He’s a man from Maine who has adopted the city of Wheeling while on his quest of making “The Show.”
D.J. Abisalih is in his fourth season as the “Voice of the Wheeling Nailers,” a gig that has evolved into an all-year, full-time position, allowing him to become very familiar with culture of the Upper Ohio Valley. Not only does this 28-year-old ECHL All-Star broadcaster fill the area’s airwaves on game nights, but he also works in ticket sales and community relations when not wearing his broadcasting headphones.
If his plan progresses the way he hopes, though, he will leave the Friendly City for higher levels. Just as the players who don the Nailers sweaters hope to get called to the next level, Abisalih, too, dreams of play-by-play promotions.
“That’s absolutely my goal and I have taken some steps so far in my career,” he said. “I’m in the ECHL now so the AHL is the next goal, and then hopefully someday the NHL will be an opportunity for me.
“Unrealistic or realistic, my goal is to get to the AHL by the time I am 30, and I am 28 today. That’s my dream timeline, but that also depends on whether or not jobs open up. Sometimes they do and sometimes they don’t, and so far I’ve been very lucky.”
Abisalih has employed an, “I’ll-do-anything” mentality since breaking into the sports business in 2004. After announcing for 10 different athletic teams at Scarborough High School, he graduated from New England School of Communications and gained employment with the Easter League’s Double-A Portland Sea Dogs. His job with the minor-league baseball franchise had nothing to do with a microphone in the beginning, but he networked his way onto the radio while selling everything from popcorn to season tickets.
Following a few seasons, he befriended hockey broadcaster Alex Reed, and Reed offered him an opportunity to do color commentary during Junior League games in 2009. Abisalih was not compensated for his performances, but it was an opportunity that ultimately led him to Wheeling.
“Alex got the job in Wheeling before me, and then when he was hired by a team in Florida a couple of years later he told me I should apply with the Nailers, so I did,” Abisalih recalled. “Alex told me a lot about Wheeling because I wanted to know everything I could know before I made that decision. Professionally, I knew I wanted to apply for the Wheeling job, but since Alex had just experienced it, I wanted him to tell me everything he could tell me.
“And he told me I would really love it here, and not just because the job fit exactly what I want to do in my career. He also said the people would treat me really well, and that the diehards are really great fans,” he continued. “So that made me think that coming to Wheeling would be a good fit for me because I love a fan base that is really involved.”
Part of Abisalih’s position with the Nailers includes accompanying head coach Clark Donatelli and the players when they make public appearances in the community. He’s been in schools, restaurants, community centers, and retail stores, and those encounters have allowed him to interact with those most interested in Wheeling’s professional hockey team.
“I enjoy Wheeling, and I’m glad that I can now stay here year round and do everything the summer months have to offer, and the people here really welcomed me in,” Abisalih continued. “I also think it’s a good place for me because of the NHL affiliations the Nailers have with the Penguins and Montreal. That allows me to have connections with those two teams.
“The city of Wheeling is filled with a lot of great people,” he said. “I can tell you that my first experience with DiCarlo’s Pizza was interesting for me because I had never had anything like that before. That caught me off guard even though Alex gave me the heads up before my arrival, and that was a good thing since the Nailers office is pretty much right next door.”
When he first arrived in the Northern Panhandle, however, Abisalih did not know how extended his stay would be. In the middle of the 2011-2012 season, the former owners, Rob and Jim Brooks, announced that the team was for sale. At that time, 10 of Wheeling’s 36 home games were being played in Johnstown, Pa., because the Brooks brothers were unhappy with attendance numbers at Wesbanco Arena.
The fate of the Wheeling franchise, the most tenured in the ECHL since professional hockey skated into Wheeling in 1992, was hanging in the balance.
“I was optimistic that the team could stay in Wheeling because the timing of the announcement was three months before the end of the season instead of at the end of the season,” he said. “And for those final three months I was a cheerleader for the future of the franchise. I had to talk people off the ledge.
“And then the last game of that season we had a sellout, which was a neat experience, and then it was announced that the team was sold to the Regional Economic Development Partnership, so the Nailers would remain a part of the fabric of this community,” he said. “The city of Wheeling has shown a great commitment to this franchise and that’s meant everything, too, and now there is a multi-year agreement in place to keep the franchise in Wheeling.”
The city’s commitment to the franchise is obvious to anyone who enters Wesbanco Arena, what with the new video boards now high above the ice and around the complex. City Council approved a half-percent sales tax to fund a series of capital improvements, including the replacement of the scoreboard that had been in place since the facility opened in the late 1970s.
Phase 2 involves the installation of new seating during the summer months, and the construction of a street-level front façade is scheduled to take place beginning next year. Abisalih said that while some have questioned the expenditures, the video boards, new seats, and the new exterior will make decision-making differences to the fans and the players.
“The improvements that are now taking place inside Wesbanco Arena have been wanted for several years, but nothing happened when the Brooks brothers were the owners, but then RED bought the team and everything moved forward with the new video boards, the new seating that’s going in this summer, and then the new front façade,” Abisalih said. “It’s all positive, and every person who comes out for the games will enjoy them more once it’s all completed.
“The video boards have already had a big impact,” he continued. “And our fans are very excited about the rest of what is going to happen to the arena. These projects are going to bring the arena up to date, and that does mean a lot to the players on the roster. These guys get to play in some pretty nice places when we go on the road, so I think this will make a difference when these guys are making their decisions about where to play to continue their careers.”
The Nailers qualified for the Kelly Cup playoffs following his first regular season in Wheeling, and after missing the postseason by five point in 2012-2013, Wheeling has entered the tournament the last two. The Nailers are now up in the seven-game series 2-1 after coming back against Toledo Wednesday night, registering a 5-4 victory. Wheeling and the Walleye will face off again Friday night at Wesbanco Arena. The puck drops at 7:35 p.m.
“The diehard fan base here in Wheeling is just outstanding. I can go to every game at home, and I know they are going to be there. They follow you on Twitter, they’re friends with you on Facebook, and they make the effort to know who you are. They really care about the success of the organization, too,” Abisalih said. “I just wish I could clone them so we had even more than what the team has now.
“But there have been 8,000 more people who have come to the games this year as compared to last year so that’s an encouraging sign as far as the support from the local fan base in general,” he said. “It’s all about success, the experience, and the interest level, and we’re definitely headed in the right direction.”
But large crowds make a difference, Abisalih insisted, and the atmosphere inside the Huntington Center in Toledo is proof.
“Toledo was absolutely rocking during the two playoff games we played in last weekend, and it does make a difference. I can’t say enough good things about the Toledo fan base and the organization,” Abisalih said. “When Wesbanco Arena rocks like the Huntington Center in Toledo, it makes a difference to the players. Trust me on that, they feel it.
“We had more than 4,000 fans three times this season, and we won all three of those games. If you want to know what a fan base can do for a team, there’s an example,” he said. “And the playoffs are the most important time for the fan base to come out. I hope they do.
“The players know. They absolutely know. They feel it. If there’s no one out there, they feel that, too, and I think it really sucks some of the energy out of them,” Abisalih added. “But when there’s a great crowd and they are reacting to the plays on the ice, you know it’s going to be a fun night one way or the other.”