-owners” gatherings.
“They’re going to be in charge of placing a lot of the players in here,” Chiefs fourth-year coach Toby O’Brien said of the Lightning. “Day-in and day-out, you’re going to work with the Stanley Cup champions and they want to work with you. You can’t beat this. What a day for hockey. What a day for Johnstown.”
The Chiefs and Lightning were affiliated last season, but the NHL lockout prevented that working agreement from truly blossoming. Now, with the Lightning as part owners, the Chiefs are hoping to see results similar to those produced in Florida, where the Kelly Cup runner-up Everblades last season were owned by the NHL Carolina Hurricanes, and Reading, where the successful Royals are owned by the Los Angeles Kings.
Weber now fronts an ownership group that includes another regional tie in Latrobe lawyers Ned Nakles Jr. and Leonard Reeves, who own 10 percent of the Chiefs. Neil Smith, who purchased the Chiefs as a majority owner in 2002, and Richard Adams, who was minority owner with Smith, will remain on as “silent partners,” Weber said.
“We’re going to have scouting from Tampa,” Weber said. “Hall of Famer Bill Barber is in charge of scouting for Tampa.
“Every little thing that you do, that’s what builds a winning team. If we can just go one step at a time a little better each and every day, that’s the thing. Those guys know hockey. No doubt.”
Barber, Tampa’s director of player personnel, scouted four Chiefs games in Johnstown last season and followed the team during several road games in Trenton, Atlantic City and Reading, all ECHL sites near his suburban Philadelphia home.
But the key to the Lightning’s involvement probably rests in the office of Tampa Bay GM Jay Feaster, the man who helped assemble the Stanley Cup champs.
Feaster was GM of the Hershey Bears during that AHL team’s two-season affiliation with the Chiefs in 1993-94 and 1994-95. Feaster has had a solid relationship with Johnstown since then and has been a close friend of Weber for 15 years.
“I’ve known him since my days as an advertising rep dealing with the Hershey Bears,” Weber said.
Tampa was affiliated with Johnstown in 2000-01, though that agreement didn’t produce great on-ice developments. Last season, the Lightning and Chiefs reunited as affiliates. Now, Tampa’s stake in ownership should financially strengthen the Chiefs’ ability to sign quality players.
Weber’s role as an owner of a Lancaster advertising agency will bring expertise to the Chiefs’ marketing plan. Weber said he’s already compiled a comprehensive marketing strategy that will be unveiled this offseason.
He stressed that pleasing season-ticket holders and making games more affordable for families are two key points he noted while attending the April 18 town meeting/fan forum at the War Memorial.
“We control our own destiny,” Weber said. “The bottom line is if we put a good product on the ice night after night, if people come to the games and have a good time night after night, we’re going to succeed.
“I need this town to believe we can win,” Weber added. “We’ve got to expect to win. We’ve got to want to win. We’ve got to believe we can win.”
Chiefs General Manager Jim Brazill appreciated the message Weber delivered to his new staff during a marathon meeting on Saturday.
“CFP is what we’re stressing,” Brazill said. “Cup. Fans. Profitability. Win the Cup and the fans will come. With the fans, you have profitability.”