Many would assume that for Derek Army, ending up back in Wheeling for part of a fifth consecutive season would be seen as a disappointment.
Army, though, doesn't see it that way.
The 26-year-old captain is happy to be back in what he called his "second home" after being reassigned to Wheeling at the trade deadline.
Army first came to the Nailers way back in the 2013-14 season after graduating Providence College, the alma mater of his father and grandfather before him. He finished the year out on a tryout contract, and was brought back the following year.
After playing the full 2014-15 season in Wheeling, Army spent the next two seasons bouncing between Wheeling and five different AHL teams. He began this season with a preseason appearance for the Nashville Predators, but was reassigned to the Milwaukee Admirals of the AHL and then Wheeling in the ECHL by the start of the regular season, as Wheeling still owned his ECHL rights.
The Milwaukee Admirals recalled Army again in December, then traded him to the Tucson Roadrunners the day of the NHL trade deadline. Tucson reassigned Army to the ECHL, and he ended up right back where he started -- Wheeling.
It's been quite the journey, to say the least.
"I ran into so many things in the course of my career so far that I don't even expect anything," he told me this week. "You never know. Obviously I wasn't really expecting to be traded, either, at the trade deadline," he laughed.
Although Army does seem to have a positive attitude about anything that comes at him, he really, truly does love being back in West Virginia.
"To be honest, I'm very happy to be back in Wheeling," he said. "Obviously, you play to play at the highest level, and I've felt that I've played really well in Milwaukee last year and the year before, but if I do have to be sent down I wouldn't want to go anywhere else. I love it here."
"I have a lot of close friends on this team, the city itself, I've made a connection with it, the coaching, Jeff (Christian)," he continued. "It's a good spot. I know the grind and I have no problems being here, I have a great time here."
He recorded an assist in his first game back, winning the faceoff and setting up Danny Fick for a goal on Wednesday:
Whether it be college, Wheeling, or the AHL, Army just seems to be a fan favorite wherever he ends up. What is it about his game that fans seem to take to so well?
"I just think that I love the game, I love playing hockey, and I think that maybe shows when I'm on the ice," he said. "I try to make sure I work nonstop. Effort, I try to make sure that's always there, doing everything right, and going to the hard areas. I think fans, people appreciate someone that's willing to do that."
Army's charm doesn't just come from his ability to add energy to the lineup or his solid defensive zone play, of course. Fans take notice of his work off the ice, too.
— Milwaukee Admirals (@mkeadmirals) December 13, 2017
"I think the most important thing is you try to be a good person," he said. "You try to show how much you love the game because I know people that are coming to the game love the game so much too. It's just about spreading the game and enjoying everything and enjoying all the people you meet along the way."
Army was part of the Wheeling Nailers team that made a run all the way to the Kelly Cup Finals in 2016, and is one of the few remaining players from that group on the current roster. While Wheeling ultimately fell to the Allen Americans in six games, he feels that his experience can be valuable to the younger players on this team.
"It's completely new experiences for everyone," he said. "For me, then, it was a new experience. Now, I've been around it, I've been through an American League playoffs, so I can know what to expect. If guys have questions, I'm here for them."
After being a part of so many different Nailers teams and seeing what it takes to make it to the Kelly Cup, what does Army think about the current team's chances?
"I really like this team," he said. "We have a good connection, we have a good set of forwards, we have a good defense. We're coming around. The most important thing is to be playing well at the end of the season and getting everything together. That's important for us right now."
Throughout Army's career, he has come to expect the unexpected. There's no telling if he'll finish the season out in Wheeling. For now, he just takes things as they come.
"For me, right now, it's just to come out every game and keep building, be ready for a playoff run," he said of his goals for the rest of the season. "Maybe make a Kelly Cup run, which would be huge, but I think it's just about going game-by-game at this point."
MORE FROM WHEELING
• Feb. 28: at Manchester, 6-3 win
• Mar. 2: at Worcester, 5-0 loss
• Mar. 3: at Worcester, 3-2 shootout loss
• The Nailers received Reid Gardiner back from Wilkes-Barre, reassigned on Feb. 27.
• Freddie Tiffels scored his 10th and 11th goals of the season this week, and still looks out of place in the ECHL. There's just no room for him in Wilkes-Barre for now.
• The Nailers received goaltender Matt O'Connor from the Nashville Predators. O'Connor, with one NHL game on his resume, is signed to an NHL contract with Nashville but has been unable to crack their AHL affiliate's roster for most of the season. Nashville cut ties with their ECHL affiliate, the Norfolk Admirals, in November, so their players are spread out among various ECHL teams that have openings. This is O'Connor's fifth ECHL team of the season. He started both games this weekend for the Nailers, and made a combined 60 saves on 67 shots.
• After this week, the Nailers are in fourth place in the North Division, the last playoff spot in the division. With 65 points, they trail the Reading Royals by only three points, and only hold a six-point lead over the Worcester Railers. This week's coming games could prove to be crucial.
• The Nailers (29-23-6-1) will be back home on Wednesday morning for their Education Day game against the Worcester Railers (36-24-4-3). Because of the West Virginia teacher strike, the scheduled field trips for school kids won't be happening. Fans can attend the game for free. Then, the Nailers will host the Reading Royals (31-21-6-0) on Friday and Saturday.
GOALS OF THE WEEK
Cody Wydo made it look easy on Wednesday:
Nick Sorkin scored this one-timer in Manchester:
Riley Bourbonnais had this breakaway tally on Saturday:
SAVE OF THE WEEK
O'Connor made this shorthanded save on Saturday:
WHEELING FUN THING
Andrew Schmit hasn't taken a new headshot since joining the team on Feb. 22. He has Photoshop, though, so it looks like he's all set:
— Andy (@schmit_the_dog) March 3, 2018
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