With No Wrong Answer to Choose, Chief Chose Home

WHEELING – Sometimes, no matter how rare the occasion, there can be two right answers. That’s the predicament Greg Puhalski found himself in for the better part of the last month.

Forced with making the choice of continuing as coach of the Wheeling Nailers or taking the same position at Wilfrid Laurier University, his alma mater, he took the latter.

New digs, new opportunity, new challenge.

”It’s something that I obviously gave a strong consideration to,” Puhalski said Thursday prior to being introduced by the Golden Hawks. ”I’ve been coaching for a number of years at the AA level, and career-wise I think I need to go in a different direction.

”In the end, we’re doing what’s best for our family.”

You can’t begrudge a guy for doing that, especially when they’ll have the luxury of being in familiar surroundings, with familiar faces.

Though he realizes nothing is guaranteed in the coaching business, it seemed a good idea to get settled before having to uproot he and wife Ally’s little girl, Zara, before she became too attached.

”We’re moving to Canada and she’s all for it,” Puhalski said of his wife. ”I can’t thank the fans of Wheeling Nailers hockey and the booster club enough for the way we’ve been treated.

”All my stays in pro hockey … it got it’s name the Friendly City honestly.

”We purchased a home here and loved it. We loved living in Wheeling, and we loved our neighborhood.”

Back to School

Having played at Wilfrid Laurier from 1987-1991, Puhalski knows fairly well what to expect. He says the biggest difference will be the academic side of things, something he hasn’t had to deal with in a while.

”I played university hockey here, and I know the challenges of being a student and going to class,” Puhalski said. ”It’s different than professional hockey where guys have a lot of free time on their hands.

”Guys are pretty involved with school, so there has to be a better understanding. It’s going to be a little more of a teaching process.”

That figures to be in stark contrast to last season when he admittedly had to deal with a group of prospects that, for the most part, didn’t have much insterest in being here. Not the type to throw punches on his way out the door, Puhalski did admit that was a tough scenario.

”Two opposites. The two years I was in Wheeling, the first year it was just a joy to be at the rink and be around the players,” he said. ”Last year was a difficult year to get our team to be consistent.

”It was a tougher year that way.”

”But you take the good and bad. One of the positives was the Brooks brothers, Jim and Rob and the family. They were very good to us.”

Introductions

Selfishly, at least, this stinks.

I had the opportunity to meet ”Chief” before any other member of the media – OK, it was only by minutes – as he was walking to the team’s office for his introductory news conference on January 2, 2008. Upon learning who I was, he immediately started grilling me about the team he was about to inherit, and I remember thinking he was going to be my kind of guy.

Fast forward three years and that initial thought is firmly entrenched as reality.

Puhalski is a born winner, and he’s produced wherever he’s been. He won a championship as a player, and another as a coach of the Fort Wayne Comets of the UHL. In his 15 full seasons as a professional head coach, Chief’s team made the playoffs in all but two.

”I wish you could win a championship every season,” he said. ”As far as growing as a coach, one thing you have to be able to do is be open to different people and different ideas.

”I think I have been able to do that.”

Looking Back, Ahead

It’s easy to see the next coach will have large shoes to fill, not only on the ice, but in the community and as a person.

I’ll never forget calling Chief while I was on vacation just after our daughter was born to ask him about a brawl the Nailers had been in a night earlier during a road game. He didn’t have much to say about that, but rather wanted to know about our little girl and how I liked being a father. My wife returned the favor last year at a team steak fry, trying to help answer any question he may have had as he too prepared to enter fatherhood for the first time.

Those are the things that mean something. That’s real, folks.

Greg Puhalski talks the talk, but he walks the walk.

Hail to the Chief.

Shawn Rine can be reached via e-mail at Rine@theintelligencer.net