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Nailed Down

When a sports team is on the verge of being sold or moved away, communities often band together in order to help keep the team in their city. Unmatched support is needed to show ownership that the team really does belong in that city.

Sometimes that support isn’t enough to keep the administration from moving the team, as hockey fans in Winnipeg and Hartford surely attest.

This time, for the East Coast Hockey League’s (ECHL) Wheeling Nailers, it was exactly what they needed.

When the Wheeling community got wind of news saying the Nailers were about to be sold by the current owners, Rob and Jim Brooks, people in West Virginia’s northern panhandle worked hard to show potential buyers that the team needed to stay in Wheeling.

Losing the Nailers? No. It meant too much to the town to lose something that brought the community together.

Early this year, Rob and Jim Brooks announced that they no longer had the time to put a solid effort into owning and running the Wheeling Nailers. They both consistently stated it had nothing to do with not having enough money to go around in a small-market area. In fact, it was quite the opposite. The brothers’ other business ventures were taking up a considerable amount of time in their already busy schedules. They needed to drop something in their schedules, and potentially selling the Nailers seemed like the correct business decision for them. During a January press conference, Jim Brooks stated that the Nailers’ sale needed to be finalized “sometime in March,” or the team would be in danger of folding permanently.

When Nailers’ supporters got wind of the shut-down rumors, the community decided they needed to take action to keep the Wheeling Nailers in Wheeling.

The Nailers were Wheeling’s team; the community refused to let the team go. The Nailers had been a fairly successful team in the last few seasons, making the playoffs and producing their share of NHL-worthy talent. Debuting in Wheeling as the Thunderbirds in 1992, they are one of the longest tenured teams in the ECHL, celebrating their 20th season this year. Communal support for keeping the Nailers in town was unwavering.

Most notably, attendance at Nailers’ games was climbing. On average, more than 3,000 fans turned up at the WesBanco Arena for home games. Fans began to utilize social media to keep the hockey team in business. Facebook groups and Twitter accounts were created in support of the Nailers. Local radio stations, businesses, fans and even outside-the-city supporters got into the act, trying to keep their favorite form of low-cost entertainment in Wheeling.

“We needed to keep the team local,” said Tim Roberts, a financial planner for McCoy Wealth Management, and a former Nailers player from back in the days when the team was known as the Thunderbirds. “Losing the Nailers would’ve meant losing a lot more than just a hockey team.”

Local businesses and markets flourish when the Nailers are on the ice, a fact not lost on Roberts and other fans.

Another main reason behind the communal support involved local kids. In addition to the Nailers, WesBanco Arena is home to a number of youth hockey teams, as well as all of the high school teams in the area. Without the revenue generated by the Nailers, however, the arena wouldn’t be able to be maintained.

With business dealings going nowhere between January and early March, and private options nearly extinguished, certain members of the Wheeling community—including Roberts—decided to step in.

At least ten private investors expressed interest in acquiring the Nailers, but none of them ended up working out. Instead, the Regional Economic Development Partnership paired with Roberts, who is also the president of the Wheeling Amateur Hockey Association. The two groups worked to come up with the funding—which is entirely private—to purchase the team.

“There is no government funding,” Roberts points out. “No taxpayer dollars were spent in this purchase.”

The deal for the two organizations to purchase the Nailers was finalized in late March. The Nailers aren’t going anywhere.

The Wheeling Amateur Hockey Association is a non-profit organization in the town – their purchase of the Nailers was not done with profits in mind.

“It was done for the kids. Making this work is important. The town needs the hockey team to stay here,” said Roberts, who said he has faith that the community will support to the team. “”You want to be a shareholder, buy a ticket.”pgoto bt Tim Kiser

Wheeling Mayor Andy McKenzie agreed, calling the development “a big win for the city.”

Although the Nailers were knocked out of the playoffs early this year by the Kalamazoo Wings, fans can look forward to seeing them in action—in Wheeling—for a long time. As a farm team for the Pittsburgh Penguins, the Nailers faithful can now find more meaning in one of the Pens’ slogans: “It’s a great day for hockey.”

Because of the efforts of Roberts and his partners, there are many more great days of hockey to come for the Nailers and their fans.

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