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Thursday, December 25, 2014
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Published: Tuesday, 2/25/2014

SPORTS COMMENTARY

Walleye’s issues more than coach

BY DAVE HACKENBERG
BLADE SPORTS COLUMNIST

Nick Vitucci knows where the buck stops. So he passed it on Tuesday to assistant coach Dan Watson. Toledo hockey will have a new boss behind the bench for the first time in more than a decade.

Our Walleye have been lousy. They are 16-31-4 and have given up 50 goals more than they have scored. Only one ECHL team, Las Vegas, has a worse record. On the plus side, our Fish recently jumped San Francisco in the standings. Alas, those Bulls disbanded a month ago.

It would be interesting to know how many other franchises in this far-flung, 21-city loop are close to doing the same. A lot of them borrow from Peter to pay the payroll. They’re barely getting by.

The Walleye are different. They stink like fish flopping on the surface, but they are profitable. They have the marketing thing down pat and a healthy fan base to milk. The front office is filled with promotional gurus. Consider this: Loss No. 31 came last Saturday at the Huntington Center before a standing-room only crowd of 8,250.

A lot of old-time fans settle into their new-time seats and grumble about how a team that sells as many tickets and as much merchandise and advertising as this one can be so bad. Much of the grumbling has been directed at Vitucci.

He gets it. He is, he said Tuesday, more frustrated than the most frustrated Toledo hockey fan. He figures it’s time to move on to something else, be it another role with this franchise or with one elsewhere.

Nick is probably right. But to dump all of this ugliness on his shoulders would be unfair.

Fans for whom Teddy Garvin and Bill Inglis seem like just yesterday may not comprehend how dramatically minor league hockey has changed, especially at the bottom of the pro pecking order, which is where the ECHL and the Walleye reside.

When those Goaldiggers coaches were hanging banners in the old Sports Arena they were doing it their way — recruiting free agents appreciative of a place to play, checks that didn’t bounce, and a pub or two that treated them like royalty. Affiliations with teams at higher levels, up to and including the NHL, were either nonexistent or nonintrusive.

Garvin and Inglis both won championships with teams that would go through a season with about a dozen roster changes, mostly mandated by injuries. The current Walleye have two NHL affiliates, the Red Wings and Blackhawks, and play second fiddle to the AHL teams in those organizations. Plus, this little-known but often-played ECHL agreement: Any unaffiliated player can be called up by any higher-level team whenever they need a warm body.

To stand in the way of such an opportunity would be locker room suicide for an ECHL-level operation. Because modern-day hockey players who join the Walleye travel with aspirations and choose to come here, in part, because of Toledo’s geographic friendliness with AHL franchises.

As a result, the 2013-14 Walleye, with 21 games left, already have had more than 80 roster changes. It undercuts camaraderie and consistency.

This is not meant as a get-out-of-jail-free card for the Walleye. Other ECHL operations play with similar handcuffs and thrive. The Walleye have to figure out a formula for doing the same, and it probably has to start with affiliation adjustments.

Regardless, it’s Dan Watson’s problem for now. Nick Vitucci wishes him luck.

Contact Blade sports columnist Dave Hackenberg at: dhack@theblade.com or 419-724-6398.



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