Nailers have had quite the journey to 1K
WHEELING — Historic milestones aren’t just about one night, they encapsulate countless moments of greatness and longevity.
That’s why the Wheeling Nailers’ 1,000th victory on Wednesday night was so impressive. The journey to 1,000 began with the Wheeling Thunderbirds in 1992 and consistently rolled on like a freight train after the team changed its name to the Nailers in 1996.
The organization has seen players, coaches and announcers reach the NHL. Players have set new ECHL records and have created long-lasting memories in the city of Wheeling.
For The Record Books
Several records that may stand the test of time occurred during Wheeling’s inaugural season in 1992 as the Thunderbirds when ECHL Hall of Famer Darren Schwartz netted 62 goals in 62 games, the most goals scored in a single season in Wheeling history. That season he also set the franchise record for power play goals with 22 and delivered an unforgettable performance on Dec. 20, 1992 when he recorded a hat trick in a span of just 30 seconds — a mark that may never be touched — in an 11-3 triumph over the Roanoke Valley Rampage.
“It was one of those games where we were up and I wasn’t playing much,” Schwartz said. “(Coach Doug Sauter) was a little upset with me but he threw me out there and I was able to score quick and when I went back to the bench, he had a few choice words for me and I had a little chuckle. It still sticks in my head to this day.”
Welcome to Wheeling
Schwartz was on the ice on Oct. 18, 1992, as well, when the first game was played in Wheeling. The Thunderbirds won 9-3 over the Dayton Bombers. Tim Roberts netted the first goal and Marc Rodgers collected the first hat trick.
The Thunderbirds went 40-16-2-6 that season on their way to a Riley Cup appearance (now the Kelly Cup), in which they fell to Toledo.
“Just talking about it brings back such great memories,” Schwartz said. “That whole year was a memorable year. Right from day one, coming into the Ohio Valley you just knew it was going to be a special place to play. The fans embraced us from training camp. I remember living at the Days Inn in St. Clairsville and seeing people around town. Having the year we did — we were a huge part of the winning tradition right from the start.”
A few short years later in the 1994-95 campaign, the Thunderbirds won the Brabham Cup — awarded to the team with the most points during the regular season.
Wheeling finished 46-17-0-5 with 97 points. Perhaps the most memorable stretch of the season culminated on Feb. 5, 1995 when Wheeling reeled off its 17th straight home victory in a 5-3 victory over the Columbus Chill.
Brock Woods was the captain of that year’s squad and still lives in Wheeling today.
“There was definitely no place like home,” Woods said. “I think we had about 5,500 fans a night. The building was always jammed packed, even for warmups. That gave us that sixth man advantage because it was always loud. The horn was always going off because we scored a lot of goals that year.
“I try to get to as many games as I can these days. I’m happy the team has been here as long as it has and that’s an impressive feat in itself — 1,000 wins. It says a lot for the organization, the city and as an affiliate for the Penguins.”
The energy was at an all-time high in Wheeling during the 2015-16 season. Wheeling finished the year 37-26-5-4 but it was the postseason play that garnered the hype.
Current Nailers’ interim coach Derek Army delivered 10 points during a wild playoff run to the Kelly Cup, in which the Nailers overcame adversity multiple times.
Wheeling faced elimination in both the conference semifinals against Reading and the conference finals against South Carolina. Both times the Nailers overcame 3-2 series deficits to advance in the bracket.
“The biggest games that stand out to me are Games 6 and 7 against Reading at home in the second round,” Army said. “In Game 6 we came on the ice and it felt like the whole arena was filled with signs. It was the era of wrestling when they all had signs and with the support of the fans we rolled them in that game 8-3.
“In Game 7 it was buzzing. I scored to put us ahead and they tied it but I’ll always have Riley Brace burned in my brain scoring the game-winner for us. There was pure joy and excitement and the building was rocking.”
After the Nailers rallied in the conference finals to punch their ticket to the Kelly Cup, Army also remembers the atmosphere on the streets of Wheeling.
“I went to lunch with Riley Brace, Jarrett Burton, Mathew Maione at Center Market and I remember people coming up to us wishing us good luck and saying they were coming to the game,” Army said. “At that moment we realized it was so much bigger than us. The whole town was invested and it was us representing the town.”
A Grand Victory
It all led to Wednesday night. As the Nailers joined a circle at center ice following their 5-1 win over Indy for the 1,000th victory in team history, a video with former Wheeling legends played on the scoreboard.
That was the moment that hit home with 10-year Nailers’ radio broadcaster D.J. Abisalih.
“What got it for me was when all the players started watching the video and reacting to all the alums,” Abisalih said. “That was a chills moment for sure.
“My debut was a 6-1 win in Greenville and my first home game the next week was a 3-2 win over Almira. I was the new guy in town and to be embraced by a fanbase and treated like family was an incredible feeling.”
Adding to History
Abisalih pointed out many other great moments in team history which include the following:
Feb. 16, 2002: Joel Laing made 63 saves — most in team history — in a 4-2 win over Peoria.
Oct. 20, 2002: Mike Nelson hit the game-winning shot in a 6-5 shootout win over Peoria, played in Pittsburgh’s Mellon Arena. Mike Valley stopped all five shots for Wheeling in the shootout.
March 10, 2004: Mark Kosick netted the deciding goal in a 1-0 Nailers’ win over Atlantic City to record the team’s 12th straight victory. Joe Exter earned the shutout in goal.
March 28, 2004: Drew Fata recorded the game-winning goal in a 3-2 win over Dayton to clinch Wheeling’s first and only 50-win season.