Nailers-Penguins Partnership Isn’t Working in Wheeling

WHEELING – The Wheeling Nailers organization is extremely proud of the fact it has sent more players on to the National Hockey League than any other ECHL team.

For all the good players that have come through this town, though, do you realize that excluding those for the Wheeling Hockey Hall of Fame, not a single banner has gone to the WesBanco Arena rafters since 2003? Not for a division title, not for a conference title – nothing.

How can that be, you ask? Well, a major part of the answer is this: Pittsburgh couldn’t give a hoot how Wheeling’s team fares in the standings, just so long as it continues to breed prospects.

Look, there’s no question the farming out part of the equation is Wheeling’s drawing card. That’s how they get players to commit to playing here in the first place.

But at some point you have to become more than a surrogate to the eventual parents, which in this case are Wilkes-Barre/Scranton and the Penguins (for now, Hamilton and Montreal won’t be part of the discussion). Nobody will deny the fact the job of minor-league affiliations is to stock their higher-end siblings, but this is allegedly what amounts to a sports marriage – an expensive marriage, one in which I understand Rob and Jim Brooks pay roughly $50,000 to be a part of, rather than the way such partnerships used to be consummated – a man’s word and a handshake.

I don’t know about you, but in my household it requires some give and take to make things work. That apparently, though, doesn’t translate into the cut-throat world of professional sports, at least not within the confines of the Pittsburgh organization, of which I must admit I’ve been a fan for more than 20 years.

In their defense, this has been a year like none other for the parent Penguins, who have suffered through a rash of injuries the likes of which have rarely been seen, anywhere. And when that happens, stuff runs downhill, as they say. Members of the Baby Penguins head to the big club, and Nailers pack for Wilkes-Barre, which is understood and will never change.

But two moves, in particular, have stuck in just about everyone’s craw, around here. The first was the decision to sign David Marshall, who was contracted to the Nailers, and not Wilkes-Barre, to a PTO (Player Tryout) while Wheeling was hanging on for dear life, often times playing with six forwards. Instead of following the lead of Binghamton, the AAA affiliate of Ottawa, and signing players from other ECHL organizations, thus refusing to call anymore players up from Elmira so as not to adversely affect its playoff aspirations, the Pittsburgh organization further depleted the Nailers.

Marshall, whose rights were eventually traded to Utah for Paul and Tim Crowder because his availability down the stretch was unknown, was the seventh Nailer on the WBS roster.

But that’s only the tip of the proverbial iceberg. We also have the well-publicized Twitter fiasco involving the wife of Casey Pierro-Zabotel, who took the social media route to do basically what I am now – question the ethics of the Pittsburgh organization.

Well, as you could guess the Pittsburgh brass didn’t care much for that. It irritated the front office so bad that it shipped Pierro-Zabotel out of the organization. What? He’s still in the organization?

Yes, that’s right. They rid Wheeling of the problem by loaning Zabby to Cincinnati, because no general manager worth a dime would take on the NHL contract of a guy who has barely scratched the AHL lineup, at the trade deadline. The only issue there is, it wasn’t the Nailers’ problem – it was Pittsburgh’s, but somehow Wheeling was forced to pay the price, up to and including the ridiculous statement issued to make it seem as though coaches Stan Drulia and John Wroblewski didn’t want CPZ in their locker room.

Smh. That couldn’t be farther from the truth.

We’re supposed to believe a team that’s in the middle of a playoff race and is starving for goal scoring wants to rid itself of its only playmaking center?

The simple truth is, Wheeling needs to find a new affiliate, or for now stick with just Montreal. The problem, however, is the Nailers can’t and Pittsburgh knows it.

That’s because it says right there in the contract in black-and-white, that in order for the Nailers to receive money for the naming rights to WesBanco Arena, they must be affiliated with Pittsburgh. I don’t know how that happens, but it’s a different story for a different day.

As an aside, though, that deal is up in 2 years.

It’s nothing short of a miracle that the Nailers are still in contention, especially when you consider they’re doing it in spite of Pittsburgh. That says a lot about the character inside the dressing room.

Wheeling has drawn almost 3,800 fans a night during its last five home games, but can you realistically expect that to continue? Sooner or later people are going to understand that the team that starts the season here will be a shell of itself by midseason (remember 2009?).

And sooner, rather than later, they’re going to wise up and realize Pittsburgh doesn’t care about the lack of banners in their arena.

Pittsburgh isn’t just affecting the Nailers’ season. At the core, its nonchalant attitude threatens the long-term viability of the franchise in Wheeling.

Shawn Rine can be reached via e-mail at: