The way I travel to hockey games is somewhat flawed. Too often, I pull in to town only an hour or two before a game, which doesn’t give much time to get the real feel of a city. I roam around, looking at what I can look at, maybe grab a meal rather than being subjected to arena food, then head to the game before warm-ups.
Wheeling, WV was the same way, which is too bad. There has to be more to Wheeling than the downtown area, where the WesBanco Arena resides, would lead you to believe.
The Wheeling Nailers have the distinction of being the longest-serving team in the ECHL, now starting their 23rd season. This puts them past the Johnstown Chiefs who moved to Greenville, SC a few years ago. Wikipedia adds to that record:
The Nailers are the oldest surviving minor league franchise below the level of the American Hockey League, with unbroken continuity of franchise and never having missed a season of play.
As you pull in to Wheeling, you might wonder if anything like a hockey team exists in the downtown area. Wheeling looks like an old school industrial New England town, and much like the small towns you see built on industry along a river, it’s seen better times. Is it fair to say this, when I only got an hour or so before the game to walk around? I think so. Obviously, there is a lot more to the city, but here is what I saw.
One of the things you notice first about Wheeling is the buildings. These are buildings that wouldn’t look out-of-place in Chicago and Denver. If they were in downtown Denver, they would fetch a nice price on the market. But the next thing you notice is the plywood over the windows and doors.
Walking around, I wondered if these places should be saved, or if they could be saved. What could Wheeling do with these spaces? Can they even be used anymore?
I don’t know what to make of these two. Are they even in use?
All over town, you see for sale and for lease signs. But somehow, they still have a hockey team that has survived 23 years.
In the middle of the Ohio River, across from WesBanco Arena is Wheeling Island, where the football stadium and the casino is.
What is interesting about Wheeling Island is how you get there, across the Wheeling Suspension Bridge.
As the sign says, it was built as part of the National Road. You can read more about that here. It’s one of the most defining things about the city.
The Victoria Theater, West Virginia’s oldest theater and longest running show.
One more thing about Wheeling. I saw this sign in a few places.
So at least something is happening in town. I hope they can make a difference.
Let’s go to the game. Welcome to the WesBanco Arena.
The house I lived in until I was six in Burnsville, MN had a design you don’t see that often, certainly not in houses built today. You walked up steps to a front door that was between the upper and lower levels. Upstairs was the main living areas, downstairs was the basement. That is what the WesBanco Arena is like. You walk up the main steps to the concourse then up to the seating or down to the ice surface. It’s sounds rather unremarkable, until experience it.
As it was my first time at a Nailers home game, I was a little confused as to where to go. They couldn’t possibly want me to go up there, right? I kept looking at the doors along the concourse that were on the ice side. I almost asked someone where the seats were when I finally recognized the sign section numbers for what it was.
Finally, I found the ice.
The arena is lit by florescent lights. They take a bit to warm up, but nothing like how long it take some smaller arenas. Still, it casts an interesting glow to the ice.
Before we get to the game, we need to talk about the concourse. If the buildings around Wheeling harken back to a better time for the city, the arena celebrates those times in sport history for the city. The arena is home to the Ohio Valley Athletic Conference Sports Museum and the OVAC Hall of Fame. In larger arenas like the XCEL Energy Center in Minnesota, you will see some celebration of local sports. They have nothing on the WesBanco Arena.
Everywhere you turn, there is some plaque or photo or banner honoring someone who did something years ago.
The other thing of note is prints of paintings celebrating some of the history surrounding Wheeling, such as this one, titled French Expansion Of The Ohio Valley.
You really get a sense of being there, eh? Not everyone in the painting is all that happy about what is going on.
This seems like a good time to move back inside to the game.
There were three things that defined this game for me: The absolute craziness that happened in the slot on both ends, the casualness of Wheeling’s goaltending, and the forechecking of Cincinnati, which eventually led to Wheeling boosting their forechecking game.
Let’s see some of that craziness.
And a bit of the casualness.
What is he looking at?
Two injuries of note. The ref took a pass that deflected off a stick to the side of his head. He was OK and stayed in the game. And Shayne Taker of the Cyclones had the most awkward fall I have ever seen.
More action! You can click on any of the photos to embiggen. Embiggen is totally a word.
The in-game / in-crowd announcer is very excited.
The Nailers have two mascots, a beaver named Buck and a dog named Spike. One is the stuff of nightmares, but I will let you decide which.
No fights, but plenty of scrums.
Your final, Your Wheeling Nailers fall to Your Cincinnati Cyclones, 5-3. Game sheet is here. The crowd for this game was sparse, but it was a preseason game, and they announced that the home opener has already sold four thousand tickets.
One last thing to note. Meg and I decided to drive across the bridge after the game, to see what was on the other side. It was fairly dark, so we didn’t get much of a feel of what Wheeling Island was like, aside from not-well-lit. We saw some darker residential areas, then suddenly the casino with its surrounding wall. As we were leaving, we stopped at a coffee shop that said it was open until two AM for something to drink on the way home. The front door of the coffee shop had a buzzer to be let in, much like what you might see at a check cashing place. To get out, we had to push a button to unlock the door. It’s something I had never seen before on a place like that. We left an got in the car, the neighborhood looking a little more dangerous than when we went in. To the east, the bridge, downtown Wheeling, and reminders of better times.