THE BLADE/DAVE ZAPOTOSKY Enlarge | Buy This Photo
The 2011-12 hockey season was forgettable for the Toledo Walleye, who finished 10 games under .500 and, for the second straight year, out of the ECHL playoffs. But it was notable for one thing. At one time or another, for anywhere from one game to all 72, an astounding 52 different players suited up for the local team.
"We stepped back after the season and reevaluated how we came to the makeup of the roster," coach Nick Vitucci said. "It was like a revolving door that never stopped spinning. We realized we needed a little more experience, some stability. We needed more veterans … and the right veterans."
They don't come more veteran or more right than Randy Rowe, who will serve a second tour of duty with the Walleye when the 2012-13 season kicks off this weekend.
Rowe has played 662 professional games, 561 of them in the ECHL, where he was named to the All-Decade Team in 2010. Vitucci said Rowe, a native of rural Burford, Ontario, is a "shoo-in" for the ECHL's Hall of Fame whenever he decides the time has come. But that time remains down the road.
"I still love the competition, I still enjoy the [locker] room," Rowe said. "There are guys in there from all over North America, really from all over the world these days, and I'm always making life-long friends."
Rowe is 32, not ancient unless you're a minor league athlete, and it's been a long road from his major junior days in the Ontario Hockey League during the late 1990s. The dream may have been a bit different back then.
"I think everybody that takes that route dreams of the NHL," he said. "I wasn't any different. But you have ups and downs, bumps and bruises. In my case, I had a couple bad injuries with my back and a herniated disc in my neck.
"So, I think after four or five years in the pros you see the big picture. I know I feel lucky just to be playing every day. From there, it's pretty much love of the game, enjoying the time you have, and the desire to win a championship no matter what league you're in."
Rowe has played for eight franchises in the ECHL and AHL, but a championship is still a blank line on an otherwise impressive resume.
"I would love for this to be the team that puts a ring on Randy's finger," Vitucci said.
The Walleye had an informal skate the day before camp began last week and, down a goalie, Vitucci donned the pads he wore during his Hall-of-Fame ECHL career and squatted in front of the pipes.
"We were all laughing," he said, "about how quickly it goes. One day you're a young kid thinking about the NHL and in the blink of an eye they're calling you grandpa.
"But Randy has a lot left in the tank. If he's not scoring he does a lot of good things on defense, taking cross-checks in front of the opposing goal, a lot of the dirty work. He still has a knack for offense, but takes pride in his whole game. He knows it's not about him at this point, but he's a competitor, a battler. I think you reach the downside and maybe some of the things you used to take for granted you don't now."
Rowe said he doesn't feel like a grandpa, adding, "If I did, I'd have more issues. Guys tell me I don't act like [his age] and I don't play like it. I try to lead by example and, hopefully, the younger guys respect my work ethic. I don't want to be the old guy who can't do anything."
The ECHL allows teams to have four veterans, defined as those who have registered 260 or more pro games. The Walleye will fill those slots with defenseman Phil Oreskovic, who played with the Maple Leafs in 2008-09; defenseman Wes O'Neill, who has had a couple call-ups with the Avalanche; returning captain Kyle Rogers, and Rowe.
In addition, the Walleye expect to add experience with Adam Hobson and Todd Griffith, whose games in foreign leagues don't count against the ECHL's veteran designation.
Rowe has played with or against most of them, one reason he was eager to play another season, just maybe his last, with the Walleye.
"It could be," Rowe said. "We'll see how it goes. We'll have some veterans who know how to win. Kyle is a good friend. I played with Wes at Lake Erie of the AHL. It's a good group of guys and Nick and Dan [assistant coach Dan Watson] run a quality program.
"Plus, I've played a lot of places and each was interesting and unique. Toledo is a hockey town, period. It's a good place for me to be."
Contact Blade sports columnist Dave Hackenberg at: email@example.com or 419-724-6398.