By Mike Mastovich
JOHNSTOWN, Pa. – The Johnstown Chiefs’ annual New Year’s Eve game has special significance to veteran right wing Dmitri Tarabrin.
The Moscow native participated in his fifth New Year’s Eve game as part of the Chiefs organization on Saturday night at Cambria County War Memorial Arena. He celebrated it in a big way, scoring the game winner midway through the third period in the Chiefs 7-4 victory over the Columbia Inferno.
Tarabrin, 29, has seen how Johnstown’s hockey fans turn out for the game, most of the time packing the War Memorial. Saturday’s game attracted the 10th sellout crowd in the previous 16 New Year’s Eve contests.
The feisty forward is aware of the Chiefs’ legacy of success on New Year’s Eve. Johnstown now has a 12-2-2 all-time New Year’s Eve record.
But Tarabrin has another sentimental memory, a milestone that extends beyond the hockey games and the big crowds.
“In 2000, I got engaged after the New Year’s Eve game,” said Tarabrin, who resides in Johnstown year-round with his wife, Deena, and daughter, Sasha, 2. “We went to the top of the Inclined Plane.”
Tarabrin is in his seventh season with the Chiefs and is an eighth-year pro.
With 384 games played as a Chief, he is within 30 of tying former Johnstown captain Brent Bilodeau’s team-record 414 career regular-season games.
“Dmitri knows what it means to be a Chief. He takes pride in being a Chief,” Johnstown General Manager Toby O’Brien said. “He cares about being a Chief. “
Tarabrin left Russia in the mid-1990s to pursue his hockey career. After two seasons in North Battleford, Saskatchewan, he landed with the ECHL’s Wheeling Nailers in 1997-98 and was traded to Johnstown for defenseman Jon Sorg 41 games into the 1998-99 season.
“You never know in a trade. I came into a new city with new people,” said Tarabrin, who eventually played for three coaches, two general managers and three ownership groups here. “I was a little bit nervous. I had to see how things would work out. I met a lot of good people here and made a lot of friends. I really got to know the people.
“It’s a blue-collar town with hard-working people. I appreciate people like that. They know the values in life. That’s important. These people work for every cent they’ve got.”
Tarabrin became a fan favorite in Johnstown because of his hard-charging skating style and a willingness to tangle with opponents standing much taller and weighing considerably more than the 5-foot-8, 180-pound Russian.
He was part of the 1999-00 Chiefs team that ended a four-year playoff drought and helped the next year’s team advance to the postseason again.
But when Tarabrin didn’t stick on the 2001-02 roster his career seemed finished.
He surprised a lot of people the next year – first trying out and later making the Chiefs roster. Tarabrin had career highs of 17 goals, 42 points and 101 penalty minutes in 2002-03.
“Dmitri is doing a heck of a job,” O’Brien said. “Just his story of how he got to North America from Russia in those days is remarkable in itself. He sacrificed a lot in his family life and with his friends to come over here and search for something better.
“He ended up in North Battlefield, Saskatchewan. He played well enough to get a tryout in Wheeling and he stuck. We traded Jon Sorg for him. Since then he’s become a household name in Johnstown.
“He’s married. He’s got a baby. They started their family here in Johnstown. He works at Major Builders in the summer. He works with youth hockey. He’s worked hard to give something back to the city.”
Tarabrin went into the Christmas break with three goals and seven points in 18 games. Those numbers aren’t bad for a guy who began the season as a healthy scratch, then rotated on and off the injured list to clear roster space.
He eventually worked his way onto the Chiefs’ top scoring line with center Justin Kelly and left wing Adam Henrich, both of whom spent the holiday break with the AHL’s Springfield Falcons. Henrich was back in Johnstown on Saturday night.
“When I started, I didn’t know seven or eight years later I’d be talking to you from Johnstown, Pennsylvania,” Tarabrin said. “Things turned out that way, and I’m glad they turned out that way.”