Christian Back to Lead Wheeling Nailers
WHEELING — Jeff Christian is big on loyalty.
A year ago at this time he admits to begging for a job in the hockey world, to no avail. Christian finally got his foot in the door midway through the Wheeling Nailers’ season, coming aboard as an assistant coach. By the end of the first round of the playoffs, he was the main man behind the bench.
Being given that opportunity meant a lot to Christian, so when the Pittsburgh organization and the Nailers specifically asked him to return, the response came easily. Christian was named this morning as the 16th coach of the franchise during a news conference in the newly refurbished front lobby of WesBanco Arena.
“I’m very grateful for the opportunity to be named as head coach,” Christian said. “I’d like to thank RED and Don (Rigby) and Brian (Komorowski) and the entire staff of the Nailers who have been so supportive of me.”
”I’d like to thank the Pittsburgh Penguins for having the confidence in me to develop their young prospects and I look forward to developing that relationship with them, as we all do here in Wheeling.”
Christian arrived in late January with the team in a tailspin. Wheeling was on the outside looking in on the postseason picture, tied for last in the Eastern Conference. The Nailers battled back and qualified for the playoffs but at the end of the first round, then-coach Dave Gove took a leave of absence from the team and Christian was suddenly the man in charge.
Christian, 45, who spent 20 years as a hockey player, has said numerous times he doesn’t ask his players to do anything he wouldn’t do himself. So the coach immediately dived into the community, giving a big assist to the “Voice of the Nailers,” DJ Abisalih for helping him study up on the history of not only the franchise, but the city of Wheeling as well.
The players followed suit and a bond was formed. Sellout crowds helped the club throughout its run, which ended in Game 6 of the Kelly Cup Finals.
”Wheeling’s a special place. We’re obviously not recruiting to Naples, Fla., or South Carolina and the beach,” Christian said. ”Guys have to want to come here and they do. When they get here they see it’s a small town, but the fans get behind us.
”We want good citizens who want to get out in the community because I believe in that. I want to get out there and get down to the grassroots with the kids and get into the hospitals and see the people. It’s important that (guys) understand that.”
That’s music to the ears of Rigby, the team’s governor. He admits that one never knows for certain how an employee will turn out, but his confidence that Christian will be successful is immense.
”We’ve been exceptionally pleased. To take the run that we took and to have the buy-in from the team was great,” Rigby said. ”He’s been great for us tying into the community on and off the ice.
”We sat down with Pittsburgh to discuss coaching and came to a very quick decision — a consensus — that this made since for us and for them.
”We pride ourselves in developing players and we think Jeff can do that for both our organizations.”
Christian has been recruiting since the end of the season and attended the NHL Draft and Penguins prospect camp. So while it may seem Wheeling is a bit behind in the game, that’s not actually the case.
”We’re ecstatic with where we are. I was on the phone (Monday) night at 11 recruiting,” Christian said. ”In the past it’s maybe been a little difficult to recruit here, but the word is out.
”We want the guys who want to work. Guys who want to come here and invest in themselves. It’s a process.”
Christian, who said an announcement on his assistant coach will come soon, promised this club will be fast and physical, much like its recent predecessors.
”We’re looking forward to continuing to build our momentum we had last year with the championship run,” he said. ”We have a sign in our dressing room that says ‘The Island of Misfit Toys.’ Those days are over now. This is now a premier organization in the (ECHL) with our affiliation with the Penguins and the support we get from them.”