2020-21: A Season Of Growth for Wheeling
Nailers wrap up campaign with 22-39-6-1 record
WHEELING — Wheeling Nailers’ head coach Derek Army has learned how to roll with the punches throughout a wild 2020-21 hockey season.
Army, 30, was brought on board as an assistant coach to start the campaign, before moving into the interim head coaching role when Mark French stepped down.
Then, with two games remaining in the season, he was officially named the new head coach.
Army handled it all with professionalism and a smile but he certainly took a lot away from the highs and the lows thrown his way.
“It was a roller coaster,” Army said of the season. “At times it feels like it was 5 minutes ago and at times it feels like it was 20 years ago. I told the guys after (Saturday’s 5-2 season finale win over Indy) that there were a lot of curveballs thrown at me from being an assistant coach to the head coach but I think it’s good mentally toughness-wise for myself and especially for the guys development-wise. You have to find a way to be a pro. At times they’re missing family and missing this and that but this season was a character builder of a year.”
The moment Army realized his dream of being a hockey coach came true was before Friday’s game when he was announced as the head coach for the first time inside WesBanco Arena in front of applauding fans.
“When they introduce you as the head coach and it’s official, the fans were excited with the ovation, guys on the team were excited, it was a cool moment,” Army said. “It’s one I won’t forget and I’m very thankful to be a Nailer.”
There were many memorable moments and challenging obstacles throughout the campaign, which included the delayed season, postponement of games, ice issues, an epic goalie fight and the celebration of the team’s 1,000th win.
“I loved learning from coach Mark French and how he approached things,” Army said. “From the standpoint that as a coach you have to be on your toes for all situations. It translated down the stretch with all these injuries, guys getting called up and long schedule changes. It’s one of those times where you have every excuse in the world but you have to find a way to dial it in for the guys. That’s part of it and a good lesson learned.”
Army’s willingness to adjust to changes on the fly also made a positive impact on the locker room.
“He deserved it, that’s for sure,” team captain Austin Fyten said. “He stepped into a tough spot with Frenchie leaving but I thought he did a great job. He didn’t want to shake things up too much. He kept things rolling and tried to keep the guys happy. He did a great job.”
As part of the team awards, Fyten was also named the Offensive MVP and the Players’ Player Award winner.
“To have the players back you is pretty special,” Fyten said. “With guys looking up to you and looking to your leadership, I was wearing it proudly. I respect those guys. It could have gone to a lot of guys in that locker room but it’s a huge honor.”
The Top Scorer Award went to Cody Sylvester, who scored a team-high 25 goals and was tied for the lead with 48 points.
Adam Smith was the team’s Defensive MVP, Matt Miller was the +/- leader on the team with +7, Dylan MacPherson was the Fans’ Choice Award winner and Nick Rivera was the Unsung Hero.
Matt Alfaro was Wheeling’s Rookie of the Year winner after he tallied 13 goals and 28 assists, including three helpers in the season finale.
“It’s awesome to be recognized like that,” Alfaro said. “Coming in, I didn’t really know what my expectations were. I was just hoping to make an impact every game and try to stay in the lineup.”
He had no problem doing that as he finished tied for second on the team in games played with 61 and was deadlocked for third on the team in points with 41.
“I really learned about the speed of the game and how to be ready every night,” Alfaro said. “I went from a University in Canada (University of Calgary) where we probably played half as many games in a season that we did this year. Getting back into that mindset was challenging for the first couple of months but getting to be a pro every day is something I’ll take into next year.”
Shane Starrett and Louis-Philip Guindon shared the lead for most wins by a goalie with seven each and Tommy Nappier topped the team with a save percentage of .919.
The beginning of the 2021-2022 season is 139 days away for the Nailers, who open up at Fort Wayne on Saturday, Oct. 23. Wheeling’s home opener is slated for Saturday, Nov. 6 against Fort Wayne, as well, but for now, the offseason has begun.