Mike Mastovich  column photo

Television reports out of Greenville that the Johns-

town Chiefs will relocate to the South Carolina city might be a bit premature, but without a local owner or investor, the only original member of the ECHL very well might head South.

“It’s not something that is definite,” Chiefs majority owner and interim head coach Neil Smith said when reached by phone after Saturday’s 6-2 loss at Cincinnati. “We’ve looked at options but I think they’re putting the cart before the horse (by announcing a deal is imminent). We’re looking at our options. That’s about as much as I should say about.”

Greenville television station WYFF Channel 4 announced on Friday that it appeared as if the Chiefs franchise would relocate to the state-of-the-art Bi-Lo Center next season.

On Saturday, a member of the WYFF sports department confirmed that the segment had aired a night earlier. The Bi-Lo Center was home of the former Greenville Grrrowl ECHL team from 1998-99 through 2005-06.

The Grrrowl won the 2002 Kelly Cup and either led or was second in the league’s average attendance during its first four years but ran into financial difficulties.

Smith has owned the Chiefs since 2002 and in recent years has offered the team to potential local owners at what would be considered bargain costs by league standards, but there have been no takers.

The team has annually lost money for the better part of its 22 seasons in the ECHL.

This season, Smith needed the addition of major investor Steve Posner of New York City to keep the team operating in Johnstown. Ned Nakles Jr., who once owned the team with his late father and Leonard Reeves in the mid-1990s, still is a 10 percent owner.

Nakles said he couldn’t comment on the situation on Saturday.

“I’ve been trying to get (local investors or owners) since Rick Adams and Jim Webber (were involved in the ownership group),” Smith said.

“It’s been well-known that I would sell my interest in the team to local people, not because I’m so interested in getting rid of it but as to the fact that I’m not a local resident. For the long-term stability of the team it should be owned by local ownership.

“When you’re an out-of-towner it’s more about dollars and cents than if you’re a local business. A local person could look at it as a community asset. But no one local has stepped up ever (since Smith has owned the team).”

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Moving up: The Charlotte Checkers franchise’s rumored move to the American Hockey League became reality last week.

Checkers owner Michael Kahn purchased the AHL’s Albany River Rats, and will move the top affiliate of the NHL’s Carolina Hurricanes from New York to Charlotte after this season. Published reports state that Kahn anticipates that Charlotte’s ECHL franchise will be sold, possibly within a month.

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Net gains: Realistically, the Johnstown Chiefs coaching change might have come too late to salvage a playoff spot, barring an incredible winning streak.

But anyone who has followed the team since Smith moved from majority owner to interim coach can appreciate the strides the Chiefs have made on the ice.

Prior to Saturday’s game at Cincinnati, the Chiefs were 5-8-1-0 under Smith, who replaced first-year Johnstown coach Jeff Flanagan after the team started at a miserable 9-19-4-3 pace.

Of those nine defeats (including one in overtime), the Chiefs had four one-goal losses and a two-goal setback that was padded by an empty net goal.

For the most part, the team has been in nearly every game.

That might not sound like much unless one considers the frustration of watching the Chiefs muddle through much of November, December and January. At one point, Johnstown went 13 games without a home win, a span crossing over into both coaching tenures.

After the Chiefs hit another road block that included three straight home losses to Charlotte (twice) and Toledo from Jan. 29-31, Smith didn’t stand pat.

Last week, the Chiefs made two deals that showed a lot of promise, acquiring forward Matthew Kang from Las Vegas for future considerations and last year’s rookie of the year runner-up Jordan Morrison in a three-team deal involving Florida and Toledo.

The Walleye got Chiefs defenseman Chris Zarb in the transaction.

Kang had three assists in his first game, a win at Wheeling on Wednesday, and Morrison looked solid in his Chiefs debut, a one-goal loss at Kalamazoo on Friday.

A year ago, Morrison was among Wheeling’s top players. Chiefs fans saw too much of him on the other side back then.

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Moving on: The ECHL and the media that cover the league’s teams certainly will miss Jack Carnefix, the senior vice president of communications/media who stepped down on Friday after 10 years.

Carnefix accepted a position with the Professional Bull Riders and will move to Pueblo, Colo.

Carnefix was reliable and efficient while performing his many tasks, some of which included assisting media with coverage, distributing news releases and overseeing such projects as compiling the league’s massive annual media guide and record books.

A first class individual and a friend to the media, Carnefix will be a tough act to follow.

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Packing a punch: Former Johnstown Chiefs enforcer/fan favorite Jody Shelley was traded to the New York Rangers from the San Jose Sharks before Friday’s moratorium for the NHL’s Olympic break.

Shelley, 34, played in 137 games with San Jose. He scored three goals and had 11 assists.

Of course, Jody wasn’t known as a finesse player, so his 285 penalty minutes and policeman type role were his most significant contribution to the Sharks.

Prior to joining San Jose in 2007-08 Shelley had been one of the most popular role players with the Columbus Blue Jackets, the team he broke into the NHL with in 2000-01. His 1,300 penalty minutes since the start of Shelley’s first full NHL season in 2001-02 are second most in the league to Ottawa’s Chris Neil and his 1,440 PIMs.

Shelley wasn’t a one-dimensional player with the Chiefs. In 88 games he had 21 goals, 55 points and 581 penalty minutes. He was part of a resurgence that transformed the Chiefs from a league doormat to a playoff team in 1999-2000. Had Shelley and a group of other key players not been called up to the AHL at playoff time, the Chiefs might have gone even deeper in the postseason that year.

Mike Mastovich is a sports writer for The Tribune-Democrat.

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