Growing up in Wheeling allows for some pretty special core memories. From your trips through the Oglebay Festival Lights to the Italian Festival “back when it was on Market Street,” to biting into slice of DiCarlo’s in the parking lot before heading home because “it wouldn’t taste the same.” Many who have had the privilege of growing up here will also remember their first events in Wesbanco Arena. For me, that was singing along to the New Kids on the Block concert and attending my first professional hockey game in the 90s. The Wheeling Thunderbirds made their debut in 1992, making hockey a staple in the area since. Fans of all ages and walks of life would come to downtown Wheeling and enjoy what was, for most, their first introduction to live hockey. This proved to be a turning point for the Wheeling Amateur Hockey Association (WAHA) as they saw a huge surge of youngsters wanting to give the sport a try.
Fast-forward to 2022 and professional hockey is again making its debut- and it’s the women’s turn this time around. The Wheeling Lightningbirds, intentionally coined as an homage to their predecessor, have begun their first season as a member of the East Coast Women’s Hockey League. The team is even sporting the original Thunderbird colors of red, black, and white.
Rachel Adams, who dons the captain’s “C” for the Lightningbirds, says that the original purpose was to grow women’s hockey of all ages in the area. Teammate Ashley Winters shares, “Rachel is responsible for getting the league running again from the ground up. She brought back what was so important to all of us.” The Wheeling Area Hockey Association, with its popularity and success in the early 90s, proved to be the starting point of many hockey journeys. Adams reflected back on her initial memories of hockey – “skating” on the kitchen floor with a pretend stick in her hand. Because of the growing popularity and lack of ice options, Winters recalls that some of her first memories were having to practice on Sundays at 4 a.m. “The dads would be in the locker rooms with their kids, drinking coffee and taping up equipment,” she remembers.
The Lightningbirds’ roster holds a wide range of experience. The roster includes women who have previously played hockey at the collegiate level, some who have played casually through the years, and even some beginners who just started playing this year!
Goalie Donna Bradford shared that prior to last season, she had only been on skates a total of three times and could only stop by slamming into the board (think Louis Mendoza circa Mighty Ducks). “I watched my daughter from the stands be a goalie and I wondered what it felt like to be in the net,” she states. She was given the chance to put on the goalie pads this year and hasn’t looked back since. “I’m still learning the position, I’m still learning to skate, and I’m still learning to be patient but with the team that stands in front of me – they have a way of making me feel like I’m the best goalie around!”
There is a sentiment among nearly all members of the team that this experience is about so much more than just hockey. “It really is like a family, a sisterhood where we are all so supportive of one another no matter what skill level each player is at. We have each other’s backs and we have so much fun while doing it,” Winters adds.
When asked why people should come to catch a game, Adams responded “The games are free, there are concessions, and they are held in a temperate climate setting during the dark rainy winter season of Wheeling.” I, however, will have to politely disagree with the Captain on this one. The best part of catching a game lies solely with the women who lace up their skates and step out onto the ice. They serve as a reminder to all of us that we’re never too old, too inexperienced, or too busy to do the things that bring us joy.
If you want to catch the action for yourself, the Wheeling Lightningbirds’ last home game of the season is happening this Saturday, Dec. 3 at 1 p.m. at WesBanco Arena. The women will face off against the Pittsburgh Puffins. Admission is free. Follow the Wheeling Lightningbirds on Facebook to learn more.
• Lindsay Ammirante is a Wheeling native but currently resides in Columbus, Ohio. Born and raised in Elm Grove, she attended St. Vincent de Paul School and then Wheeling Central Catholic High School. She graduated from Bethany College with a bachelor’s degree in Education and is in her 16th year as a Special Education teacher. She also is a full-time student at The Ohio State University, pursuing her PhD in Special Education. Her breaks and most weekends are spent in Wheeling with her nephews, Milano and Sorrento, and the rest of her family and friends.