WHEELING, W.Va. — As recently as March 2012, the future of professional hockey in Wheeling was in serious doubt. Just over four years later, a multi-million dollar renovation of WesBanco Arena is nearly complete and the Wheeling Nailers on Wednesday hosted their first Kelly Cup Finals game in 23 years.
As cookout smoke filled the air over South Street outside WesBanco Arena, hundreds of dedicated Nailers fans came out early to get pumped up for Wednesday’s Game 3 against the defending ECHL champion Allen Americans of Texas. They were rewarded with a home-ice victory as the Nailers edged the Americans 3-2 before a crowd of 3,484 to take a 2-1 advantage in the best-of-seven series.
Many of those who enjoyed Wednesday’s pre-game festivities said it was one tailgate party in the Friendly City they’ve waited more than 20 years to attend.
“We’re due. We have been here a lot of years and (experienced) a lot of heartaches … but we’re ready to go now,” said Jim Hench, president of the Nailers Boosters.
Hench, who led the crowd in “Let’s Go Nailers” cheers while cooking food on the grill, said the boosters decided to host cookouts at the start of the playoffs. He said the response has been tremendous, as the group typically goes through about 800 hot dogs and hamburgers at each cookout.
Free food is nice, but what the fans are really after is a Kelly Cup championship.
John Farnario of Bridgeport said he was only 2 years old when the Nailers last played for a title, and he has been a fan most of his life.
“I’ve waited my whole life to see them move on to the finals and hopefully win it all,” Farnario said.
Paul Smathers of Shadyside, who has been a season ticket holder since the team first moved to Wheeling as the Thunderbirds in 1992, said everybody was out to support the Nailers for a Kelly Cup win.
“We are here to support our team. It’s been 24 long years,” he said.
Patrick Kelly, commissioner emeritus of the ECHL and who the Kelly Cup is named after, was on hand at the cookout to meet and take photos with the fans.
Kelly, who was in attendance in 1992 for the team’s first game in Wheeling, is in his 63rd year in the game of hockey. A resident of Charlotte, N.C., he said he is looking forward to attending the remaining games in Wheeling.
As he took a few minutes to mingle with the crowd, WesBanco Arena Manager Dennis Magruder said the the atmosphere has been absolutely “electric” since the playoffs started.
“For me, it’s been 24 years I’ve been dreaming about this. … Everybody is having a good time and the kids are happy. I see a lot of fans tonight that have been supporting this team in this building for the last 24 years, and they’re here tonight. They wouldn’t miss it for the world,” Magruder said.
The support shown by fans Wednesday – and during the Nailers’ run to the Kelly Cup Finals in general – may have served as validation of sorts of the Regional Economic Development Partnership’s decision to purchase the team in March 2012 and keep it from folding.
Wheeling Mayor Andy McKenzie said that decision came with much debate. He recalled a recent conversation with a RED board member who voted against the purchase in 2012, but admitted to McKenzie that was the wrong decision.
McKenzie said WesBanco Arena would be a ghost of itself without the team. He said the city likely wouldn’t have invested nearly $7 million in upgrades to the facility if the team had left.
According to McKenzie, the broader implications of a Kelly Cup Finals appearance are seeing WesBanco Arena function as a viable venue and encouraging business for bars, restaurants and hotels downtown. He estimated that an additional 4,000 people will be downtown both Friday and Saturday nights for Games 4 and 5.
“Those are people that normally wouldn’t be there,” he said.
McKenzie this week issued a challenge to Allen Mayor Steve Terrell via a YouTube video. McKenzie asked Terrell to display a piece of Wheeling-made glass from Oglebay Park in his office, as well as wear a Nailers jersey while volunteering for a nonprofit group in his area, if the Nailers win the title.
“We wanted to make it clear that this is a really big deal,” he said. “While the Wheeling Nailers are a sports team, this is also about economic development.”
Games 4 and 5 are scheduled for Friday and Saturday at WesBanco Arena, before returning to Texas for Games 6 and 7, if necessary.