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Published: Monday, 4/14/2014 - Updated: 4 months ago

Toledo fans deserve better hockey team

DAVE HACKENBERG
BLADE SPORTS COLUMNIST

A crowd of 4,599 showed up at the Huntington Center Sunday to say adios to the Walleye, the worst Toledo hockey team in more than four decades.

Harsh? Well, facts are facts.

The Fish finished 21-44-7 after a 4-1 loss to Cincinnati and that’s the lousiest season in these parts since the old Hornets went 17-44-11 during the 1970-71 season.

Even Joe Napoli, the president and general manager, agreed that “thank God it’s over” was about the best anybody could say of the 2013-14 season.

Still, nearly a quarter-million people passed through the turnstiles for 36 home games, of which the Walleye won but 11, so Napoli and Co. could be excused, I guess, if they marched on with the feeling that wins and losses have no bearing on how Toledo supports its hockey team.

RELATED ARTICLE: Walleye's tough season ends with loss

Instead, he insists there is an urgency to get this mess fixed. And there should be.

“If we ever become complacent and take our fans for granted, that would be the first step toward failure,” Napoli, who also runs the baseball Mud Hens, said. “Being competitive on the ice and being fan friendly are not mutually exclusive. There are teams that do both at this level consistently and that’s the standard we should be held to.”

He’s right. If the Mud Hens stink we blame the Detroit Tigers, who are totally responsible for the player roster, coaches, and manager. Low-level minor-league hockey is different. It is a collaboration of NHL affiliates and the local coaches/​administrators to put together a competitive roster. Heck, why not a championship roster? The resources should be there with this well-marketed and well-supported franchise.

But it can’t be done by juggling rosters from season’s start to finish. It can’t be done without a more talented base of NHL affiliate players. It can’t be done with a collection of rookies and recent collegians that were doing little more than getting their pro feet wet. There has to be stability and some seasoned goaltending.

To that end, the Walleye have already announced they will drop the Blackhawks as an affiliate for next year while sticking with the Red Wings organization. This will give the Walleye greater control of their roster and an ability to bring in a corps of veteran players to help steer the team on the ice and in the locker room.

The 2013-14 season was a tale of incessant call-ups and injuries. The team can’t do anything about the latter, but operating with a single affiliate should help with the former. It should also help the Walleye recruit unaffiliated players who will have a clearer picture of how they might fit in with one less NHL partner demanding playing time for its prospects.

“I think it’s safe to say we didn’t give Nick Vitucci or [interim coach] Dan Watson the best opportunity this year,” Napoli said. “I’m looking forward to that changing.”

Napoli said Vitucci, who gave up his coaching duties in late February with 21 games left in the season, will remain in an administrative capacity next season with an emphasis on scouting, recruiting and community relations.

Vitucci will work in a support role to the new coach, who Napoli hopes to have in place by early June and who will have final say on the roster with the exception of the five or six players assigned by the Red Wings. Napoli said he is working off a short list of about 15 coaching candidates that includes Watson.

“I’m very happy with the job Dan has done considering an almost all-rookie roster,” Napoli said.

The coach said he felt he had gotten all there was to get from a limited roster that didn’t have much to play for down the stretch. But he also knows “it’s about wins and losses” and that he had only five victories.

So Sunday was time to say good-bye.

When the final loss in the final game was finally in the books, the Walleye players skated to center ice and raised their sticks to the crowd, which bathed them in warm applause. Later, as a couple hundred fans took part in the last post-game skate of the season, several Walleye players came back to the bench area to shake hands, sign autographs and pose for pictures.

Toledo is a hockey town; always has been and always will be. Players and passionate fans are on a first-name basis. With a top-shelf venue, reasonably-priced tickets, a family-friendly lower bowl and a party-hearty upper deck, wins and losses may not matter to everyone. Being average, only occasionally of playoff caliber, was OK during the Walleye’s first four seasons.

But this one was a stinker. Toledo is owed better. And Napoli knows it.

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



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