Donatelli: ‘I’m As Ready as I Ever Will Be’

He doesn’t know. He didn’t know on Dec. 13, the day after Mike Johnston was fired as the head coach of the Pittsburgh Penguins, and he says he will know nothing until maybe Monday.

But what Clark Donatelli does know is that his Wheeling Nailers will play the Quad City Mallards again tonight in Moline, Ill., and he also knows he needs to catch up with helping his wife, Michele, with the Christmas shopping for their middle-school-aged son, Jack.

And he knows his job. Donatelli, the all-time leader in both wins (146) and games (296) as the head coach of the Nailers, is aware it’s his role to get his players to do the same thing every day and to realize it’s not boring, even down to eating the same good foods every, single, day. It’s a routine, and it’s what he did as a professional anyway.

So he’s known it for a while, and in the style of the late great baseball player Yogi Bera, Donatelli says, “If you can’t do that, then that’s what you have to do.”

Development. He knows development, but what Donatelli does not know is what’s been discussed behind those closed doors inside the Console Energy Center this past week. After the Penguins fired Johnston, team ownership promoted Mike Sullivan from his head-coaching post in Wilkes Barre-Scranton.

That leaves an opening, now doesn’t it?

He's hands on with the Nailers and remains very capable on the ice.
He’s hands on with the Nailers and remains very capable on the ice.

Jay Leech was immediately named as the Baby Penguins’ interim head coach and a plethora of phone conversations have taken place between the 304 and 412 area codes. On this day, though, Donatelli still is sure of only one thing in his hockey-world reality, and it’s that minor-league hockey affiliated with NHL franchises is all about development, and that includes coaches as well as players.

“What I don’t know at this point is whether or not the organization will go outside to get a new coach, or if they will keep it inside the organization,” said the former NHL player. “I’d like to think I’m ready, and I have paid my dues while getting ready.

“You have to prove yourself, and guys like Mark Recchi come down here to see how we work every day and how we approach things like our film, our practice sessions, our meetings, and how we bring value to the players,” he said. “I think in today’s day and age it’s about getting the players’ attention to bring them value, and how you bring them value is how you go about your daily operations, how you practice, and how you prepare. That’s how they know we’re doing the right things here in Wheeling.

“The goal is to make the players and to get them out of here, and that doesn’t happen all of the time. It’s a process, and there are bumps in the road without a doubt, but we’ve had a lot of guys make those jumps, and that’s exciting for everyone.”

Donatelli played three seasons (1984-87) in the renowned Boston College hockey program before joining the U.S. National Team in 1988 and again in 1992. The New York Rangers had made him the 98th overall pick in the 1984 amateur draft but he didn’t make his NHL debut with the Minnesota North Stars until the 1989-90 schedule.

He was 5-10, 185 pounds, and used to fly on the left wing, and his professional career, spent mostly in the American and International hockey leagues except for 35 games in “The Show,” ended in 1996. The family business was construction, and Donatelli didn’t like it. Hockey he’s always loved.

After coaching youth hockey he got a gig as a volunteer assistant coach at Providence College, and then there was an assistant’s job that came open in Wheeling. Donatelli came, took over as head coach two months later, and has never coached a Nailers’ club that has not qualified for the postseason.

“I’m ready. Absolutely I am ready,” Donatelli insisted this past week. “I’ve played the game, and I’ve been taught by some really good coaches. I’m excited to go through this process, and I’m as ready as I’m ever going to be after putting the time in here in Wheeling. I’ve developed a lot of players for the organization; that’s for sure.

“No one likes to see a head coach get fired no matter what it means for them, and I can tell you that Mike (Johnston) was very good to me. I was on the ice the whole time during the Penguins (preseason) camp, and he included me in everything,” he said. “He’s a great guy, so I wasn’t happy to see him go, but the truth is that we get hired to get fired. That’s the reality of it all.”

Donatelli may coach on the ice but his preparations involve a lot of research on opponents and prospects.
Donatelli may coach on the ice but his preparations involve a lot of research on opponents and prospects. (Photo by Steve Novotney)

The “Wheeling Couch”

There are new video boards, new seats, new concessions, and the super structure has been erected for Wesbanco Arena’s new façade. That’s what the fans can see.

What most fans cannot see for themselves are the remodeled locker room and added weight room, and the fact that Donatelli’s office was left alone. He has a small desk inside a 10-by-10 cinder-block box under the east-side, bottom level seats, but there’s a big-screen TV, clothes hooks crowded with his clothes and those belonging to Mark Recchi, and team photos, various bobble-heads, and a fridge full of bottled water.

“Maybe this space will be part of the next round of renovation conversations,” he said. “But hey, I got what I need.”

He insists he knew what he was getting into when he accepted the assistant- coaching position in 2011, even though he had never before stepped a single foot in Wheeling, W.Va. As his tenure transpired during that first season, all of a sudden Dontelli found himself in a completely different role.

“I love the game, and I’ve always wanted to stay in it, but I did go into the family business for a little bit. But I soon learned that the construction business wasn’t for me,” Donatelli said. “So I got back into coaching at Providence College because I missed the game of hockey, especially the pro side of it, and I wanted to get into it full time.

“And then a job opened up in Wheeling as an assistant coach, and I jumped at it,” he continued. “So I came here not knowing that two months later I would be named the head coach after Stan (Drulia) left, and here I am today.”

Donatelli believes he has procured a hockey culture inside the Nailers' locker room.
Donatelli believes he has procured a hockey culture inside the Nailers’ locker room. (Photo provided by the Wheeling Nailers)

He had played plenty on the professional level, but Donatelli had never coached above the college level, so there was a learning curve to endure.

“But I was fortunate that during the lockout (2012-2013) Todd Reirden was here on a daily basis, and we ran everything here like it was in Pittsburgh,” Donatelli explained. “Those fundamentals, the organizational skills, and how you prepare are all the same within the organization, but there are some things we cannot do the same because of the differences in how the rosters are set up.

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“But a good chunk of what we do comes from a formula that has proven successful with the last five NHL coaches coming out of Wilkes Barre. There’s that template, but every coach does put their little spin on it as I do,” he continued. “But I think the meat and potatoes are all in there.”

And then there’s the couch; the one in Donatelli’s small office; it’s black, fake leather; and it’s really a loveseat and not a sofa or sorts. But it is where the, “Meet Jesus” conversations take place, but such discussions only take place when potential is not consistently achieved.

“Sometimes you have to put them on the Wheeling couch so you can talk with them, one to one, and try to figure out why he’s not playing up to his potential,” the head coach reported. “And there have been a lot of players on that couch here in my office because coaching isn’t just about the X’s and O’s. There’s a lot of mental stuff, and that’s why I try to be as close to my players as I can be. I can’t help them if I don’t know what their problems are.

“Is your girlfriend bothering ya? Is there something wrong at home? Did the dog die? There might be reasons why a player is not doing well, and a lot of times it has to do with off-ice issues,” Donatelli continued. “But the player has to trust you to be able to have those conversations, and that’s something I’ve developed over the years.

“When it comes down to it, it’s about what you do when you are on the ice. The player you are is going to come out when you’re on the ice, and there are a few of those guys from time to time that just have that God-given talent that no one can teach. No one,” he explained. “But there are some guys who are absolutely gifted, but they don’t play. That’s when a head coach has to address the mental side of the game so you can figure out why the kid isn’t playing. Those are the tough ones.”

His years in the minors and his brief stints in the NHL with the North Stars and the Boston Bruins (1991-92) did not teach him how to coach, but they did show Donatelli how not to coach.

“I know I’m better as a coach because I know how I didn’t like to be handled as a player. I didn’t like to be kept in the dark about what I was doing wrong, so as a coach I make sure everyone is on the same page,” he said. “The best conversations are the hard conversations. It is what it is because the film doesn’t lie; I know what’s going on, but if they don’t know what’s going on, that’s when they need to self-examine themselves.

“And then when that player does it right, as a coach you capture that moment. You tell him when he comes to the bench right then and there,” Donatelli continued. “If you miss that moment, you’re not doing right by that player, but if you do it, then you are helping that player grow his confidence. That player then knows that I saw it, and that means a lot. I know that.”

Donatelli played several seasons as a professional and is a two-time Olympian so when he speaks his players pay attention.
Donatelli played several seasons as a professional and is a two-time Olympian so when he speaks his players pay attention. (Photo by Megan Hafer)

If They Want to Play Hockey …

Mike Condon debuted in October with the Montreal Canadiens, and thus far he’s 9-5 with a .912 save percentage for the first-place, historic franchise. Condon is only the latest.

Fifty-one former Wheeling hockey players have played in the NHL, the most of any other ECHL franchise, and one coach (Peter Laviolette) and one broadcaster (Dave Goucher) have climbed to the top, as well.

“The guys know. Everyone knows. That’s how we recruit. They can go to the South Carolinas, Greenvilles, Sarasotas, and the Orlandos. Those places are great places, but if you want to play hockey, you come to Wheeling, and they know that,” Donatelli insisted. “That’s the culture here now, and I think that’s a very good culture.

“I don’t know what it was like before I came here. I don’t, but that culture is here now,” he said. “And that culture is now in place and part of the overall system. Whenever the time comes for the Wheeling Nailers to have a new coach, they may want to do their own thing, but the template is there for success with development. That wasn’t in place when I got here, but it is now.”

That culture dictates, though, that Donatelli also serve as the team’s general manager and that means when Pittsburgh depletes the ECHL roster, he must search and sign willing players.

Donatelli was very much involved during the Penguins preseason camp.
Donatelli was very much involved during the Penguins preseason camp. (Photo provided by the Wheeling Nailers)

“It is hard when the moves are made and there’s a lot of juggling to do, but I love it, and I don’t know it any other way. But that’s OK with me because it’s my job to get these players out of here,” Donatelli explained. “And we kick them out of here as fast as we can. When that happens, I bring them in and don’t mess around. I tell them they’re going up, and then I tell them to go get packed up.

“My job for the Pittsburgh Penguins is to develop hockey players for Wilkes Barre, and by doing that, you’re going to win a lot of hockey games. Does it hurt us here as far as our record? Sure it does, and no one likes that, but guess what? That’s when another player has the chance to step up, and the development continues,” he said. “That’s what we do here on this level. That’s why this level exists, and it works well.

“I believe there are guys in our locker room right now who have a chance, and there are guys who have played with guys who are now in the NHL. That means a lot because that’s how they know it’s possible to get there through Wheeling,” he continued. “That’s real to those guys. That’s what it’s about. They know if they do what we are doing and they do it well, they can get there and realize that dream.”

The Wheeling Thunderbirds landed in the Friendly City in 1992, and the “new thing” coupled with the team’s success often resulted in sold-out attendance the first two seasons. It was the place to be, but that faded away, and then the Thunderbirds morphed into the Nailers in 1997, and a few different ownership changes placed the future of the franchise in question.

With the team placed on the block by Jim and Rob Brooks, sons of Robert Brooks, minority owner in both the Pirates and Penguins, during Donatelli’s first season in the Frinedly City, the Wheeling-based Regional Economic Development Partnership purchased the entity and has since assisted with the development of the capital improvements to Wesbanco Arena.

On the ice, though, Donatelli teaches. Off the ice, this former two-time Olympian repeats the word, “development” an understandable amount of times because, for example, the 2014-15 season was complete with 50-plus transactions involving the Wheeling roster.

“We want the guys we can develop and kick out of town as soon as possible because that’s why they are here, and that’s why this team is here,” the most-wins-ever head coach said. “I do believe our fans here in Wheeling realize how it works.”

“I do love being in Wheeling right now because of our fans, our ownership, the new locker room and weight room and all of the other improvements that have been made to the rink, but most importantly because we win, and we develop here,” Donatelli added. “We travel very well and stay in nice hotels, and this town is very receptive with our players, but what I always tell our players is that if they like it here, then we don’t want them here. That’s what this is about.”