By Mike Mastovich
JOHNSTOWN, Pa. – Dennis Packard graduated from Harvard University with a psychology degree.
Obviously, the newest Johnstown Chief is a well-educated guy.
That’s one reason Packard is anxious to join the Chiefs for Friday’s game against the Dayton Bombers at Cambria County War Memorial Arena.
A Tampa Bay draft pick under contract to the Lightning, Packard spent the past two months with the team’s AHL affiliate in Springfield, Mass. He appeared in only four games and most recently was a healthy scratch four other dates.
In Johnstown, the 6-5, 234-pound power forward almost certainly will receive both ample ice time and an opportunity to hone his skills.
“I’m happy to get a chance to start playing in some games,” Packard said during a Thursday telephone interview. “It’s tough sitting out. I just need to make the best of this situation and try to help this team win some games.”
The 22-year-old from Kingston, a town near Wilkes-Barre, has been in Johnstown since Monday. Packard watched the team’s 3-1 loss to Wheeling on Wednesday at Southpointe. He was not added to the roster until coach Toby O’Brien waived forward Evgeny Lazarev Thursday to open a spot.
“Dennis is a big, strong power forward,” O’Brien said. “He played in the U.S. National Team development program in Ann Arbor, Mich., before going to Harvard. He is a good skater and is strong on the puck. He adds a great deal of size and strength up front.”
Lazarev scored a goal and three points in five games. The former AHL player was expected to be key contributor as he worked his way back into game shape after a long layoff.
“Laz came in and put some numbers on the board and did his job,” O’Brien said. “Just with our numbers and guys coming down from Tampa, we had to make a decision. Right now, he continues to skate his way into shape, but it became a situation with the amount of players we had here, I just couldn’t wait for that to happen.
“I decided to stay with the nucleus of young guys and let them grow and improve.”
In 131 games at Harvard, Packard had 32 goals and 66 points. Last season he was fifth on the Crimson with 11 goals and 22 points.
The Lightning selected him in the seventh round of the 2001 NHL Entry Draft.
“Then I played in college and finished college,” Packard said. “This past summer, Tampa signed me in July. I went to their rookie camp in August, and then to Springfield’s AHL camp after that. I was there a few months and played in four games. I was sent here after I was a healthy scratch for four games.
“Just from getting to know the guys the last couple days, it’s a great bunch of guys, a tight knit group. I’m looking forward to becoming a part of this team and getting to know the guys.”
Packard was born in St. Catharines, Ontario, and his family moved to the Wilkes-Barre area when he was in third grade.
He followed the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins in the AHL.
“My parents have season tickets. Whenever I was home for vacation at Christmas I’d try to catch a couple games,” Packard said.
The fact that Johnstown is a relatively short trip from Wilkes-Barre makes Packard optimistic that his family might have an opportunity to see him play in the ECHL.
“I talked to them a few days ago and they’re trying to work out a time when they can come over,” Packard said. “I don’t think either of my parents have ever been to Johnstown. They’re excited to see the town and see me play.”