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Wheeling Is Back on Home Ice

Photo Provided Mark French and Wheeling held their first practice of the season Friday. French is in his first season as head coach of the Nailers.

WHEELING — For the first time since early March, the Wheeling Nailers skated inside WesBanco Arena on Friday morning and there were plenty of new faces.

The opening practice of the 2020-21 campaign brought newly-named head coach Mark French and an overhauled Wheeling roster together where they began to embark on their next chapter.

Only two players remained from last year’s squad in forward Brad Drobot and defenseman Marc-Olivier Duquette, while 23 newcomers joined forces for the first time.

“A lot of things have changed,” French, who has the third highest winning percentage in AHL coaching history, said. “It was such a long recruiting process. We were chasing players in the summer months and seemed to have a glut of free agents available to us in the later months, so we were able to add some players to our lineup.

“Recruiting is all about connections and coaches and I think myself and (new assistant coach and former Nailers player) Derek (Army) tried to utilize those as much as possible.”

Army, a fan favorite in his time with Wheeling, is back with the Nailers as an assistant coach and will make a great impact along with French.

“It’s great,” French said of having Army by his side. “Obviously, he knows the league really well. Plus, he knows Wheeling. Those are two unknowns for me and he fills in those gaps really well.”

After the ECHL’s North Division suspended play for the season due to COVID, players from those six teams were immediately available for free agency. French said they looked into adding some of those players but were focused on the players they had for the time being.

“We looked at a lot of those players from those rosters that became available but I think for us right now, we wanted to start training camp with the players that we had signed. We are just mindful that there are quite a few players out there from teams who have deferred for the year and if we feel they will significantly upgrade our team, then we’ll look at those guys but right now I think we’re focused around the group we have at training camp.”

As of now, only the first 10 games of the season have been scheduled but the suspension of the North Division will not impact any of those 10 contests. It could, however, impact the remainder of the season as the Nailers played 12 North Division teams last year, including nine games with Reading.

“We talked about that and there is a lot of unknown but I think this year more than any year, it’s important to control what we can control. How the schedule plays out, we know the first 10 games and we’ll stay focused around that. I think everybody is in the same boat and will try to do the best with what we’re given.”

Taking it one game at a time has been the only way to go about scheduling this year with the threat of COVID-19 making an impact on a moment’s notice but French and his squad are already taking all the precautions to make sure they can get through the season, which can be an adjustment for all athletes.

“The different adjustments are just some of the protocols like wearing masks and just getting comfortable with the cleaning procedures. I think the biggest thing is learning how to blow a whistle with a mask on,” French said with a laugh. “Other than that it’s pretty status quo.”

Whether there are new players learning new schemes or different protocols to follow, at the end of the day, hockey is back.

“We do this because we are passionate about the game,” French said. “Whether it’s coaching or playing, it’s just really nice to get back to something we are passionate about.”

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