By Len Bardsley
WHEELING, W. Va. – It was not long ago opponents didn’t want to go to Wheeling, W.Va., and it wasn’t because the Nailers were good.
The Nailers, in fact, were bad, so bad their focus on the ice was not always on the scoreboard, but dragging opponents into the hockey gutter to exchange punches or cheap shots.
Last season, the Nailers missed the ECHL playoffs for the fifth straight season and had a total of nine players with over 100 penalty minutes and three with over 200 minutes. The Nailers drew 2,139 minutes in penalties, an amazing 403 more than their opponents.
The Peoria Rivermen led the league in penalties with 2,325, but had only 88 more than their opponents.
The combination of losing and fighting didn’t go over well in Wheeling. The Nailers drew an average of 2,935 at the 5,600-seat WesBanco Arena.
The Brooks brothers and Pat Bingham are going a long way in changing the Nailers image.
James and Robert Brooks became the new co-owners of the Nailers over the summer and Bingham took over for the legendary John Brophy as coach this season. The results have been impressive.
The Nailers are off to their best start ever and are in third place in the Northern Division, one point behind defending Kelly Cup Champion Atlantic City and four points behind leader Johnstown.
The Nailers were a natural fit for the Brooks brothers. Robert Brooks Sr. is on the board of directors for the Penguins and a member of the Pirates ownership group.
The Nailers are affiliated with the Penguins and the Scranton Wilkes-Barre Penguins of the American Hockey League, where James Brooks worked with Wilkes-Barre president Jeff Barrett.
“The family has been in sports for a long time,” said Rob Brooks Jr. “We decided it was time. We bought the team in June and this one we have hands-on. We moved to Wheeling and are involved in the day-to-day operations. It was a good place to start. We are 50 miles away from Pittsburgh. There are a lot of mentors in Pittsburgh we could lean on.”
The Nailers offices are now on Main Street in downtown Wheeling and Rob and James greet fans at the door as they exit the arena.
“It is really encouraging right now,” said Rob Brooks. “It shows what some effort can do. There is a buzz now that exciting hockey is back. It is amazing how many people have come up and thanked us for keeping the team in Wheeling and bringing some hope back.”
Though he is only 35, Bingham brings a wealth of experience behind the bench to the Nailers. Bingham started his playing career with the Kamloops Blazers under the tutelage of current Flyers coach Ken Hitchcock before winning an ECHL championship playing for Brophy with Hampton Roads in 1991.
Bingham also was an assistant coach for Brophy during the 2000-2001 season with the Nailers.
Bingham has taken the positive aspects of Brophy’s amazing career, which included over 1,000 wins, and is using them with the Nailers. The Nailers are now a disciplined team known more for having a rising star than a veteran coach. The 22-year-old Jason Jaffray has already scored 100 points in the league with 42 goals and 61 assists in 78 games.
“We wanted to change the perception of Wheeling in the hockey world,” Brooks said.
They are off to a good start.