By Dave Molinari
WHEELING, W.Va. — The Wheeling Nailers won a championship in their first season.
Of course, it was under a different name. In a different city. In a different league, for that matter.
They were the Carolina Thunderbirds back in 1988-89, and captured the Riley Cup as a member of the East Coast Hockey League.
After four winters in North Carolina, the team was transplanted to Wheeling. The Thunderbirds were renamed the Nailers in 1996 and their league eventually got a new identity, too.
“East Coast Hockey League” just didn’t fit an operation with clubs in places like Idaho, Nevada and Alaska. And, because “Every Coast Hockey League” isn’t terribly catchy, league officials decided to simply be known as the ECHL.
An even more significant change, though, has come in the league’s quality of play. The ECHL used to be a place where the careers of rejects from a Slap Shot casting call went to die; now, it consistently turns out talent ticketed for the NHL.
Although the ECHL is a rung below the American Hockey League — it touts itself as “The Premier ‘AA’ Hockey League” — its growing list of alumni working in the NHL includes Montreal forward Michael Ryder, Nashville goalie Tomas Vokoun, Colorado defenseman Bob Boughner, Tampa Bay winger Ruslan Fedotenko and Ottawa goalie Patrick Lalime.