YOU KNOW JOHNSTOWN, Pa., pop. 20,402, even if you’ve never driven an hour east of Pittsburgh to see it. You know it from Slap Shot, the only hockey movie that counts. Yeah, Johnstown passed for Charlestown, fictional home of the Chiefs. Still, there was no disguising it. Slap Shot starred Paul Newman as Reggie Dunlop, the fiery career minor-league player-coach, but dreary, kicked-in Johnstown deserved second billing.
When I drove into town, I recognized the Inclined Plane, a 71-degree lift that rises 900 feet. Built as an escape route after the great flood killed 2,209 back in 1889, it remains Johnstown’s only sign of upward mobility.
I recognized the intersection of Main and Bridge, where Dunlop and his college-educated star Ned Braden passed the Bethlehem steel mill and talked about jobs drying up. That’s what was happening during filming in 1976. Message: This is where the road ends and luck goes to die.
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I had gone to Johnstown during the NHL lockout of ’94. I was looking for any arena where the lights were still on. By that time, the East Coast Hockey League franchise had appropriated the Chiefs’ nickname, but, like in the movie, the owners wanted to sell or move.
The Chiefs’ leader was a defenceman named Perry Florio. He had been a draft pick of Los Angeles, but the Kings’ interest in him cooled, and he landed in the ECHL. When I met him, he was in his fifth season in Johnstown and led the league in career games played. He had been called up to the American Hockey League once, a three-game stint with Hershey. The Chiefs had just lost to Columbus 5–3, and the players’ mood was bleak: It was hard to play for $300 or $400 a week, harder to lose with fans pounding the glass, demanding a brawl. Florio didn’t drop his gloves. None of the Chiefs did, angering the mob. “The one thing Slap Shot had right was that the fans want old-time hockey,” he said. “They want rough stuff. This is a blue-collar town, a mill town.”
That was Florio’s last season. He married a Johnstown girl and kicked around the ECHL as a coach. Meeting him was like watching a scene deleted from Slap Shot.
This story originally appeared in the June 2016 issue of Sportsnet magazine.