It was another disappointing end for the Toledo Walleye. Despite lofty expectations for the postseason, where the team was seen as a favorite to win the Kelly Cup, the Walleye were felled in the second round by the rival Fort Wayne Komets.
The sting of the defeat certainly could be felt by both the team and the fans.
And yet fans will gather Thursday night at the Huntington Center for another end-of-season celebration, in which the players thank the fans for another season of unbridled support.
Such a relationship between team and town is a rare breed these days. For most cities, the love affair ends when the season does.
And Toledo’s love for the Walleye does, of course, start on the ice.
The Walleye have consistently been the ECHL’s most exciting team. Filled with skillful players, many of whom rack up huge point totals with the team’s high-flying offense, the Walleye have won four straight division titles.
The ECHL is notorious for its player turnover rate, and yet the Walleye have managed to find a stable rotation of talented athletes who have helped them excel in a difficult, grueling game.
But Toledo’s relationship with the Walleye transcends hockey.
The Walleye have truly ingrained themselves in the hearts of Toledoans thanks to their compassion and community engagement, something which happens on an individual and organizational level.
This season, Simon Denis, a 26-year-old assistant captain for the Walleye, started “Be Yourself Apparel,” a clothing company that donates 25 percent of each sale to one of several affiliated charities. Mr. Denis, who was nearly paralyzed after being hit during a game in college, says that he started the company so he could find a way to make a difference in the lives of those who are less fortunate.
For its part, the Walleye organization continues to host a charity game between the Toledo police and fire departments, in addition to raising funds for the Walleye Wishing Well Fund, which makes donations to nonprofit organizations in the region that seek to improve the fitness and wellness of children.
The Walleye have also started the Little Walleye Learn to Play program, which affords pint-sized players some basic hockey gear and the chance to learn hockey fundamentals from Walleye players and coaches on the ice of the Huntington Center.
“For us, it just makes sense to get involved in a program like this to help spark the passion in kids,” Rob Wiercinski, the Walleye spokesman, told The Blade in January. “At that age, that’s when kids are really exploring. It’s a good way to get kids introduced to the sport.”
Since the Walleye took to the ice for the first time in 2009, the team has strived to find ways to bring fans — old and new — closer to the game and to the organization. Joe Napoli, the Walleye’s president and CEO, prides his organization on its fan-friendly experience and it is safe to say that fans have embraced it as well.
Everyone is disappointed that this year wasn’t the year for a Kelly Cup. But everyone in Toledo can be proud of their Walleye, a team with talent, heart, and a drive to do its biggest fans proud.
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