On a classic episode of Family Ties, which was set in Columbus, Ohio, Alex P. Keaton wanted to celebrate his 18th birthday with his bros, Neil and Doug. One of these lads made the suggestion, “Let’s go to Wheeling, West Virginia, and drink.”
Before 1986, you only had to be 18 to get drunk in the Mountain State; things were simpler back then. And while drinking is still the thing to do in Wheeling, you can also see some good professional hockey.
Just an hour from Pittsburgh International Airport sits the WesBanco Arena, the home of the Wheeling Nailers, of the ECHL. (The franchise has been in Wheeling since 1992, after 10 seasons in North Carolina.) If a player succeeds in Wheeling, it’s off to Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, and then to the NHL and the Pittsburgh Penguins. Wheeling hockey is a breeding ground for new Penguin talent that has already put Tom Kuhnhackl, Josh Archibald and Carter Rowney on the Pens’ roster. Rowney became the 60th Wheeling Nailer to make it to the NHL.
The Nailers haven’t won the big one yet, the Kelly Cup. Last year, they came close, but lost in the Kelly Cup Finals to the not-very-cleverly-named Allen Americans. The Americans won in six games, just as their parent club, the San Jose Sharks, were losing to the Nailers’ parent club, the Penguins, in the Stanley Cup Finals.
During those finals, the Nailers interim head coach, David Gove, took a leave of absence for still undisclosed reasons. Weird things always happen in the minor leagues of any sport. Jeff Christian was promoted to head coach while the finals were being played. He’s in his first full season as the leader after playing 23 years at the professional level. Christian played in 18 different organizations during his nomadic tenure on the ice. His best year as a player was on the 1996-97 Penguins, when he scored two goals and two assists.
Peter Laviolette, head coach of the unfortunately named Nashville Predators, also got his coaching career started in Wheeling. You might remember him for breaking a stick against the boards and threatening Penguins coach “Disco” Dan Bylsma when Laviolette was a coach for the Flyers. A player who was hated in both the Mellon Arena and PPG arena, former Flyer and New York Ranger Daniel Carcillo spent some time as a Nailer, too. Former Pen and current Edmonton Oiler Mark Letestu and Chicago Blackhawk goalie Jeff Darling also are former Nailers. That’s the beauty of Wheeling — you can see players before you hate them.
The ECHL’s North Division is composed of six teams; three of them have cool names. The Nailers, Elmira Jackals and Brampton Beast are all great names. Then you have the Adirondack Thunder, which is OK. Then things get stupid with The Reading Royals and Manchester Monarchs. Excuse me, your majesties, I think Nailers, Jackals, and Beast are way more creative. Right now, everybody but the Jackals has a shot at the division title, with just a couple weeks left in the season.
If you go to NHL games, you know how crazy expensive it is. Besides the ticket, you can add another $50 to your tab just by parking and getting a beer and sandwich. But the poor man’s Penguins, the Nailers, have seats that cost $23, and those are the good ones. Center-ice seats will cost that much, and they go as low as $9 on the other end.
There is still time to go out and see the Nailers. On March 11, the Quad City Mallards waddle into town on “Duck Dynasty Night.” The next day, the Toledo Walleye invade West-By-God-Virginia. On March 22, 24 and 25, the Iowa Steelheads come to town. Told you the minors are weird: Why do teams name their hockey squads after fish?
The season winds down with the first-place Brampton Beast on March 31. Then, April 2 is “Pup and Pucks Night” against the Reading Royals. Finally, after a life of only being able to attend baseball games, dogs can finally see hockey. The 2016-17 regular season wraps up with a visit from the Kalamazoo Wings on April 7. Fill up on gas, cigarettes and alcohol while you’re in Wheeling. Just like the hockey, it’s much cheaper.