Ten years since last coaching in “America’s Premier Double-A Hockey League,” Greg Puhalski
finds himself back behind an ECHL bench.
This time, though, things are a lot different.
For starters, the team he coached from 1994-98, the Toledo Storm, is on hiatus while a brand new facility is being built in the city’s downtown area. On top of that, Puhalski inherited his new team, the Wheeling Nailers, in midseason. The Nailers replaced former coach Glenn Patrick with Puhalski on Jan. 2.
“I think any time you get a chance to coach, it’s always something I’ve enjoyed doing,” Puhalski told NHL.com this week. “Being back in the ECHL, it’s where I started my professional playing and coaching career so it’s good to be back. The league is full of good, young players.”
Puhalski was contacted by Wheeling ownership (brothers Rob and Jim Brooks) after the latter reached out to former Nailers coach Pat Bingham
, who is currently an assistant with the Bridgeport Sound Tigers of the American Hockey League. In essence, it was Bingham returning a favor to the 43-year-old Puhalski, who once helped Bingham land a coaching job in the United Hockey League.
“When I had left Fort Wayne a few years ago, I kind of helped Pat a little bit as far as getting an opportunity to talk to the people there in Fort Wayne,” Puhalski explained. “I think he reciprocated and was able to do me a kind favor and mention my name to the Brooks brothers when they were looking for a replacement for Glenn Patrick.”
Patrick – who coached the Nailers from the start of the 2005-06 season until being replaced at the start of this calendar year – remains with the organization as a scout following a dismal start to this campaign. Wheeling had lost eight in a row and a mind-boggling 17 of 18. Puhalski coached his first game for the Nailers on Jan. 4, and the team went 4-0-1 in its first five games.
“It’s nothing I’ve ever done before,” Puhalski said of inheriting a team in the middle of a season. “I think first and foremost, you have to do a little bit of evaluation as to the type of team that you currently have and be adaptable. I’ve brought in a few guys that have played for me in years past. It just so happens when I came, there were a number of call-ups. But generally speaking, none of the players that were currently with the team I had ever seen play.”
The Nailers have since hit a bump in the road since getting off to the hot start under Puhalski. Their 6-5 win over the Trenton Devils last Sunday was their first in six games. Nonetheless, Puhalski has been pleased with the way his team has grown over the past month. Wheeling is 5-4-2 since he took over.
“I think it’s a team that has some skill and talent, and that’s always a good thing,” Puhalski said. “We’ve got to learn to play together as a team, and that’s something we’re constantly working on. I’ve seen improvement in that area and we’ll continue to work on it.”
Getting positive results is nothing new for Puhalski. The former third-round pick of the Boston Bruins (1983) was 162-85-31 in the regular season and guided the Storm to the playoffs each season, going 15-12. Toledo set an ECHL record in 1995-96 with 48 wins, and its .743 winning percentage is the third best in ECHL history.
He coached in the UHL from 1998-2007 and was 346-197-61, leading his team to the playoffs every season but one. His Fort Wayne Komets won a Colonial Cup championship in 2003.
Puhalski was asked if he considers himself more as a players’ coach or a disciplinarian. Whatever the case may be, the new Nailers’ coach is simply interested in using a philosophy that will bring team unity.
“I think that’s the personal judgment of each player,” Puhalski said. “I’m a demanding coach and I’d like to think that the teams that I’ve been involved with generally have been pretty solid defensively. I think I realize that teams have to be good defensively. It’s so much more difficult to score goals then when I was playing. It’s a different game. I think the big key for me is to get a team to play together.
I believe if you go ahead and focus on what you can do and focus your efforts on what your team does, everything else will take care of itself. - Greg Puhalski
“My philosophy’s always been about how we play,” he added. “I believe if you go ahead and focus on what you can do and focus your efforts on what your team does, everything else will take care of itself. We’ll make changes based on other teams. It’s not huge changes you have to make. It’s minor. We’ll make those as I get to know more about each team in the league. But our big concentration is getting ourselves to play and play well together as a team. It’s about our play. Let’s focus on what we can control.”
Should the Nailers do that down the stretch, they’ll have a solid chance of reaching the Kelly Cup Playoffs. While it currently sits in the basement of the North Division at 14-24-5, Puhalski’s club is just five points behind Trenton for the fifth and final spot. Wheeling returns to the ice tonight on home ice against the Cincinnati Cyclones.
“I feel good,” Puhalski said of the Nailers’ postseason chances. “My feeling is we’re getting better. I’ve been with the team now 11 games, and I’ve seen improvement in how we’re playing. Obviously, we’re a team that still needs to shore up some areas. We’re giving up too many scoring chances, and that’s something we’ve got to cure. I think we’ll get better the more games we play together.
“Outside of a few games, it’s been not bad. I’m seeing improvement in areas I’d like to see improvement in, and that’s good. We’ve got to keep that going.”
Contact Brian Compton at: firstname.lastname@example.org.