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The ?wild and wonderful? state of West Virginia, United States of America boasts of their own ice hockey team originating from Wheeling. The team has a very fascinating history of turns and events prior to be labeled the Wheeling Nailers hailing from the home state of West Virginia. The franchise started out in 1982 from North Carolina. The team was called the Carolina Thunderbirds and was based out of Winston-Salem, North Carolina. In 1982, the thunderbirds played in their first ever Atlantic Coat Hockey League tournament. The team, along with the Virginia Lancers, joined the All-American Hockey League in 1987, which lasted just the 1987-88 season. In 1988, Carolina Thunderbirds joined the Johnstown Chiefs, Knoxville Cherokees, Erie Panthers and Virginia Lancers to form the basis for the modern ECHL(East Coast Hockey League).
The first ever ECHL championship called the Jack Riley Cup was played in 1988-89. The final of the ECHL was between the Thunderbirds and the Johnstown Chiefs. The Thunderbirds won 4:3 and became the first team in the history of the ECHL to win the trophy. The team adopted the name of its home city and became the Winston-Salem Thunderbirds the next season. They reached the Riley Cup finals once again in 1989-90. The team remained in Winston-Salem through the 1991-92 season. The name ?thunderbirds? created a havoc between the club and the Seattle based ice hockey team called the Seattle Thunderbirds. The club had to pull out of the naming convention and opted to become the Nailers in 1996. A contest was held to select the name of the team and was won by C.J. Wickham of Steubenville, Ohio. The name “Nailers” was chosen for the city’s long history of nail manufacturing. The team colors are black, red, and Vegas gold.
The team also was able to get a piece of Hollywood action during 1994-95. In the movie ?Sudden Death, Jean-Claude Van Damme attempts to stop a bomber from bombing Mellon Arena during Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals. The film was filmed with players from the Chiefs and Thunderbirds during that time. The movie took the action being played into the big screen. The Nailers play at the Wheeling Civic Center now known as the WesBanco Arena. After missing the playoffs for five straight seasons, they had a 106-point season in 2003-04. They were defeated by the Reading Royals in 5 games, 3-2. In season 2005-06 they had a great season making it to the second round of the playoffs losing to Toledo in the final second of the final game.The Wheeling Nailers are the ECHL Affiliate of the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Philadelphia Flyers of the NHL, Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins of the AHL (American Hockey League) and Richmond Renegades of the SPHL (Southern Professional Hockey League).
One of the most exciting and memorable seasons in the history of the club was during 1994-95. The club was able to win 17 straight wins starting from November 24, 1994 to February 5, 1995. The club was known as the Wheeling Thunderbirds at that time. 1995-96 was another good year for the club and the Thunderbirds reached 40 wins for the fourth time. In 1996, the club changed their name to Wheeling Nailers. The Wheeling Nailers officially played their first game in the 1996-97 season. Under Head Coach, Tom McVie, the Nailers had a record of 36-29-5, for 77 points on the season. That was good enough for fourth place in the ECHL’s North Division. The Nailers would make a quick exit out of the Kelly Cup Playoffs, as the Peoria Rivermen swept the Nailers three games to none. However, the 1997-98 Nailers would bring a new coach and team to Wheeling.
The Wheelers throughout their career playing in different tournaments and playoffs had the misfortune of having a high churn rate of head coaches as the history of the years below will state. In 1999, the club got a new head coach, Peter Laviolette. The coach had an immense work cut out for him since the team during the season comprised of almost all rookies. However, Laviolette turned these rookies into one of the greatest teams the fans of Wheeling have ever seen. The Nailers finished the 1997-98 season in second place of the Northeast Division with a record of 37-24-9. The Nailers would be a force in the playoffs, as they knocked out Dayton, three games to two, and eliminated the Toledo Storm, three games to one. Sadly the Hampton Road Admirals would knock out Nailers in the Conference Finals winning the series four games to two.
Soon after the success maintained by the Head Coach Laviolette, the team was ready for a new coach, Chris Jensen. Chris Jensen was very debatable to the club and allowed for Wheeling to finish with a record of 27-37-6 but also put the club last place in the Northwest Division and miss the playoffs for the first time after relocating to Wheeling. 1999-2000 season was led by Head Coach Murray Eaves. Eaves’s had a lot of trouble at the start of the season going 0-9, and the club could not get back their spirits and momentum after such consecutive losses. The Nailers finished 25-40-5, good for fifth place in the Northwest Division, but did not make the playoffs for the second straight season. Wheeling set a record for most goals in a game, as they whipped last place Toledo, 14-2, in the final game of the season.
The Nailers were lead in the 2000-2001 by Head Coach Alain Lemieux, who would be their seventh head coach in nine season. The new coach faced a similar start which was faced by the previous coach Murray Eaves. The team started out a dismal 1-8-1 on the season. The Nailers had a seven game unbeaten streak in the middle of the season, yet they fell into another losing steak that ultimately put them out of the playoffs. The Nailers fired Alain Lemieux after a disappointing 19-35-7 record, this was the first time that the head coach from Wheeling was let go before the season ended. Lemieux was replaced by Assistant Coach Joe Harney. Under Coach Harney, the Nailers went 5-5-1 to finish the season with a 24-40-8 record, yet still failed to make the playoffs for the third straight season.
Repeating the trends of last year, the Wheeling Nailers 2006-07 were still not able to come to the finals. The Nailers have been repeating their start in the season as losses and this season was no different. The season started out with a devastating 10-3 loss against the Charlotte on opening night, followed by two more losses on the road. However, things looked bright on home ice as the Nailers won their first five out of six home games. The road wins were not coming early in the season, it took until Nov. 10th at Cincinnati to win a road game. The Nailers this season were also marred with very few winning streaks, a couple two in a row and two times a three game win streak. Wheeling would fight to get back to .500, but the closest they made it was one game under.
Wheeling made a late season push to the playoffs, with a season-high seven game winning streak. Irrespective of a good start, the Nailers would miss out for the second time in three seasons. Wheeling finished two games below .500, at 32-34-6, but won their final game, a 5-4 win at Trenton. With such a high deviance in the game, the Wheeling Nailers are still highly rated though their ratings have fallen a bit. The magic and momentum of the once Wheeling Thunderbirds is yet to be seen for the upcoming season.
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