By Nick Bedway
Copyright © 2005 The Intelligencer & Wheeling News Register
WHEELING, W. Va. – With the calendar having already flipped over to the month of June, the Wheeling Nailers are stepping up plans for the 2005-2006 ECHL season.
One of the first housekeeping jobs to get out of the way was to let the fans know that head coach/director of hockey operations Pat Bingham would be returning for his third season behind the bench.
It was announced during a press conference Friday afternoon at the Nailers’ office that the club had picked up the option on Bingham’s contract for the upcoming season.
After being selected the league coach of the year following the 2004 season in which the Nailers established numerous franchise records while winning a conference championship, Bingham’s team missed the playoffs last winter despite turning in a winning record of 38-29-5.
Callups of key players that took place both within the organization of the Pittsburgh Penguins and outside the organization killed Wheeling’s playoff drive. The biggest factor, however, might have been that the Nailers were competing in what had to be the toughest division in the ECHL.
The North Division of the National Conference was the one that produced the 2005 Kelly Cup championship, which was won by the Trenton Titans.
“We were 6-0 against that team at one point until we lost the last two games to them,” said Bingham.
“I really have to give our guys credit. They tried hard to win. We just ran out of gas at the end.”
Entering the final month, the Nailers not only were still in the middle of the playoff race, they also had a chance to win a conference championship for the second straight year.
“Some of the things that happened were definitely out of our control,” Bingham continued.
“Along with the call-ups, we also had significant injuries to key players. The immigration visas expiring on January 2 made it difficult to go out and bring in players that could have filled some of the holes on our roster,” he added.
One of the toughest numbers the Nailers had to face was 54, which represented the total number of players who wore Wheeling uniforms last season. That is usually the sign of a last-place team, not one that was fighting for a division title most of the year.
A hopeful sign that things might be better for teams throughout professional hockey is that the National Hockey League may be moving closer to toward getting a deal done with the players’ union after having the entire 2004-2005 season scrapped.
“It hasn’t happened yet. Keep your fingers crossed,” Bingham said, “but it looks like something could happen soon.”
Bingham’s player search for next season has already commenced as he is continually checking the free-agent market, although he said that it was still too early to make any progress reports on possible signings.
“We are determined to put the best possible product on the ice this season. We need to drive home in the minds of anybody we bring in to play for the Wheeling Nailers that we refuse to lose around here. We have to make the playoffs every single year.”
Bingham also again stressed that he was looking to put together a club with the kind of blue-collar players that fit in well with the Wheeling community.
It is the head coach’s concern about the team and the community molding together is just one of many reasons Nailers presidents Jim and Rob Brooks were determined to retain Bingham as the head coach. “We are excited to announce that Pat will be back next season as coach of the Nailers,” Rob Brooks said. “Pat is a strong supporter of the Ohio Valley and has worked tirelessly to put a quality team on and off the ice.”
Bingham has never had a losing season as a head coach either in the United Hockey League or the ECHL. In 149 games as head coach of the Nailers he has compiled a record of 91-49-9, including the five playoff contests in 2004.
The number of games has coached and wins his teams have secured ranks him second to Doug Sauter’s 297 games coached and 179 wins with the franchise. That includes time behind the bench of the Winston-Salem Thunderbirds before the franchise was moved to Wheeling at the outset of the 1992-93 season.
Bingham’s 89 regular season wins are the highest win total for consecutive seasons in franchise history.
During Wheeling’s remarkable 51-17-4 mark two years ago, Bingham’s skaters broke records for franchise wins (51), most home wins (28), most road wins (23), most points (106) and fewest goals allowed (188). The team also set a league record with 11 shutouts during the season.