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Wheeling Nailers hire veteran coach Mark French

An interesting hire down on the farm..

2009 NHL Headshots Photo by Mitchell Layton/NHLI via Getty Images

Down deep in the organization, the Penguins’ ECHL affiliate made an interesting hire announced today with the addition of head coach Mark French.

From the Nailers:

The Wheeling Nailers, proud ECHL affiliate of the Pittsburgh Penguins, are excited to announce that Mark French has been named the team’s new Head Coach & Director of Hockey Operations.

French, 49, has been a head coach for 14 of the last 15 seasons, working in the AHL, CHL, and WHL in North America, as well as the NLA in Switzerland. Mark began his professional coaching career as an assistant coach in 2004-05 with the ECHL’s Atlantic City Boardwalk Bullies, who recorded 42 wins and 92 points. He then accepted his first head coaching position with the CHL’s Wichita Thunder. Wichita went 70-59-16 under his guidance, and reached the playoffs twice in three years.

In 2007, the Milton, Ontario native joined the AHL’s Hershey Bears as an assistant coach. There, he won two Calder Cups - first as an assistant coach in 2008-09, then in his first season as head coach in 2009-10, when the Bears set an AHL record for the most wins in a season, as they went 60-17-3. Hershey qualified for the playoffs in all four of French’s seasons as head coach, as they compiled a 180-100-32 record. Mark’s .627 winning percentage with the Bears ranks third in AHL history among coaches with at least 300 games. He was also the head coach twice at the AHL All-Star Classic.

“Mark has had tremendous success as a head coach throughout his career, putting winning teams on the ice and developing NHL talent,” said Nailers Governor Don Rigby. “He will be instrumental in leading our team back to the playoffs, while working to get our players to the next level. We are extremely fortunate to have a coach of Mark’s caliber in our organization.”

French continued to his coaching success with Zagreb Medvescak of the KHL, where he led the team to the playoffs in their inaugural season. From there, he returned to North America with the WHL’s Calgary Hitmen. Mark led the Hitmen to three consecutive postseason appearances, and also had six players from that team reach the NHL. Most recently, French was the head coach for HC Fribourg-Gottéron in Switzerland.

“Knowing the history of hockey in Wheeling and the relationship of support from Pittsburgh and Wilkes Barre, I see this to be an exciting coaching opportunity,” French said. “I believe in getting teams to play to a specific identity, generally built around speed and competitiveness, which certainly in my opinion is a characteristic of current and most recent Penguin teams.”

Throughout his coaching career, French has had the opportunity to work with some outstanding players who have gone on to have tremendous success in the NHL. Highlighting the top players are Jay Beagle, John Carlson, Braden Holtby, Matthieu Perreault, and Jake Virtanen. Mark has also had the pleasure of working with some former Nailers, led by Grant McNeill and Dany Sabourin as players, and David Aebischer, who worked on his coaching staff.

“We are very excited to have Mark join our organization,” said Pittsburgh Penguins assistant General Manager Jason Karmanos. “We are impressed with his extensive experience and success. The organization believes Mark will bring the necessary leadership and change we are looking for with our Wheeling affiliate.”

French’s experience is interesting. In recent years he’s bounced around Europe a little bit, but his time in Hershey from 2007-13 is the most interesting portion of his career. Especially, as mentioned in the release above, winning 60 games in 2009-10 with the Bears en route to winning the Calder Cup.

French seems like a hockey mind who could easily be in the AHL level in some capacity soon. And the current AHL coach of Wilkes-Barre, Mike Velucci, has made no secret his goal is to advance to be an NHL coach one day. Wilkes-Barre has been an absolute NHL coaching hotbed, developing seven out of 10 WB/S coaches into eventual NHL coaches (including Mike Sullivan, John Hynes, Todd Reirden, Dan Bylsma, Todd Richards, Michel Therrien and Rick Kehoe).

Always a good sign to have upward mobility located throughout the organization, and this is not to suggest Sullivan (or Velucci)’s seats are hot at all, but the hiring of French looks like a good move to keep strong coaches located at all levels in the organizations