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Penguins

Wheeling Nailers name former Penguin as new head coach

| Tuesday, July 12, 2016, 10:45 a.m.
Jeff Christian was hired as coach of the Wheeling Nailers on Tuesday, July 13, 2016.
Wheeling Nailers
Jeff Christian was hired as coach of the Wheeling Nailers on Tuesday, July 13, 2016.

Bill Guerin's life as a professional hockey player with the New Jersey Devils' organization began in 1991 with an assist from Jeff Christian, a winger with the same age and playing experience who provided a place for the duo to live for a couple months in Utica, N.Y.

Christian's time as a coach in the Penguins organization began 25 years later with some help from Guerin.

The Wheeling Nailers, the Penguins affiliate in the East Coast Hockey League, on Tuesday named Christian their 16th head coach in the team's 25-year history. Christian only became involved with the Nailers in late January, when he joined the staff as an assistant after Guerin, the Penguins' assistant general manager, passed his name along as a good candidate.

“I'd been basically begging for some sort of job — development, skills, coaching, anything — to get back into pro hockey,” said Christian, whose 21-season career included stints with 21 teams, including the Penguins, and six leagues. “(Guerin) gave me a break. He took a chance on me. And for that, I owe him, big time.”

Christian, 45, impressed, particularly when thrust into an interim head coaching role for the bulk of the ECHL playoffs, and his designation as Wheeling's man in charge for the foreseeable future brought a tinge of satisfaction to the man who knew him decades ago.

“There's nothing in the East Coast League or the American Hockey League that Jeff hasn't seen,” Guerin said. “He wants (players) to play the game the right way and not just kind of beat the puck up and chip it in every time. He wants guys to play to their strengths, and I think he's going to help guys find out what those strengths are.”

Prior to joining the Nailers, Christian's coaching experience consisted of a few seasons as a player-assistant with the Missouri Mavericks in the Central Hockey League. He handled several administrative duties but never made the in-game decisions on the bench, he said.

After Clark Donatelli, Wheeling's coach from 2011 through the beginning of this season, moved up to Wilkes-Barre/Scranton to succeed Mike Sullivan this winter, the opportunity arose for Christian to dive all the way into coaching.

Guerin suggested the Wheeling assistant job to his former Devils teammate after they crossed paths at a rink in Cleveland, where Christian was coaching a Columbus, Ohio-based youth travel team.

Christian landed that role, and replaced Dave Gove as head coach after Gove took a personal leave of absence following the first round of the ECHL playoffs.

Under Christian's supervision, Wheeling won two more rounds to claim the Eastern Conference championship and reach the Kelly Cup Final.

Championship contention caught the attention of the Penguins' leadership. But Christian understood more than wins mattered on a resume.

“I look at a guy like Sullivan, I mean, that guy is awesome,” Christian said. “He's got a plan. He's got a presence. But he's got the players' back, and they love him. That's my guy. I want to be around that guy, I want to learn from him. I want to be a fly on the wall as to how he does it.”

Christian, like Guerin, broke into pro hockey with the Devils. Taken No. 23 overall in the 1988 draft, the winger continued to develop in the Ontario Hockey League until New Jersey put him on the roster of its American Hockey League affiliate in Utica for the 1990-91 season. Christian made his NHL debut with the Devils during the 1991-92 season.

Guerin, taken No. 5 overall in the 1989 draft, also broke into the NHL with the Devils during the 1991-92 campaign.

While Guerin became a fixture in the league, Christian floated back and forth between NHL and AHL clubs as a left-handed forward with a gritty edge in his game. He finished his career with 18 NHL game appearances, including 15 with the Penguins. His most encouraging stint with them came in 1996-97, when he tallied two goals, two assists and 13 penalty minutes in 11 games.

Christian's last NHL appearance was with Phoenix during the 1997-98 season, but he continued to pursue a playing career for more than a decade. He spent seasons in several North American minor leagues as well as the British Elite Ice Hockey League and Germany's top league.

“You don't play for 21 years in any minor league in any sport unless you are just so passionate about the game, and that's what Jeff is,” Guerin said. “He just loves the game.”

Bill West is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at wwest@tribweb.com or via Twitter @BWest_Trib.

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