WHEELING - A Who's Who of the Ohio Valley was in attendance for a press conference at Wheeling's WesBanco Arena on Monday, hoping to help drum up support for what shapes up as a monumental weekend of ECHL hockey with games Thursday (7:05 p.m.), Saturday (7:35) and Sunday (5:05). The Wheeling Nailers, who have made it to the Eastern Conference Finals for the first time since 1998, have a chance to close out the series, which is tied 1-1, and advance to the Kelly Cup Finals by winning three games against the Kalamazoo Wings.
The entire Nailers roster, coaching staff and front office joined valley dignitaries and WesBanco Arena officials in a show of support. A variety of topics were discussed, but the big news was the revelation that Saturday night's Game 4 has been chosen to be nationally televised by the America One Television Network, which bills itself as a general entertainment broadcast network, providing family oriented programming.
''The league recently was given the opportunity to air one playoff game from this round nationally - only one. So they had to choose, and they chose Wheeling. They chose us,'' Nailers co-president Jim Brooks told the gathering. ''They wanted Wheeling to show what the ECHL is about to the rest of the world, and that's awesome.
WesBanco Arena Executive Director Denny Magruder speaks Monday at a support gathering for the Wheeling Nailers. Joining him, rom left, are: Nailers co-President Jim Brooks, Vice President of Business Operations Craig Bommer, and Broadcaster/Media Relations Director Alex Reed.
''This is an opportunity to show the world what Wheeling's about, and that's what's gotten us excited. We wanted to share that with you.''
It's a chance for our community to stand hand-in-hand with a team that represents us better, and more-fittingly perhaps, than any other in the 19 years of professional hockey in Wheeling. Admittedly short on skill, but long on heart and guts, the Nailers personify what it means to be from the Ohio Valley - blue collar, dedicated and a never-say-die attitude.
As January turned into February, a rash of call-ups and injuries left Coach Stan Drulia's club with barely enough players to ice a team some nights. The result was predictable - a 10-game winless streak that took what had been one of the best teams in the league to that point, and turned it into one that was just trying to hold on long enough to squeeze into the playoffs.
The Nailers brass and WesBanco Arena officials haven't always seen eye-to-eye. But it was a united front Monday, with arena Executive Director Denny Magruder, who says the partnership is like a long-lasting marriage that requires constant effort, giving perhaps the most motivational speech of all.
''You came here so that the players can show you what they do, and what we need to do. You know what? You heard the story: these guys have been down-and-out all year and they never quit,'' Magruder told the crowd. ''They won't quit. They won't quit Thursday, they won't quit Saturday - they won't quit.
''That's the message they want to send us. They want to set an example. We face problems too - economics, politics, whatever they are, and we've got to learn to keep getting up off that deck.''
The Nailers have.
They qualified for the postseason as the East's No. 4 seed and proceeded to knock off No. 5 South Carolina in four games. Next up was a top-seeded Greenville team that won all six games between the teams during the regular season.
All the Nailers did was turn the ECHL on its ear by skating to a 3-1 series lead before winning Game 7 in overtime.
''That was probably the best team in the ECHL that the team knocked off,'' Nailers broadcaster and director of media relations Alex Reed said. ''To go into a Game 7 and surrender the game-tying goal with 22 seconds left, then win in overtime to take the series, hop on a bus for 17 hours to Kalamazoo and fall behind 2-0 ... .
''Guess what? They come back to tie it and win it in overtime. Didn't go quite the way they wanted it to on Saturday, although they played well at the end.
''But 1-1 coming back with a chance to close out the series this week is very exciting.''
The idea is to pack the house Saturday night. Whether you're a hockey fan or not is irrelevant. All you need to know is, the Nailers are part of our community and that makes you, me and our neighbors obligated to support them.
I had a family friend go through a terrible hardship a couple years ago and one of the first places I went for assistance was the Wheeling Nailers. Without hesitation the answer was ''anything we can do to help.''
If they can help us in a time of need, why shouldn't we return the favor?
''Let's not be shy. In the day of the Christians they risked being hung on the cross if they said they were for Jesus,'' Magruder said. ''Well we have to step out there and say we're for the Nailers.
''Let's put signs in our windows. If we've got marquees out front, let's put 'Go Nailers, or Salute the Nailers, or See you at the game,' or something to that effect throughout town.
''We're going to ask any Chamber (of Commerce) members with any kind of signage to make sure we support the Nailers.
''Again, this is not just for the Nailers, folks. This is for us. It's our chance to show that pride.''
Drulia spoke briefly before the team hit the ice for practice, but he was poignant. For those who think the players don't care about the size or the decibel level of the crowd, the coach sees it differently.
''I think the more people we can get in this building ... . We've talked about the South Carolina series when we wrapped that up in Game 4,'' Drulia said. ''I know there was only 1,400-1,500 fans in there and it was amazing how loud it was.
''The last 3-4 minutes it was a tie game and we scored a big power-play goal to get the lead and took over from there.
''But it was loud, it was exciting, and it was energizing for the guys.
''The community has really supported us and done a good job with that, and we really need that support right now.
''Let's bring this community together here in the next couple weeks as we make a run for a championship. I appreciate everything you guys have done for us to date and we're looking for another three more weeks of work.''
The Nailers organization and the City of Wheeling are behind this team. Now it's your turn.
Let's pack this place not only Saturday, but Thursday and Sunday, as well.