August 31, 2018 - Ebensburg, Pennsylvania
The NAHL's Johnstown Tomahawks have a good thing going in Western Pennsylvania. Since junior hockey replaced the ECHL in Johnstown in 2012 the Tomahawks have been near the top of the league's attendance charts, outdrawing the rest of the teams in their division combined. The fans of Johnstown are a hearty bunch and Johnstown's arena, Cambria County War Memorial, was the primary filming location for Slap Shot, so blue collar hockey roots run deep here. Over the last few seasons the Tomahawks have had their training camp here, in Ebensburg, about 25 minutes north of Johnstown, and have hosted a few preseason games in this small community arena as well. North Central Recreation Center opened in 2004, and is situated next to a high school and a football field on the edge of Ebensburg. The building's exterior has a utilitarian, but modern look, with the arena having blue metal walls and a rounded arching metal roof. The main entrance and lobby area is a rectangular portion of the building at the corner of the structure comprised of gray cinder block walls with some white trim and a modern metal awning signifying the main entrance. Although it is easy to overlook due to the layout of the building on the property, the side that is essentially the back of the arena has a modern appearance with white angular metal beams extending upward to where the curved roof overhangs the side of the building. Windows high atop that side of the building add to the modern look. The parking lot access road is configured in a one way loop, and by the time you see the interesting design of the back side of the building you have likely already passed it. The place would have a whole different feel from the outside (and a much more appealing look) if the main entrance were on this side rather than the other side of the building. A large white raised letter sign on the entrance side of the building bears the facility name. North Central Recreation Center is not meant to be a big event venue, but rather is designed to serve area skaters and hockey players as a sister facility to the War Memorial as both arenas are county owned. This Labor Day Weekend preseason series against the NA3HL's Binghamton Junior Senators was simply a way for both teams to evaluate their rosters early in the preseason and served as the first hockey fix of the year for all the fans on hand. High school football is king in Western Pennsylvania, but junior hockey has had lots of support in the Johnstown and Cambria County area.
The main entry doors to North Central Recreation lead to the small arena lobby. Just inside the doors to the right is the food concession stand which offers a basic menu of hotdogs, pizza, and drinks. On game day the Tomahawks had an information table set up in the lobby with schedule and roster information as well as ticket brochures for the regular season. Admission to this preseason game was free. The team also had a merchandise table set up just outside of the rink entrance in the lobby, selling some of last season's gear at very inexpensive prices. Several trophy cases are set up in the lobby as well as a plaque honoring the local individual responsible with securing funding to get the arena project started. There was a media and scout room set up in what is normally a meeting room off the lobby as well. The layout of the lobby is basic, and the space is primarily used by families coming and going to community skating and hockey events. The rink itself is through a set of doors from the lobby. The ceiling is rather high and a single scoreclock hangs on one end wall. Seating is comprised of a small grandstand which is 5 rows high, and made of unfinished wood bleachers that appear to have been recently constructed. With the front row of the stands just above floor level, sight lines are not great, but this is primarily a community arena, and not one meant to host the NAHL level on a regular basis. Team benches are on the far side away from the grandstands, and the "home" and "away" signs for the benches are in bubbly block letters painted in almost a graffiti style. Several banners honoring local youth teams hang on the far wall above the benches and the cinder block walls are painted gray and white. The ceiling is bright and has open metal trusses. The confines are rather tight in the arena and the seating capacity can't be more than about 200. North Central Recreation Center is a typical community arena and nothing more, but fans on hand to get a look at their team when it was still August certainly didn't complain about the modest facility, and overall, the arena is kept tidy and in very good condition.
Despite being a preseason game, the game day presentation at North Central Recreation Center for this Johnstown Tomahawks event was pretty solid. Tomahawks signage was evident in the lobby, and the team mascot was on hand to greet fans, giving this tiny barn a feeling that it was indeed home of the Tomahawks, albeit for preseason and limited practices during the season only. Team staff was helpful, and fans enjoyed free roster handouts as this was their first look at many of the team prospects. A large crowd was on hand, with the seating at least 80% full, and with lower rows providing a difficult vantagepioint to watch from that is a strong turnout of fans, at a time of year where most are looking forward to football, and on a weekend where many are attending holiday barbecues. The announcer and PA system were both loud and clear, music was played during stoppages, and there was actually a decent atmosphere in the building, with many of the Tomahawks fans wearing team jerseys and ringing their cowbells when the 'Hawks made a good play. The building itself looks rather unexciting from the inside, but the skylights high up on the wall above the team benches add light to the interior when it is still daylight out. As you would expect the Tier 2 level Tomahawks were able to easily handle the Tier 3 squad from Binghamton, and took a 7-1 win, but the play on the ice was fast paced and exciting, and the fans on hand really seemed to enjoy the action, and got to quench their thirst for hockey a bit in anticipation of the regular season to come. North Central Recreation Center will never be a destination type arena, and will continue to serve Ebensburg area families well, but for a weekend or 2 early in the season it provides a great opportunity to see a very high level of play in an intimate setting, and the enthusiastic fans of Johnstown seemed to really enjoy the chance to get a look at their team and catch up with their fellow fans that they may not have seen all summer. With free admission it was also a chance to families to attend and bring the little ones to enjoy some hockey. We enjoyed our stop at North Central Recreation Center and appreciated the chance to see some skilled hockey while it the page on the calendar still said August.