'Slap Shot' town still struggling

JOHNSTOWN, Pa. -- The streets of this small town are littered with relics from the iconic movie "Slap Shot" filmed here 40 years ago.There's the statue of the dog that, in the movie, saved the people of fictitious Charlestown from the 1938 flood. There's...

'Slap Shot' town still struggling

JOHNSTOWN, Pa. -- The streets of this small town are littered with relics from the iconic movie "Slap Shot" filmed here 40 years ago.

There's the statue of the dog that, in the movie, saved the people of fictitious Charlestown from the 1938 flood. There's the park in the center of town with the fountain where Paul Newman and Lindsay Crouse shared a memorable scene. There are familiar storefronts. The Aces restaurant is still in operation. The steel mills are still standing. Then there's the Cambria County War Memorial ice rink.

People in this town take pride in the movie, but Johnstown is somehow different than it was 40 years ago.

It's depressing.

The rust-belt town took a massive hit to its economy when Bethlehem Steel Corporation, America's second-largest steel producer, closed its mill in 1982. The town's population was well over 70,000, but after the mill closed, the downturn began.

"The steel mill left. The jobs left. The people left," said Johnstown police Capt. Chad Miller.

In 2003, the U.S. Census showed that Johnstown was the least likely city to attract new residents. In 2013, CNN listed it as one of the seven fastest-shrinking cities in the country, citing a 70 percent drop in population since the 1920s, including 13 percent since 2000. Today, the population is under 20,000.

Johnstown is still a tough, gritty, hardworking community. After overcoming so much over the years, it remains a resilient town.

"There's been a huge flux in population and with that flux in population, just like any other steel town, like any other economically depressed town, the town was bigger than it could afford and we've been economically depressed since the '90s," Miller said. "However, this town is a fighter. It's just like the movie 'Slap Shot' -- and the town takes pride in the movie. It's not a town that dies easily. It's definitely a fighting town. People here love it and have their heels dug in and won't let the town die."

The town will receive a major boost this weekend when Steve Carlson, Jeff Carlson and Dave Hanson, better known as the Hanson brothers, will host the "Boys Are Back in Town" to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the release of the movie. The celebration will feature appearances by original cast members, artifacts from the film, a special showing of the movie and, of course, dinner at the Aces.

"It's going to be bringing back old-time hockey again to Johnstown, where it all started," said Steve Carlson, aka Steve Hanson. "We filmed 40 years ago on the same ice surface, and it's going to bring back a lot of memories -- a lot of great memories."

Scott McLachlan and his wife, Cindy, have owned and operated Scott's by Dam sports bar for 25 years. The bar is a saucer pass away from the War Memorial and it's only slightly larger than a hockey locker room. Memorabilia lines the walls, including an autographed picture of McLachlan with the Hanson brothers. The regulars are all huge hockey fans. The bar is crowded before and after games of the Johnstown Tomahawks, a minor-pro team that plays in the North American Hockey League.

"It's going to be absolutely fantastic seeing different people from all over the country," McLachlan said of this weekend's events. "It's a good breath of fresh air for Johnstown. The hockey atmosphere in Johnstown is tremendous. We love the hockey community and with the guys coming back in and doing the anniversary, it's keeping us moving because nothing much else is."

"Slap Shot" wasn't the only movie filmed here. "All the Right Moves" with Tom Cruise was shot here too, as were parts of the Mark Wahlberg movie "Rock Star."

Johnstown, a place where residents give directions using landmarks that no longer exist, is a two-hour drive east from Pittsburgh, a city that has won six Super Bowls and four Stanley Cups. The mountain between them serves as an obstacle and a sort of gate at the same time.

"Once you come through that mountain, it's a completely different world," Miller said.

"We have a huge heroin epidemic, the things that come with a poor city," explained Miller. "We have a lot of crime coming in from out of town, a lot of people from Philly, Columbus, Pittsburgh coming in for the drug trade. You might hear bad things about the town, but people won't leave. They've been here their whole life and they won't be pushed out, and they really do take pride in the movie."

Sports, especially hockey, is keeping this town alive.

The Charlestown Chiefs were based on the Johnstown Jets, an active minor league team from 1950 to 1977 that played an exhibition game against Maurice "Rocket" Richard and the Montreal Canadiens in 1951. The Tomahawks have called Johnstown home since 2012. Johnstown won the inaugural Kraft Hockeyville USA contest and the War Memorial received $150,000 in upgrades and then hosted a preseason game between the Pittsburgh Penguins and Tampa Bay Lightning on Sept. 29, 2015.

The hockey community descended on Johnstown for that event and the town was able to display its rich hockey history.

"It was nice seeing people walk on the sidewalk," McLachlan said.

Johnstown is also home of the All American Amateur Baseball Association's annual tournament. It will host the 73rd tournament in August at Point Stadium. The Sunnehanna amateur golf tournament has been held in Johnstown since 1956. Golfing greats including Arnold Palmer and Tiger Woods have played at Sunnehanna.

"It's definitely a sports town and it loves its sports," Miller said. "It loves the action. Loves the competition. It's not going to let a little economic downturn kill it, that's for sure."

Mike Artim is the president of the Greater Johnstown/Cambria County Chamber of Commerce. The furniture in his office on Market Street is so dated he jokes that it could have been used as a prop in "Slap Shot." He understands what this weekend's anniversary will mean for this town.

"It's part of our history. It's part of our culture," Artim said. "Any time we do something with 'Slap Shot,' the community gets enthused. It's great for the town. It's great for the community. 'Slap Shot' is such an iconic movie but one that Johnstown just really identifies with."

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Johnstown has dealt with more than its share of tragedy and adversity. In 1889, more than 2,000 people died in the "Great Flood," the country's worst natural disaster until Hurricane Katrina in August 2005. Johnstown had massive floods again in 1936 and 1977.

After the mills closed in the 1980s, the town has been trying to pick itself up ever since. A new campaign dubbed Vision 2025 is designed to make Johnstown a destination once again for industry and technology.

"We're going through the same things that every other small town in Western PA and Ohio is going through," Artim said. "We have those issues, but those issues won't define us. ... We're starting to be a mini Pittsburgh. We're starting to make that connection and 'Slap Shot' is to Johnstown what the Steelers are to Pittsburgh. People embrace hockey here and it's great to see."

There's a lot of negativity around this small town. But the people here believe they will overcome their problems.

"It's faith, family and hard work," Artim said.

And "Slap Shot."

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