Bringing Hockey Home
By Suzanne Grove
Hockey. If you search for this two-syllable, six-letter word in a dictionary, you might find a definition similar to this one: “A game played on an ice rink by two teams of six players on skates whose object is to drive a puck into the opponents' goal with a hockey stick” (Merriam-Webster).
All the essential components are there on the page, but the description barely touches on the true meaning of the sport. It fails to capture the prolific history . . . the speed, physicality, intensity, and grit required to be a hockey player . . . the linguistic and cultural diversity found in the locker rooms of nearly every junior, college, and professional league.
For any young boy who has imagined wearing the sweater of his favorite NHL team and the hushed thrill of a crowd of thousands while rehearsing his shootout moves in his driveway, for any mother who has kicked off warm blankets at 7 a.m. to drive her daughter to practice 30 miles away in winter with only a cup of coffee to stay awake, for any grown man who knows the defeat of watching his opponent raise Lord Stanley on the national stage – for these people, hockey is more than a game. It is more than sticks and pucks and socks and the tangible parts of a greater whole. It is an emotion. A feeling that swells in the chest and makes them nostalgic and hopeful and grateful for all the memories the sport has already provided and all the happiness it will bring in the future.
This sensation is no different for the players of the Johnstown Tomahawks or the team’s fans. The people of Johnstown and the surrounding communities are hockey people. By helping the Tomahawks reach six sellouts, remaining in the War Memorial Arena to cheer on the team even after the scoreboard’s glowing, red numbers indicate a loss at the end of a game, and asking the team to speak in their schools and help their charities, the fans here have proven, again and again over the past 10 months, that they unequivocally have earned the right to call themselves true hockey fans. Some of these fans are former professional players, others are people who dare not miss a game despite the fact they have never themselves laced up a pair of skates, and others are billet families who welcomed young men into their homes without reservations, offering a sense of family and home in a foreign city or even a foreign country.
Perhaps those words provide a much more fitting definition of hockey: Family. Home.
After all, hockey is where we – the fans – spend our days and nights. We browse the websites of our favorite teams during our work lunch breaks and we argue with our friends over rivalries that have existed since our great-grandparents first learned about the game. We understand and appreciate the overtimes and shootouts, the plane rides and long bus trips, the morning skates and training camps.
Tomahawks fans know the history of hockey not only in Johnstown, but also in the U.S. and Canada and Russia. They like to pay tribute to the past, but also work hard to advance the sport while not forgetting its roots. They know how much hockey requires of its players: The bodies that ache and the muscles that stiffen or spasm and need ice after leaving every ounce of sweat and desire (and blood) on the ice.
The fans here in Johnstown who advocate for the sport and pass their love of the game and season tickets down to their children also refuse to be elitists. They are more than happy to welcome you on-board if you want to enjoy a game. They will explain icing and off-sides and positions to you. So if you arrived at a Tomahawks game with little knowledge just looking to spend a Friday night drinking beer with your buddies or wanting to impress your date, who happens to be a huge fan, you won’t be ignored or left out.
The Tomahawks organization wanted to bring hockey back to Johnstown, where it was sorely missed. We wanted to reignite that fire in your hearts. We wanted to give you a team of young men who would fight for every second of ice time and through every second of each game to bring victory to home ice. We wanted to give you that sense of home that is the smell of a fresh sheet of ice and the sound of bodies and pucks banging against the boards. But, we also wanted to open the doors to new fans and young fans . . . to extend an invitation to join the hockey culture, which, at the end of the day, boils down quite simply to loving the game – to finding joy in it. Once you have watched someone fall in love with the game for the first time or watched fans experience it after a long absence, whether from a lockout or the departure of their hometown team, you will fully understand the pleasure we have found in bringing the Tomahawks to Johnstown.
So, thank you. Thank you for turning on the scoreboard again inside the War Memorial. For allowing that specific hockey smell to flood the runways and locker rooms here. For providing young men with the opportunity to pursue their dream. Thank you for allowing us to bring hockey home.