The Nailers have gone through a lot of changes over the past four seasons.
Five head coaches. 126 different players. A run to the Kelly Cup Finals, followed by disappointing failures to make the playoffs. Moving to a new division. Hell, even the arena itself underwent significant renovations.
However, one thing has remained constant on the ice at WesBanco Arena through these four years: Danny Fick.
This week, the 27-year-old defenseman is expected to become the new all-time games played leader for the Nailers/Thunderbirds franchise, which has been in existence since 1992.
Fick has played 229 regular season games in a Nailers uniform, tied for third all-time with forward Zack Torquato (2011-16). Forward Stefan Brannare (1997-2006) and defenseman Cliff Loya (2004-10) are tied for the all-time lead with 231 games. If Fick plays in all three games this week, he'll become the sole all-time leader on Jan. 19 in Reading.
"I feel proud to be able to play that long," Fick told me of the impending milestone. "It feels good that the organization has kept me around this long; I'm just proud of it."
For players who spend a few years in the ECHL, it is rare for a player to spend this much time with one team. Roster turnover is common, players move on to other organizations in search of a different path to move up the minor-league ladder.
For Fick, the AHL is still the goal for now. He earned a two-game stint with the San Antonio Rampage in the 2016-17 season, and is still working towards earning another opportunity in the AHL. But for now, Wheeling has become sort of a second home for the native of Marine on St. Croix, Minn. That's what keeps him coming back.
"I like the town, I like the organization," he said. "Mainly, I just love hockey."
Many hockey players make the jump to Europe after a few years in the minors. They can typically make more money in some European leagues, and it's an opportunity to see different parts of the world. Fick began his professional career overseas. Following his senior season at Harvard, he spent a year in Oslo, Norway playing in the GET-ligaen, the top Norwegian ice hockey league. He signed with Wheeling the following summer, and isn't interested in returning to Europe to play.
Fick has been one of the leaders in the Nailers' locker room for quite some time, and wore the 'A' on his sweater last season. This season, he was named one of the co-captains along with Nick Saracino. With Saracino in the AHL since Dec. 26, Fick has been the lone captain on the team.
"It's nice," Fick said of the honor. "I'm one of the older guys on the team. It's nice to be looked at as a leader and respected in that way in the locker room."
A man of few words, Fick is a captain who leads by example. He's one of the hardest-working members of the team and a steady, consistent presence on the blue line. He's an embodiment of the culture that Wheeling fans have come to expect from their team.
Fick is still growing his game as a veteran. The 6-feet, 200-pound right-handed defenseman has always been more of a shutdown defenseman, but he's been developing his offensive game this season as well. His career-high production came last season, when he recorded four goals and 19 assists in 70 games. This season, Fick has already reached three goals and 17 assists in just 37 games. All three goals have come from Fick moving forward and joining the play, something he didn't do as often in previous years:
"I think it's partly just being a better hockey player than I was," Fick said of his newfound production. "I've been getting more opportunity on power play type situations, so that probably helps with production as well, and sometimes it's luck too. When guys like Cam Brown and Nick Saracino are out there and they went on that point streak there, I got to benefit a little from that. It's just those guys doing most of the work. It's nice to get rewarded in that sense, but I don't really consciously pay attention to it that much.”
Fick has seen a lot of people come and go in his time in Wheeling. He's played under five head coaches -- Clark Donatelli, the late Dave Gove, Jeff Christian, Mark Dennehy (who left before coaching a single game) and now Mike Bavis. That has led to a bit more more roster turnover than usual in this league. That may be seen as a negative by some, but it's an element of the game that Fick has come to enjoy.
"I'm pretty used to it," Fick said. "Meeting new guys, making new friends with everybody on the team, it's just part of why I love hockey. There's been a little bit more turnover in the past couple of years than normal, but I don't know if that bothers me much. I like to make new friends, meet new people, and they stay your friends for the rest of your life."
In Fick's first year in Wheeling, 2015-16, the Nailers made a run to the Kelly Cup Finals, ultimately losing to the Allen Americans in six games. In the two seasons that followed, the Nailers have finished in fifth place in the North Division, failing to qualify for the playoffs.
With a cast of almost entirely new players this season and under new management, the Nailers sit on the edge of a playoff spot at the midway point of the season. Fick believes that this team can reverse the disappointing trend of the past two seasons and return to the postseason. He echoed the sentiments of many Nailers this season about what it's like playing for coach Bavis.
"I love playing for Mike Bavis," Fick said. "It's fun playing for him, I think he's a player's coach."
If Fick keeps improving as he has this season, a second opportunity in the AHL isn't out of the question. If he does move on from the Nailers in the future, one thing is already certain: He's already left his mark on this organization.
THE ROSTER MOVES
• Defenseman/forward Frank Schumacher was released on Jan. 8 and returned to the SPHL with the Evansville Thunderbolts. Schumacher registered one assist and was a minus-4 in eight games in Wheeling.
• Forward Alec Butcher was signed on Jan. 8. Butcher most recently played last season at the University of Alaska-Anchorage. He scored a goal in his professional debut with the Nailers this week.
• Forward Mark Petaccio was injured on Jan. 11 and has been out since ... forward Mike Fazio was injured on Dec. 31 and remains on injured reserve ... forward Winston Day Chief was injured on Dec. 19 and remains on injured reserve ... defenseman Brien Diffley was injured on Jan. 5 and is week-to-week.
• With all the injuries up front, 6-feet-7 defenseman Craig Skudalski has been moved to forward.
• Defenseman Kevin Spinozzi was named the Nailers' representative for the ECHL All-Star Classic to be held Jan. 21 at 7 p.m. in Toledo. Spinozzi has been recalled to Wilkes-Barre/Scranton since Dec. 27, but will likely be returned to Wheeling for the game, as has been done in years past with ECHL All-Stars playing in the AHL.
The All-Star Classic will feature a 3-on-3 tournament comprised of four teams. The host Toledo Walleye will make up two of the four teams, and will compete against the other two teams made up of All-Star players from the Eastern and Western Conference. The skills competition will take place in between rounds of the tournament. Fans will be able to watch the game on the NHL Network.
• Wilkes-Barre signed Nailers forwards Yushiroh Hirano and Cedric Lacroix to full AHL contracts on Sunday, but did not yet recall either player. Both players attended Wilkes-Barre’s training camp and were among the early cuts. As the season has progressed, both players grew more comfortable as first-year professionals. Signing them now prevents them from signing AHL deals in other organizations midseason.
• This is quite the compliment from James Peklicz, who has been the Nailers' timekeeper for two decades:
Troy Josephs is an absolute joy to watch. Even when not scoring, the tenacity on the PK, the hustle on the forecheck & backcheck, the willingness to be physical. I've seen a lot of guys come & go in 25+ years but he's probably a Top-3 all-time Forward in the organization for me.
— James Peklicz (@Nailers_Off_Ice) January 13, 2019
• Hirano did his first video interview of the season prior to this week's games, showing how much his English has improved:
We have a big weekend with 6 points on the line, we caught up with @9yushi0 after morning skate today. Hirano has 22 points so far this season, 8G 14A.
Tickets: https://t.co/bpsk6JZEnC pic.twitter.com/rPVrZehrEw
— Wheeling Nailers (@WheelingNailers) January 11, 2019
• Jan. 11: vs. Utah, 3-0 loss
The Nailers fell to one of the league's top teams, one of three teams in the league with fewer than ten regulation losses.
The Grizzlies scored a goal in each of the first two periods and added an empty net goal in the final frame for the win. The Nailers peppered Grizzlies goaltender Kevin Carr with 30 shots, but Carr was perfect on the night to earn the shutout, becoming the second opposing goaltender to record a shutout in Wheeling this season. Defenseman Josh Couturier led the Nailers with six shots.
Nailers goaltender John Muse made 20 saves 22 shots in the loss.
The power play went 0-for-4, and the penalty kill went 3-for-4.
• Jan. 12: vs. Indy, 3-2 win
The Fuel scored the game's first goal 17 seconds into the second period. In each of the Nailers' previous 18 games, the team that had scored the first goal won the game.
Determined to break the streak, Zac Lynch answered 30 seconds later with his 10th goal of the season. Butcher, in his professional debut, scored his first pro goal with two minutes remaining in the middle frame.
The Fuel tied the game back up 6:39 into the third period, but the game didn't stay tied for long. Skudalski scored his second goal of the season just 23 seconds later, and the goal held up to be the game-winner.
Butcher, who led the team with five shots on goal, was humble and thrilled when speaking about his goal in his postgame interview:
. @AlecButcher9 scored his first professional goal tonight in his first professional game. We caught up with him post-game, and yes he did get to go home with the game puck! pic.twitter.com/7rpoNwt2M2
— Wheeling Nailers (@WheelingNailers) January 13, 2019
Goaltender Matt O'Connor earned his eighth win of the season with 21 saves on 23 shots. The penalty kill was a perfect 5-for-5, but the power play went 0-for-4.
• Jan. 13: vs. Indy, 4-3 overtime win
The Fuel had not lost three consecutive games all season ... until Sunday afternoon.
Troy Josephs scored his 16th goal of the season to open the scoring 6:29 into the game, and the Fuel tied the game seven minutes later. Lacroix scored a shorthanded goal, his eighth goal of the season, to take the lead at the first intermission. Lacroix now leads the league in shorthanded goals, with four.
The Fuel scored the lone goal of the second period to tie the game.
Renars Krastenbergs' 11th goal of the season, a power play tally, gave the Nailers' a 3-2 lead 1:31 into the third period, but the Fuel tied the game with under five minutes remaining in the game.
Lynch ended the game just 1:02 into overtime with his 11th goal of the year. It was the first shot of the overtime period from either team.
Muse earned the win with 36 saves on 39 shots. The power play went 1-for-3, and the penalty kill went 5-for-6.
• Goals: Saracino, 17 in 27 games.
• Assists: Brown, 26 in 30 games.
• Points: Saracino, 37 in 27 games.
Renars Krastenbergs - Zac Lynch - Yushiroh Hirano
Troy Josephs - Michael Phillips - Alec Butcher
Craig Skudalski - Cedric Lacroix - Alex Rauter
Josh Couturier - Danny Fick
Johnny Austin - Dane Birks
Robbie Hall - Aaron Titcomb
• After this week, the Nailers are tied for fourth in the six-team Central Division with a record of 19-16-2. The Nailers’ power play sits 4th place in the league at 20.6 percent, and the penalty kill sits 13th in the league at 83.7 percent.
• The Nailers have a three-game road trip this week. They'll visit the Adirondack Thunder (20-12-3-2) on Wednesday and Friday, and the Reading Royals (17-11-3-5) on Saturday.
GOALS OF THE WEEK
Lynch drove to the net for this goal, picking up the rebound from Hirano's shot on the rush:
Butcher took two cracks at the puck for his first pro goal:
Josephs is slick:
Lacroix's league-leading fourth shorthanded goal of the year. Great work by Lynch to force the turnover:
Lynch had another great move for an assist on Sunday, followed by a goal from Krastenbergs on a crazy angle:
SAVE OF THE WEEK
O'Connor made this series of stops:
WHEELING FUN THING
Saturday was SpongeBob Night, and the team promoted it with this wild video featuring team enforcer Brad Drobot and Robert Morris alum Lynch. An award-winning performance from both guys:
Saturday January 12th is Nickelodeon Night Featuring SpongeBob and Patrick. Be there or be square…. Get your Family 4 Packs today https://t.co/0CnKBtXz63
(4 Pack Available Online Only) pic.twitter.com/lfMMRTy6SO
— Wheeling Nailers (@WheelingNailers) January 8, 2019
The Nailers showed off their SpongeBob knowledge in this video. Lacroix may need some work:
In this special episode of Nailers TV we test our teams SpongeBob knowledge, give it a watch!
— Wheeling Nailers (@WheelingNailers) January 10, 2019
These were the jerseys the Nailers and Fuel wore for the game:
Join us for Nickelodeon Night Featuring SpongeBob and Patrick this Saturday. You can be yellow and porous, or red and krabby! Nailers SpongeBob jerseys and @IndyFuel Mr. Krabs jerseys will be up for auction beginning at 9am Saturday January 12th. Download the Handbid app today! pic.twitter.com/6T2s2NV7oI
— Wheeling Nailers (@WheelingNailers) January 10, 2019
When the three stars are announced following each game, players always skate out and toss a hat or other gear into the crowd. Hirano was one of the game's stars, and had a bit of a mishap when skating out. The hat bouncing off the glass gets me every time:
— Taylor Haase (@TaylorHaasePGH) January 13, 2019
Hirano posted this video with Drobot on Instagram after Sunday's win. Hirano has been such a popular player on the team this season, he's just a genuine guy with a good story:
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