A Fanless Season?
Updated: Oct 5, 2020
by Jon Kohan
A puck smacks off the crossbar of the net and flies directly into the stands of 1st Summit Arena. A group of children eagerly race over to the puck, in hopes they’ll be the lucky one to retrieve the prized possession.
The player (who we’ll refer to in this article, as “Andy”) skates a lap around the Tomahawks’ side of the ice as he’s participating in the pre-game warmups. When he makes his way back toward the net, he sees one of the same kids in the stands, now holding the once-coveted puck above his head with a huge smile on his face.
As Andy takes another warmup shot on the net he can’t help but smile, seeing the young fan’s energetic grin.
Just then, the buzzer rings out in the arena. The warmup is over.
Andy skates over to the bench and places his helmet down. He won’t need it during opening ceremonies.
He takes a drink from a water bottle and looks around at the stands. The arena already has about a thousand fans in attendance. There’s a buzz in the crowd already.
Andy puts down the water bottle and skates over to the Tomahawks entrance, where he walks off the ice and heads toward the locker room.
Before he can get inside to be with the rest of his teammates, Andy gives fist-bumps to all the kids that have gathered on either side of the hall, leading towards the locker room. With every fist-bump and high-five, another kid’s face lights up.
A little later, Andy sits at his locker stall, staring at the Tomahawks logo that’s embedded in the carpet, directly in the middle of the floor.
There’s not much talking right now, as everyone on the team is getting mentally prepared for the game, and more importantly, for the Tomahawks home opener vs. the Jamestown Rebels.
Andy, one of the team’s youngest players, just officially made the team a few weeks ago, after impressing the Johnstown Tomahawks’ coaching staff with his skill and work ethic.
Tonight, he’ll make his first appearance in the NAHL for the Tomahawks.
Head coach, Mike Letizia enters the room and everyone focuses their attention on him. He addresses his team on what he expects from them this evening, reviewing last minute strategies. He also reminds them to have a good time because opening night, especially in Johnstown, is one you’ll remember for a long time after the game is over.
Throughout the years, the Tomahawks have made the season home opener one you don’t want to miss. It’s one of those games that the entire community comes out to show their support for.
The pre-game fireworks and hockey celebrity appearances, like that of Mario Lemieux on opening night in the team’s first ever home game in Johnstown, doesn’t hurt getting people in the stands either.
But it’s not just an exciting moment for the fans and city of Johnstown; it’s also a moment that the players look forward to, having never experienced something like this before in their young hockey careers.
Al Steele’s voice echoes throughout the arena between loud cheers from the hometown crowd, as he introduces, one-by-one, this year’s Johnstown Tomahawks roster.
Andy’s name is announced on the PA system, and he glides onto the ice, through some pyrotechnics, and skates to the team’s center logo, where the rest of the Tomahawks are standing.
Andy is in awe of the moment. He’s never played in front of this many people in his entire life.
Growing up and making his way through the various hockey levels, he’s only played around friends, family, and other familiar faces. In fact, he’s only played in front of a couple dozen people in his whole hockey career. Tonight, at 1st Summit Arena, he’s going to play in front of a sellout crowd of over four thousand.
The national anthem has come to an end. An in-door fireworks display gets the season started off with a bang! The players are now skating around the ice, getting ready for the opening face-off. The crowd is cheering loudly.
It’s game time. A new hockey season is here.
“It’s one of the greatest feelings there is,” said current Tomahawks defenseman, Liam Whitehouse.
“Johnstown has some of the best sports fans there is, and my first game I could definitely tell that this is a hockey town,” Whitehouse added.
The Tomahawks have been calling Johnstown home since the 2012-13 season, when they relocated to Johnstown from Alaska.
This year, with Covid-19 shortening the prior season and canceling playoffs, for the first time in Tomahawks history, there might not be an opening night ceremony. No hockey celebrity puck drop. No fans.
The NAHL has delayed the start of the 2020-21 season until October. Usually, the league starts regular season games in the second or third week in September, but they have now pushed things back a month, due to the continuation of the pandemic across the United States.
The NAHL regular season schedule is set to be released on September 1st. Hockey season, our favorite time of the year, is almost here. But as of right now, it would appear that while the players might take the ice, there won’t be anyone in the stands.
The Johnstown Tomahawks play in the North America Hockey League’s East Division. Except for the NAHL Showcase, the ‘Hawks usually only play teams in their own division, which reduces extra travel; however, since every state is currently in different stages of lockdown with varying restrictions on crowd sizes, some teams might be able to have fans, while other teams may not.
As of the typing of this article, it would appear that the Tomahawks will not be one of the teams allowed to have fans.
In Pennsylvania, Governor Wolf has stated that he highly recommends that schools should not operate sports programs in the fall, and should wait to resume play until at least January 1, 2021, due to Covid-19.
This past Friday, (8-7-20), the PIAA, (The Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association, Inc.) who develop and enforce rules regulating interscholastic athletic competition, released the following press release about Governor Wolf’s recommendation:
The PIAA Board of Directors has heard the thousands of voices of student-athletes, parents, coaches, and community leaders that have contacted us. The Board believes that the Governor’s strong recommendation to delay sports to January 1, 2021 has a potential negative impact on the students’ physical, social, emotional, and mental health. These issues along with the financial inability of many students to participate in any other form of non-school based athletic programs affect all students directly or indirectly.
PIAA is asking the Governor, along with the Departments of Health and Education, to partner with us and work collaboratively to further discuss fall sports. We are also seeking insight and discussion from the Pennsylvania General Assembly.
It is clear to PIAA, the unintended consequences of cancelling fall sports need to be further reviewed. PIAA has worked diligently with its Sports Medicine Advisory Committee and developed the following general policy statement:
Based on currently known information, the Committee believes that STRICT ADHERENCE by schools and teams to their school-adopted plans and the Governor’s School Sports Guidance should provide a reasonably safe environment for student athletes to participate in interscholastic athletics as currently scheduled.
Consistent with the advice of the PIAA Sports Medicine Advisory Committee, PIAA continues to believe it can safely sponsor fall sports. On August 21st the Board will reconvene. Between now and then, voluntary workouts, per the Governor’s Guidance for All Sports, and with local approval, may continue. Mandatory fall sports activities are paused for the two-week period. PIAA remains committed to providing a season for each of the sports during the 2020-2021 school year.
Obviously, the PIAA are not affiliated with the NAHL and the Johnstown Tomahawks, but what they’re currently struggling with is the same issue that the NAHL and Johnstown Tomahawks are dealing with.
The athletes though are within the same age ranges.
If the PIAA goes with Wolf’s recommendation, or are required to, it will be a good indicator of what the Johnstown Tomahawks will most likely have to do as well.
The MLB are currently in the middle of their season. No fans are allowed to attend games.
Even before baseball’s regular season began, the Toronto Blue Jays had worked out a deal with the Pittsburgh Pirates to play their “home” games at PNC park. This plan had to be cancelled when Governor Wolf disapproved, citing safety concerns involving Covid-19.
The NFL’s season is close to beginning, and both the Steelers and Eagles will not have fans in attendance for their games.
If two of the biggest sports leagues in the world are not allowed to have fans attend their games, it’s safe to assume the NAHL will not be allowed to have fans at their games either, or at least in Pennsylvania.
Remember, the state is still limiting the amount of people that can gather in one place. In Pennsylvania, that number is capped at 250 for outdoor events. Inside, it is further limited to 25 people.
Just prior to posting this article, news broke that the Washington Wild Things of the Frontier League (Baseball), who play in Washington Pa, had to stop playing in front of fans because of social distancing. This article is worth reading as it has direct correlation to the Tomahawks situation.
The Tomahawks, however, don’t just play in Johnstown. They find themselves traveling all over the Northeast during the season, playing teams in New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Maryland, and Maine.
Each of these states have their own restrictions and rules in place. Let’s take a look at them briefly.
The Jamestown Rebels play in New York, one of the hardest hit states during this pandemic. Currently, their crowd sizes for indoor events is limited to 25 people.
The New Jersey Titans play in New Jersey. Currently, their crowd size limitations are capped at 25 people.
The newest team in the East division, the Danbury Jr. Hat Tricks, play out of Connecticut and have indoor restrictions of no more than 50 people.
Northeast Generals play in the state of Massachusetts and currently have crowd limitations of 25.
The Maryland Black Bears are not allowing anyone to gather at any sporting events, other than the players participating in those games.
The Maine Nordiques call the state of Maine their home, and currently have restrictions of 50 people in in-door gatherings.
Overall, these numbers don’t allow for many fans to attend games, if at all.
Last season, New Jersey averaged the worst home attendance in the East division (and league) with an average of only 203 fans per game.
So, in a place like New Jersey, the Titans shouldn’t be very affected by the lack of fans, as they haven’t had people at their games from the start. However, in places like Johnstown and Maine, who average over a thousand fans per game, will certainly be noticing a difference.
“One thing we appreciate about our fans so much is the energy they bring to the rink”, said Whitehouse.
He added, “It feels like you have a whole town behind you whenever you step on the ice. It’s a little intimidating at first, for sure, but once you get used to it, makes playing the game that much more special.”
That home-ice advantage for the ‘Hawks, as of now, won’t be a factor coming into this season.
Last season, before the pandemic caused the NAHL to end the season, the Tomahawks had a home record of 19-4-0-2 and averaged 1,944 fans per game. This was the lowest average in the Tomahawks’ history. It should be noted though, the team still had five home games remaining in the season, which would have undoubtedly put the average attendance back over two thousand.
NOTE: An article on USAhockey.com had these two quotes from the NAHL commissionaire:
“We’re an owner-driven league,” Frankenfeld said. “We’ve had a lot of calls that have been very thoughtful and considerate. We’re looking at coming up with appropriate and safe return to play guidelines. We keep watching and reviewing what’s going on out there.”
“We’ve scheduled in a way so that the divisions are able to start later if they want,” Frankenfeld said. “Our goal is to play all 60 games. But with all of the different rules and regulations in each state, we can’t just make one general guideline. We have to follow the data from the states and cities.”
You can view that full article here.
Out of all the major sports leagues that have returned to play, the NHL has done things the right way. In a perfect world, with unlimited money, the NAHL would do the same thing – have all their games played in one (or two) locations.
This isn’t a feasible thing to do when trying to play a 60-game season. It’s also not possible when the NAHL does not generate the amount of revenue that the NHL can.
If teams designate health as a top priority, and every player on each team adheres to the appropriate precautions to maintain proper standards, there’s no reason why the NAHL and its club members can’t have a successful and safe season.
The players deserve to play. The players need to play.
Junior hockey is an important time in the lives and careers for these young men. Some of these players will be entering their last year of eligibility, many of whom, will earn themselves division one and division three scholarships this season.
If the players don’t play, their futures are literally at risk.
While there are more important things in life than a game, this isn’t just a game. For some players, it’s a stepping stone toward their dream of playing in the NHL. For others, it’s a chance to get a quality education. For some, it’s also a way to provide for their families.
While players in the NAHL do not receive pay from playing, it can turn into a paying career if they turn pro.
Alumni, like Luke Lynch and Andrew Romano, will both be turning pro this season and will be playing in the ECHL. Playing hockey is now their occupation.
If Lynch or Romano were still in juniors, and this was their last year of eligibility, would they even get to go to college? If not, they most likely would not have turned pro, years later.
Well, what about the players that are in that position right now? If the NAHL (or USHL or any other junior hockey league) doesn’t play this year, how many players will see their journey come to an end?
If it comes down to it, I’d prefer the Tomahawks and the NAHL play without any fans, rather than simply ending the season altogether. There’s too much at stake for the players, but they MUST do their part during the season, and ensure not put themselves or their teammates in any danger.
Without fans, there are no sponsors. Without money coming in, the team can not pay for things like travel and hotels during the season.
This issue to play or not to play has some many different angles to it.
When the NHL returned, it was very odd not to see fans in the stands. Being unable to cheer on our favorite teams in person is still disappointing, but at least we had hockey back in our living rooms.
When it comes to the NAHL, there’s only one way to watch if you're not at the game in person. You must sign up for a monthly subscription with HockeyTV for $29.99.
If you’re a diehard Tomahawks fan, this is the only way you’ll be able to watch games. It’ll be a strange feeling not to be at games, but at least you can still watch and support your team.
HockeyTV is a live streaming site, and things don’t always work perfectly. Depending on the arena where the game is being played, the lone camera angle might be in an undesirable spot, there may be lag in the connection, or the video might not be available.
A few hiccups here and there can really sour your feelings toward this company. With a hefty price tag, connection issues, and overall quality, it may be a task that many fans refuse to do.
If the NAHL and other leagues decide to have a 2020-21 season with no fans, HockeyTV should adjust their prices to something more reasonable, or even allow users to pay-per-game. This was a feature that was available years ago, and was about seven dollars per game, making it slightly cheaper than an average Tomahawks ticket.
Hopefully this is something we can all handle when the time comes, but I’m not personally looking forward to it.
A puck smacks off the crossbar of the net and flies directly into the empty seats of 1st Summit Arena, where it lays, untouched, on the concrete floor.
Andy, who just fired the shot, skates a lap around the Tomahawks’ side of the ice as he’s participating in the pre-game warmups. As he makes his way back toward the net, he looks up in the stands and sees nothing but empty seats. He thinks nothing different, as he’s played in many empty arenas before.
Just then, the buzzer rings out. The warmup is over.
Andy glides over to the bench and sips a long drink of water before skating over to the Tomahawks’ door. He keeps all of his equipment. There won’t be any opening ceremonies, so he only has to get ready for the opening face-off.
Andy walks off the ice and heads toward the locker room. The silence allows him to get into the zone much earlier than he normally would.
A few minutes later, Andy sits at his locker stall looking down at the Tomahawks logo that’s embedded in the carpet in the middle of the floor. It finally sets in that this is real. He’s on the opening night roster ready to play his first tier two junior hockey league game.
There’s not much talking right now, as everyone on the team is getting mentally prepared for the game against rival, Jamestown Rebels.
Head coach, Mike Letizia enters the room and everyone focuses their attention on him. He addresses his team on what he expects from them this evening; going over last-minute strategies. He reads off the starting lineup and then makes his way out of the locker room. The players yell and cheer, as they prepare themselves for the start of the season.
Throughout the years, the Tomahawks have made the season home opener one you don’t want to miss, but tonight is just like any other game for Andy.
No pre-game fireworks, and no hockey celebrity special appearance.
The players walk toward the playing surface in a single-file line, as they make their way onto the ice.
They stand side-by-side on their blue line, while listening to a pre-recorded rendition of the Star-Spangled Banner.
Once the last note rings out, Andy and his teammates skate to the bench. He takes a seat on the bench and watches his teammate take the face-off. The ref drops the puck, the Tomahawks' player wins it back to his defenseman, and the d-man starts to skate up the ice with the puck.
The season is underway.
Hopefully, one day, Andy will get to see what makes playing at home in Johnstown so special. One day, but not tonight.
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