Road to the Robertson Cup: 360 (Part 2)
Updated: Jul 14
Written by: Danielle Walukas
Photos and Graphics by: Danielle Walukas
Note: If you haven't read part one, of this two part series, here is Road to the Robertson Cup - Part One
The 2020-21 NAHL season made its official start in early October, and with a fresh start came a fresh Johnstown Tomahawks team with a few returning players looking to pick up where they left off from the previous season after its abrupt end.
With a fresh, new team of players comes a new set of captains to lead the team in their wins and losses, and with former captain Chris Trouba aged out of the league and committed to college, a newcomer would step in to take his place and fulfill his duties. This newcomer would come to be none other than forward Alex Gritz, and by his side would stand Liam Whitehouse, Ethan Webb, Anthony Mastromonica, and Caden Lewandowski as alternate captains. But even with a new set of skaters, old habits would find their way back to Johnstown.
“We had an unbelievable group of guys this year. Coming to the rink every day was so enjoyable because of the family we had in our locker room,” rookie forward Brendan Clark said about his teammates.
The Tomahawks would kick off their start to the season with a road trip to Maryland to face off against the Blackbears in a two-game weekend series. The Hawks would return to Johnstown with a win and a loss after an unbelievable comeback in game one, winning 7-6 in overtime after being down 4-1 in the first period, and then falling to the Bears 4-3 in overtime in game two.
The Hawks would officially start their season with their home opener come October 16th against the Maine Nordiques where they would fall to the Nordiques in a shootout, but things would start to pick up for the Hawks in game two. Game two against Maine would not only be the first home ice win of the season, but it began their home ice winning streak which stretched until mid-March, becoming what can be seen as a repeat season.
The 2018-19 Tomahawks team began a winning streak in mid-October that stretched seventeen games through early December. This season, the Tomahawks’ winning streak stretched to mid-March and would last over the course of seventeen home games before the Hawks would give up their streak to a loss against the Northeast Generals on March 21st of 2021.
This streak had the Hawks climbing the standings, securing their spot at the top of the East Division, and putting them second in the league overall. The team was making their way to a playoff clinch.
With the heat of this home ice winning streak firing up the Tomahawks team as well as their fans, something bigger would come to the city of Johnstown to hop on the warpath and keep the heat going. Or should I say, come back to Johnstown?
After ending the 2019-20 season suffering a broken vertebrae and an early cancelation of the season, after almost an entire year though he would not be skating, Chris Trouba would finally make his return to the Tomahawks team in January 2021 where he would stand beside Coach Letizia and Dave Dunkleberger as a part of the development and coaching staff.
Trouba would lead his team in the race to the Robertson Cup once again.
The team was more than ready for the fight ahead of them in finishing off the regular season as well as their march into the playoffs, armed with such skilled players.
“The one particular moment that sticks with me was when we played the U.S. National Development team after Christmas break. It was a huge test for our team and really showed how talented our group was,” Clark shared.
The Tomahawks were able to battle their way to clinching the 2020-21 Robertson Cup Playoffs come April 16th, and that battle would not end there.
The regular season would come to an end a month after their clinch, the last game played on May 16th against the Danbury Jr. Hat Tricks. The Hawks would end their regular season with a three-game weekend sweep against the Hat Tricks, leaving them with a regular season record of 39-10-2-3 and a total of 83 points. They would walk into the playoffs sitting first in the division as the East Division Regular Season Champions and second in the league overall.
Coming full circle, from the first game of the season to the first round of playoffs, the Tomahawks would come face to face with the Maryland Black Bears once again.
Just as both teams fought when playing during the regular season, the fight now was much harder. Both teams would put in every effort they could, but only one could come out on top and move on to the next series while the other would end their season for good.
The Tomahawks took Game 1 of the series with a home win, but the Black Bears would fight for Game 2, and they did just that. The Bears took the win for Game 2 in Johnstown, sending both teams to Maryland for games 3 and 4. Similar to Game 1, Maryland would take the home ice win in Game 3, making Game 4 a life-or-death fight for Johnstown. The Hawks fought for the Game 5 home ice advantage in Game 4, coming out on top of the Bears with a win and sending both teams back to Johnstown for the tiebreaking, sudden death Game 5.
Game 5 would be a well fought game for both teams, each looking to climb their way to the next series of the playoffs. It was a back-and-forth game when it came to scoring with Johnstown scoring the first goal of the game. Maryland would come in scoring and the teams would score one after the next, back and forth, until it was all tied up 3-3 in the third period. The game changing goal would come from the Black Bears, giving them the 4-3 lead and eventually the Game 5 win, sending Maryland on to the next series and ending the Tomahawks 2020-21 playoff run as well as their 2020-21 NAHL season.
The Tomahawks fought a hard season, especially with all of the chaos caused from Covid; a season that was not promised for any team in the beginning. On top of Covid, the players faced other team related challenges like the coming and going of many players, changes in game scheduling, coaching changes, and more. This season was not easy for anyone, especially for the teams that played, and the Hawks may not have made it to the Robertson Cup, but they were able to fight just about any challenge that came their way and pushed through as hard as they could.
“We all left Johnstown with 30 brothers, and I am so grateful to be a part of a team that was as close as we were,” Clark stated, “I cannot thank my teammates enough for how special they made this year for me. I am going to miss each and every one of them next year.”
Although many players are moving on to their next chapters and will not be returning next season, there is still much possibility to be made from such an ambitious team with some of hockey’s most passionate fans that stand behind them.
"After living in Johnstown for a year, I have realized how special the city is. And the reason its so special is because of it's people. Our billet families, fans, Scott and Cindy, and all others made Johnstown our home. The relationships I made on and off the ice are ones that ill remember for the rest of my life and the city of Johnstown will have a special place in my heart," said Clark.
With the determination and charisma that the Johnstown Tomahawks team has developed and carried with them over the last three seasons (2018-2021), there is no disappointment or discourage, only faith and confidence, in saying “there’s always next year.”
2020-21 Tomahawk College Commitments
Carson Grainer - Chatham University
David Paluch - University of Vermont
Max Smolinski - Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
TJ Koufis - University of Wisconsin
Will Margel - University of New Hampshire
Brendan Clark - Brown University
Alex Gritz - University of Waterloo
John Gelatt - College of Holy Cross
Ethan Webb - Stevenson University
Caden Lewandowski - Clarkson University
Jay Ahearn - Niagara University
Josh Graziano - University of Notre Dame
Jared Gerger - Lake Forest