Penguins extend agreement with Wheeling
This season's trial run went so well that the Penguins have extended their agreement with the East Coast Hockey League's Wheeling Nailers for another three years, it was announced Wednesday.
The Penguins will continue to run virtually every aspect of the Nailers' day-to-day operations.
“The Penguins' organization is excited about the opportunity to resume our relationship with the Nailers and would like to thank all parties involved that led to this arrangement,” Penguins president Tom Rooney said.
The Penguins have good reason to maintain their relationship with Wheeling, which is located only 40 miles from the Penguins' Washington County practice site at Southpointe.
Washington County and Westmoreland County are the Penguins' two most active season-ticket markets outside of Allegheny County. The Penguins want to keep a stronghold in areas that the NHL's Columbus Blue Jackets could exploit.
“It's important for us to maintain the branding of Penguins hockey in our area,” Rooney said. “We need to protect our inner market and our outer market. The relationship with Wheeling is a development tool for the franchise.”
The Penguins — in combination with their profitable American Hockey League affiliate in Wilkes-Barre — pumped roughly $400,000 into the Nailers' operations department last season, after which the Penguins had the option to extend the agreement, purchase the team from local ownership or end the relationship.
The Nailers remain under local ownership after enjoying a highly successful season on and off of the ice. Their attendance improved by 587 fans per game, the biggest jump in the ECHL and the sixth-biggest jump among 94 minor-league hockey teams, according to Wheeling media relations director Ned Bowdern. The team's corporate ticket sales and season-ticket base increased significantly.
Plenty of seats still are available. The Nailers' average attendance of 3,250 was more than 2,000 below capacity at the 25-year-old Wheeling Civic Center.
The product is getting better. A year after finishing last in the ECHL, Wheeling finished 36-32-4 and missed the playoffs by only a point after losing in an overtime shootout on the last day of the regular season. The record was particularly impressive because Wheeling kept losing players to Wilkes-Barre, which were replacing players lost to the injury-riddled Penguins.
Wheeling coach John Brophy will return next season, becoming the first Nailers coach to work back-to-back seasons since 1994-95. Penguins assistant coach-assistant general manager Eddie Johnston will return as Wheeling's GM. He works with Brophy, who makes many of the personnel decisions.