Long considered the worst place to play in the ECHL, Johnstown, Pa. — the city that inspired the cult classic hockey movie “Slap Shot” — proved to be a fun place to play for Wranglers left wing Andrew Sarauer.
Sarauer, Las Vegas’ leading scorer, compiled a solid rookie season for the now-defunct Johnstown Chiefs in 2008-09 and especially enjoyed playing home games at the Cambria County War Memorial Arena, where most of the hockey scenes in “Slap Shot” were filmed.
“After I played there, the first thing I did was watch the movie again. It was just cool skating in the same rink and looking around,” Sarauer said. “Sometimes when there were a couple fights going on, and the fans obviously loved it, it kind of made you think you were in the movie for a little bit there. It was a really cool experience.”
The movie — which was filmed in the summer of 1976 and released in 1977, starred Paul Newman and featured the bespectacled, fighting “Hanson brothers” — was about a minor league hockey team that resorts to violence to gain popularity in a declining factory town.
Coincidentally, the 6-foot-4-inch, 215-pound Sarauer might have proved more popular with NHL teams had he displayed more of a mean streak.
“I think that’s probably part of the reason I didn’t go on to the next level and make it bigger, because I wasn’t really the prototypical power forward they hoped for,” the 28-year-old said. “I think they wanted to see more of an edge in my game, but it’s just kind of not my game.
“You’ve got to do it once in a while, but fighting’s never been a big part of my game.”
It took awhile for Wranglers coach Ryan Mougenel to understand how best to utilize Sarauer, who was held scoreless for his first nine games.
“He’s a kid I definitely was misusing at the beginning of the year. When you’re a big body and don’t play overly aggressive, it’s easy to misunderstand those players,” Mougenel said. “I actually brought Andrew in and said, ‘What do I gotta do to get you going?’ and he said, ‘You’ve just got to play me more.’
“From that day on, he’s been awesome.”
Since his slow start, Sarauer has emerged as a point-per-game scorer for Las Vegas (29-24-5, 63 points), compiling a team-high 47 points on 19 goals and 28 assists.
Sarauer, who scored a goal Saturday in the Wranglers’ 5-3 loss to Colorado at Orleans Arena, has impressed with his all-around game.
“In the four years I’ve been here, I would say he’s probably the most complete player I’ve had. Him and (former Wrangler) Pete MacArthur,” Mougenel said. “He does so many things so well. He’s our first (penalty kill) guy, he’s our (power-play) guy, he’s great at five-on-five, he’s amazing in the faceoff circle, and he’s even answered the bell and stuck up for teammates. He’s done everything I’ve asked.”
As a big kid coming out of the tiny town of Outlook, Saskatchewan, Sarauer caught the eye of the Vancouver Canucks, who drafted him in the fourth round in 2005.
“It was a pretty big shock that I got drafted, especially that early. I only talked to one team, and it was them,” Sarauer said. “It was a really cool experience, but obviously it didn’t work out.”
After compiling 31 points in four injury-plagued seasons for Northern Michigan University, Sarauer was released by the Canucks and embarked on his pro career in Johnstown, where he scored 19 goals and 46 points and compiled a career-high 71 penalty minutes.
“Everyone talks about Johnstown was the worst place to play in the league, but I didn’t care. I just wanted a place to play,” he said. “It was good for me because I was a rookie and I played a lot.”
The now-defunct Johnstown Jets — who played in the North American Hockey League from 1973 until the league folded in 1977 — were the inspiration for the Charlestown Chiefs, the team featured in “Slap Shot.”
The Johnstown Chiefs, who took their name from the film’s fictional squad, played in the ECHL from 1988 to 2010, when the franchise relocated to Greenville, S.C.
After his lone season in Johnstown, Sarauer played two seasons for the ECHL’s Reading Royals, scoring 53 goals and 130 points, before spending an injury-plagued season in Denmark last year.
Sarauer appears to have found a home in Las Vegas, which is a bit more appealing than Johnstown.
“I’ve been happy here since day one,” he said.
Contact reporter Todd Dewey at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0354.