Road to the Robertson Cup (Part 1)
Article and Photos by: Danielle Walukas
It was in 2016 when young, rookie defenseman, Chris Trouba, came to play for the Johnstown Tomahawks. He would play two full seasons before stepping up his role on the team. Come the 2018-19 season, Trouba would be named captain of the Tomahawks, with Mitch Hale, Colin Price, Sam Solensky, and Carter Dwyer by his side as alternate captains. Little did Trouba know that this new position was only the beginning.
The Tomahawks were back and forth on wins and losses at the start of the regular season in October of 2018, but things started to pick up when the team traveled to Maryland to face off against the Blackbears for the first time that season. On October 13th, against the Blackbears, the Hawks began their winning streak which stretched until December 7th when they lost to the Jamestown Rebels. The Tomahawks created a seventeen-game winning streak which was their longest streak of the regular season. With this streak, the Tomahawks were punching their ticket to the playoffs. The team was on their way to being almost unstoppable.
As the season went on, the team had their coaches, the staff, and the fans cheering them on every step of the way and firing the players up to give them the energy and motivation to play hard and keep winning. The whole city of Johnstown was on the warpath.
With this power behind them, the Tomahawks were ready to go the lengths it would take to bring home a championship for their city, and they were not about to let their fans down.
The regular season came to an end in the early weeks of April 2019. The Tomahawks would end their regular season with a record of 47-9-3-1, putting them at the top of the league in standings with 98 points, and clinching the top spot to the 2019 Robertson Cup Playoffs. With a record like this, the Tomahawks walked into the playoffs with not one, but two titles on their shoulders: East Division Regular Season Champions and Regular Season Champions, and the team was hoping to add a third by the end of it all.
The Robertson Cup Playoffs consist of four rounds of play in which sixteen teams are paired up and face off to fight for the cup. Each round starts a new bracket in which the remaining number of teams are paired together and play until one moves on and the other goes home. Round one starts with sixteen teams in a best-of-five game matchup. Round two is knocked down to the remaining eight teams and is kept at a best-of-five matchup. Round three is the semifinals of the playoffs where the remaining four teams compete in a best-of-three matchup to determine who will be the final two teams. Round four is the biggest moment of the entire season, the game that every team hopes and fights for, the game that determines the “best” team of the season. Round four is when the final two teams fight for the Robertson Cup and the title of “Champions.”
The Tomahawks had confidence in their team knowing they had their whole city behind them cheering them on. The team fought hard and played harder, doing anything they could to score goals and rack up wins. They used every game they had, beating the Northeast Generals in five games in round one, eliminating the New Jersey Titans in five games in round two, and pushing their way into round three.
2019 was the closest the Johnstown Tomahawks have come to winning the NAHL Robertson Cup, making it to round three of four in the playoffs before being shut down by the Fairbanks Ice Dogs who would face off against the Aberdeen Wings for the championship title.
Though they were unable to go all the way to winning the cup, Tomahawks fans were not disappointed in their team because they knew their team played hard to get as far as they did. Although the Tomahawks were not the Robertson Cup Champions, they were still able to add a third championship title to the list as East Division Playoffs Champions.
For the team, it’s not all about winning. The chemistry of the players both on and off the ice is just as important as the outcome of the games that are played during the season. The 2018-19 Tomahawks were a pretty special group of guys all around, especially to alumni Christian Gorscak. Having a few words about his teammates, Gorscak said,
“I would say the group of guys we had was unbelievable. We were a family. There wasn’t a day anyone didn’t want to be at the rink or just with each other in general. We had such a special bond off the ice that it translated to the ice. When we got to the ice, we trusted each other, we knew anyone could score or make a big play. We had a lot of confidence as a group and that is what led to our success. Obviously, the final was a bit disappointing, but all around, as a group, we came together as more than just a hockey team.”
The 2018-19 season was the year the Tomahawks put their name on every team’s radar. With the energy of the season and the playoff run, and the fans that stand behind them, the Tomahawks were only going to come back stronger in the next season.
“I was excited to play hockey in a true hockey town. Obviously, Johnstown has a lot of rich history in the sport, and I was excited to be a part of it. It was great playing in front of such passionate fans and under such seasoned veterans of the league.” ~Liam Whitehouse
Come the 2019-2020 season, the Hawks were ready for the race to the cup once again. As the regular season started and progressed, the Tomahawks began racking up wins, with some losses here and there, so come January of 2020, they were the team on everyone’s tongue.
After the playoff run from last season, and now being on his second season as captain, Chris Trouba was ready to lead his team into the new season in hopes to make a repeat of the previous year, but this time going all the way and coming home with their first-ever Robertson Cup. But things weren’t going to come easy for the team. There is a quote that says, “Great achievement always requires great sacrifice,” and sometimes sacrifice isn’t something that is planned and comes as a shock, even to the one who is sacrificing.
The Tomahawks started the new regular season at the end of September against the New Jersey Titans in a two-game series, winning their first home game of the season five to two and then falling one point under the Titans in game two in a shootout.
The team spent the first two months of the regular season on a consistent back-and-forth rhythm of winning and losing, winning roughly one or two games before losing one or two games and then repeating.
The weekend of November 22nd, the Tomahawks faced off against the Maryland Blackbears at Cambria County War Memorial in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, a series of games that the team would remember for years to come. Winning game one, five to four, the Hawks were ready to hit the ice for game two Saturday night.
On November 23rd of 2019, tragedy struck the Tomahawks team, a loss that hit harder than losing any game.
At the beginning of the second period, Trouba took the puck down into the Blackbears’ zone in an attempt to make a play that would give his team a goal. At the same time, Blackbear forward Cameron Recchi came in for a hit on Trouba in hopes to gain possession of the puck. Recchi came upon his target, throwing himself at the Tomahawks’ captain. The force of the hit knocked Trouba off his feet, sending him headfirst into the boards behind the Blackbear’s net. Whistles sounded on the ice as the arena fell silent, the fans watching in panic as number four lay motionless on the ice. Trainers and medical staff rushed onto the ice to attend to the injured player. After several minutes, Trouba was carefully placed on a stretcher and taken off the ice to be transported to the hospital.
It was released the following day that the Hawks captain suffered a broken C-6 vertebra in his neck. Thankfully the injury had not caused any further, career-ending damage, and Trouba would look forward to joining his teammates back on the ice come spring of 2020.
In the absence of their captain, each Tomahawks player stepped up their responsibility on the team, bringing the teammates even closer and pushing them harder every game.
Come December, the Hawks were able to create a small winning streak of five games in a row before another loss came around. They fell back into a back-and-forth rhythm until February when the Hawks made an eight-game winning streak.
These small streaks, and the battle every game to add another win under their belt, came from the passion and ambition of the players who were now fighting for more than just a playoff spot. They were fighting for their captain, and for the night he would make his return.
Unfortunately for the Tomahawks, and the city of Johnstown, Trouba would not get the return that everyone had thought. The captain was supposed to hit the ice once again in Johnstown the weekend of March 13th, 2020 against the Wilkes Barre Scranton Knights. On Thursday, March 12th, the NAHL announced that the 2019-2020 season would be put on pause due to the rise of COVID-19. Approximately four days later, on the 16th, the league announced the season’s cancellation.
As COVID grew into a worldwide pandemic, the thoughts, let alone plans, for a new season were unknown.
The official announcement that there would be a 2020-21 season came during midsummer. The announcement reported that there would be a delayed start to the season, starting in October rather than September.
“I was very relieved,” defensemen Liam Whitehouse said in regard to having a season this year. “When last year got canceled there was a lot of uncertainty. I’m just happy to be playing a season regardless of fans or having to wear masks.”
With the new season among us, the Tomahawks are back in the race for the cup, even if COVID has been making the season difficult. Over the course of two and half months of play, several games have been postponed and a temporary pause in play has been issued until after the new year.
An important focal point of the team over this temporary break is the chemistry of the players. This chemistry created between the players off the ice is what helps their performance on the ice, and it is just as important as winning games, if not more.
“It’s harder building that chemistry for sure this year since we’re limited to what we can do away from the rink, but we have a good group of guys on and off the ice this year, and it’s fun to go to the rink every day,” Whitehouse said.
The bond between players every season is something special and memorable when it comes to the Johnstown Tomahawks.
“I think we have a great team. Everyone gets along with everyone in the locker room. We always are laughing and joking until it’s time to be serious. The boys kind of gelled together from the start,” newcomer, forward Jay Ahearn said about his new teammates. “I love every single one of them like a brother. The respect we all have for one another is very high. As for on the ice, I think we are the best team in the division when we play our game.”
To be continued...
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