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Donatelli a Win Away From Making Nailers History


Staff Writer, The Intelligencer

WHEELING - Wheeling Nailers Head Coach Clark Donatelli is poised to make organization history in today’s game against the Kalamazoo Wings. With a win he’ll surpass Doug Sauter as winningest coach in team history. Currently the two are tied at 124 wins apiece. Donatelli downplayed this achievement to emphasize the importance of this weekend in terms of making the playoffs.

"For the team we’re going to prepare the same way," he said. "Go out and try to get a W. But to be honest, it’s an honor to be here and have the opportunity to break the record. We couldn’t have done it without the new ownership. What they’ve brought to the organization as far as recruiting and being able to get good players here? Our affiliates have a big part in that. The Pittsburgh Penguins and Montreal Canadians. Developing their players. To be able to have the resources to recruit the players. Our travel and our living conditions here are as good as anywhere in the league. That helps out with the attraction of coming to Wheeling."

Donatelli first came to the game of hockey as a player. He was born in 1965 and grew up in Providence, Rhode Island.

He played youth hockey with the famed Edgewood Hawks. His bantam team was the first American team to win the Thousand Islands Tournament. And fourteen of his teammates would go on to play Division I college hockey. Donatelli went on to play Left Wing at Boston University starting in 1984 under coach Jack Parker. An experience he fondly remembers.

"He was a hard coach," Donatelli said. "He held you accountable for what you did. On and off the ice. He was such a role model for us, for me personally, that you came to the rink and wanted to get better all the time. He challenged you all the time. And he knew how to get under your skin. He knew how to push you. How to push the right buttons. And just a really good motivator. Great coach."

After college he went on to play for the US Olympic Hockey Team at both the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary and the 1992 Winter Olympics in Albertville, France. He made his NHL debut with the Minnesota North Stars during the 1989-90 season and played a total of 35 games in the NHL, with stints in the American Hockey League and International Hockey League in between. He retired from professional hockey in 1996.

"I was working for the family business for a little bit," he said. "And then I realized I was really starting to miss the game. I wanted to get back. I like working with the kids. I find I can relate to the players. I always said when I was a player that if I ever did get into coaching I would never forget how I felt as a player. But when you get to be a coach you realize you don’t think like a player anymore. [Laughs.] But you have to have those memories, that you’ve been in that seat, and you know how they feel. So you can relate to them. I love the relationships that I have with the players. You’ve got to hold them accountable. I love that part of it. I love the teaching part of it."

Donatelli’s first coaching job was with Providence University. He signed on with the Wheeling Nailers Organization for the 2011-12 season as an assistant coach. He’s been head coach for the past three and a half years. Overall he says that being a coach is similar to being a player in that both jobs are very difficult.

"As a coach obviously I have more responsibility," he said. "Especially here, you’re leading the whole squad. As a player you just have to worry about what your job is. Which is extremely hard in itself. I think coaching you have to deal with all the personalities. You know, the mix together. Mold a team around what your identity is. Putting people in certain places and moving people if they’re not in the right place. So I really enjoy doing that. Putting a team together. Execute that game plan. To do all those things. All those moving pieces. And guys going up and going down. You come to the rink and you never know who you’re going to have or not."

Perhaps the best part of his job, Donatelli said is to tell a player that he’s moving up to the American Hockey League. Which, in his words, is not that far from the level of play in the NHL. Definitely a step up the ladder no matter who you ask.

"That’s the best conversation that you can have," he said. "Guys are working hard. They want to go to the next level. And when you finally get a chance to tell the guy he’s going up it’s a great feeling. You see all the work and preparation they put into it. And when that happens it’s a very rewarding experience."

Donatelli said his philosophy of coaching is to develop his players. And that if he’s properly developing his players, winning a lot of hockey games is sure to follow. And then they move on to the next level and you start the whole process over gain. He likes to stress the importance of practicing good habits, taking care not to develop bad habits. And the need to cultivate an attention to detail while playing the game.

"The difference between players when you get to a certain level is the details in their game," he said. "Stick detail. This is a game of inches."

One of the things Donatellis likes best about the sport of hockey is the amount of hard work it takes to become proficient. It’s what motivated him as a child growing up in Rhode Island. Hockey captured his interest because it didn’t come as naturally to him as football or baseball.

"I think it’s the hardest sport in the world," Donatelli said. "Just to master it and be consistently good at it. It’s fast, it’s exciting, it’s hard. You’re doing a lot of things. It’s hard to be a good hockey player. It takes a lot of hard work. I think in this day and age, the way these kids grow up now, this instant gratification..."

Donatelli is fond of telling his players how growing up, when he went to the library, he actually had to look books up in a card catalog. As opposed to pressing a button and bringing up your search results just like that.

"Back in the day you didn’t have that," he said. "Hockey has never changed. The great thing about hockey is you have to go out and you have to work hard in everything you do. It’s never going to be you hit a button and it’s going to be okay. The game is never going to change."