Johnstown adopted the Wheeling Nailers as its part-time ECHL team soon after the hometown Chiefs bolted for South Carolina in 2010.
Now, the Nailers’ future is uncertain.
Wheeling owners Rob and Jim Brooks gathered their staff on Monday afternoon and informed the front office personnel that the Nailers are for sale, effective immediately.
Multiple media reports stated that if local ownership doesn’t materialize, there is no guarantee the team will remain in Wheeling, where the team is celebrating its 20th anniversary season. The Nailers played 10 of their home dates in Johnstown last season and will play another 10 games at Cambria County War Memorial Arena this season, including contests Friday against Toledo and Saturday against Elmira.
“We were called to a staff meeting at 2 o’clock (Monday),” said Nailers Vice President of Business Operations Craig Bommer. “We thought it was about preparing for the weekend games in Johnstown. But the Brooks brothers said they no longer have the time to do both teams so they are going to sell this team.
“They said at the time they didn’t have any (suitors). They asked us to look for local leads (in Wheeling). We have a couple leads. There is some interest. I’ve had a couple calls from guys who are interested. It all will come down to what the brothers are asking for the team.”
The Brooks brothers have owned the Nailers for nine years. They are currently in the process of having an arena built in Allentown. The Brooks brothers also own an American Hockey League team in Glens Falls, N.Y., the Adirondack Phantoms, which would eventually move into the Allentown arena.
Neither Rob nor Jim Brooks could be reached on Tuesday. The brothers were in Charleston, S.C., for the ECHL league meetings and hall of fame dinner.
Bommer said the Nailers staff was stunned on Monday, but had little time to seek additional details or answers because the Brookses left for South Carolina.
“We’re in the dark,” said Bommer, who spent Tuesday attempting to find local investors in hopes of keeping the team in Wheeling.
D.J. Abisalih, Wheeling’s broadcaster and media relations coordinator, said a Pittsburgh radio station reported Tuesday that the team already had been sold, adding confusion and uncertainty as Bommer called possible ownership candidates.
He said the Brooks brothers were somber during their announcement to staff on Monday.
“They weren’t happy. You could tell it was a strain on them,” Bommer said. “Jim was almost in tears. It wasn’t easy for them. I know that. It’s something where the rest of us are waiting for all the answers.
“We’re not sure what the actual possibilities are. All they said is they need to sell the team.
“It’s kind of shocking because within the last month we’ve prepared our (season ticket and advertising) renewals for next year,” he added. “We’re working on our jerseys for next year. This hit us out of the blue and caught us off guard. There were no signs. Everything was moving forward.”
The Nailers joined what then was known as the East Coast Hockey League in 1992-93, playing under the name Thunderbirds at the Wheeling Civic Center. Since then the league, building and team all have been renamed: ECHL; WesBanco Arena; and Nailers.
The Nailers are the Ohio Valley’s biggest professional sports team. The team also is Johnstown’s only remaining on-ice link to the ECHL, a league the Chiefs helped build as one of five founding members. The Chiefs played 22 seasons in the league before moving to Greenville, S.C., following the 2009-10 season.
“I haven’t talked to the owners – or, I guess, the soon to be former owners – yet,” said War Memorial General Manager Mike Silva of SMG. “I don’t have an opinion on it because I haven’t researched it. I really don’t know what’s going to happen.”
The War Memorial still is adapting to a post-Chiefs era.
The potential loss of the Nailers if the team relocates would mean 10 fewer dates filled unless another hockey option miraculously develops.
“Working with the Brooks brothers has been really advantageous to both the facility and the community,” Silva said.
“They really care about the product that they put on he ice and they really care about serving the community. I can only hope that we can get to work with owners that are as forthright and generous as these guys have been with us the past two years.”
In recent years it has been reported that the Brooks brothers and WesBanco Arena General Manager Dennis Magruder were at odds over renovations to the building, including the installation of a video scoreboard that never materialized.
At about the same time, the Brooks brothers negotiated to play 10 games in Johnstown.
Some viewed that as a sign of a rift, but the Brooks brothers insisted it had more to do with keeping alive the tradition of pro hockey in Johnstown.
Representatives from the Greater Wheeling Sports and Entertainment Authority told the Wheeling media that while the Nailers sale isn’t good news for that region, the timing might be right because it's midway through the ECHL season.
Potentially interested local buyers would have time to put financial and organization matters in order for the 2012-13 season.
In addition, representatives with the authority told the Wheeling media they understand the owners’ business decision and noted the timing of the announcement also allows the authority to plan for a possible future without the Nailers at WesBanco and make adjustments for event scheduling.
“Rob and Jim Brooks have been great partners. We look forward to working with them, and I don’t know what their take on this will be when they get back to town – they’re at league meetings now – but they'll be back in and explain this whole thing,” Magruder said in a published report.