WHEELING - About 11 months have passed since the Hockey Club of the Ohio Valley took ownership of the Wheeling Nailers.
Team governor Don Rigby, who also is executive director of the Regional Economic Development Partnership, has seen and learned a lot during that time.
"It's not as new, but it is still new," Rigby said of running the team. "It's getting more comfortable. We're putting together what we think is the long-term plan. To make the turnaround we want to have, it has to be long term."
Things appear headed in the right direction.
Rigby said the organization is near its financial projections, which is somewhat surprising given the late start it was left with following the purchase. In three years, he hopes to have made the team a profitable one.
"Do we feel pressure? Yes," Rigby said. "Is it overwhelming? No.
"Would we be willing for a small loss on an ongoing basis? Sure, but not huge losses."
Not long after the sale was approved, ownership - which includes team alternate governor Tim Roberts, president of the Wheeling Amateur Hockey Association - sat down with WesBanco Arena Executive Director Dennis Margruder and city officials to see how viable upgrades would be on the 35-year-old arena. Video boards on each end of the building were installed, as well as drink stations and flat-screen televisions throughout. The concourse was painted to match the colors of the team - Vegas Gold and Black.
"Along with the city, we've put some money into the arena and we're sitting back and seeing what our capital plan for next year will be," Rigby said. "We're going through that process right now to see how we can do that next year and the year after."
Rigby said he and fans of the team wish things would come together a little more quickly, but he admitted only so much is possible. Rigby noted The Hockey Club of the Ohio Valley has spent a little more capital than was originally planned, but not substantially.
"There are limitations, some that the arena itself brings, and there are some that finances bring," Rigby said. "In many of the other arenas that we have been to, and we're starting to make the treks to more, the concourses are bigger and wider. There are more opportunities for different types of things.
"So far the reaction has been positive to the video boards and a little more of what I would call the 'show and the experience,'" he said. "I think it's been better than it had been in the past."
One of the more popular additions is the DeNoon Lumber Suite, which is located in the southeast corner of the arena and available for rental during each game. It is designed to accommodate 40 patrons and features a pair of flat-screen televisions, a bar and catering service upon request.
"That's a perfect example where someone gets in and does it and comes back a second time and a third time," Rigby said of the suite. "Not to name names, but we have one group who's been there four times. We're going to look at other suites but don't know that it will be exactly like what we've got here.
"High on our list would be to do at least one more suite somewhere next year," he added.
Though attendance has dipped - the Nailers are last in the ECHL with an average of 2,460 fans a game - the season ticket holder numbers are at an all-time high.
The next step is to focus on group sales, which Rigby said have been OK despite the late start his group received.
"That is our task. We are by far the smallest market, but our season tickets are very strong," he said. "We're working on our groups, and that's the hardest to do late in the game. The staff is beginning now for next year."
Nailers merchandise is flying off the shelves at a break-neck pace, according to Craig Bommer, vice president of business operations, noting "several items have been reordered six or seven times." He has a firm grasp on the reasons for the spike in sales.
"It helps changing the logo, changing the colors," Bommer said. "It gives them something new, and I think we're giving them better quality."
Rigby noted that although corporate support for the club has always been good, it is now "exceptional."
"I think the vibe in the corporate world is 'now this is our team' and they want to be a part of it. I see it every day," Bommer said. "Having RED involved with all their contacts, people want to help them.
"It hasn't happened in the past, but this year I've actually had people say I need to help more ... 'what can I do to help? Where can I spend?'" he continued. "I think there will be even more next year."
If everything goes according to plan from a profit standpoint, Rigby sees no reason to believe the Nailers won't remain in Wheeling for many years. He laughed and said he's not going to make any promises.
"We still believe that we can get it there. Keep your fingers crossed, but we think we can get it there within three years," Rigby said. "We'll figure out a way to do it.
"It's a constant change and switch, but that's no different than anyone else that runs any kind of business," he added. "You have to react to what's out there and the changes in the marketplace and all those kinds of things."
As for the arena upgrades, WesBanco Arena Executive Director Denny Magruder said while the improvements will obviously benefit the arena for other events, the upgrades made over the past year to the 35-year-old venue were made to "directly" benefit the Nailers organization and its fan base.
"It's a mutual venture right now - the hockey organization, the City of Wheeling, and the arena," said Magruder. "It's a three-party arrangement right now. ... It's still a work in progress," he added, while referring to plans for continued updates at the arena later in the year.
Magruder said all parties involved "have enough faith in each other" to move forward with improvements at the arena without having all the final pieces puzzle figured out yet. "We have to grow into this," he added.
"In general I think the fans have been very pleased. "The dream now is to add some pretty sophisticated cameras to the system," he added. He said this would allow for unique opportunities like displaying instant replay for fans attending hockey games.
Staff Writer Scott McCloskey contributed to this report