As a free agent last offseason, defenseman Davis Vandane knew his ideal landing spot would be in Toledo with a Walleye organization he had admired from afar as a foe.
After playing for five ECHL teams in his brief three-year career, Vandane said he's found a home in Toledo. The 6-foot-4, 210-pound Walleye defenseman said he always loved playing at the Huntington Center.
“Honestly it's been unreal,” Vandane said. “They are one of the best teams in the league and one of the best towns. As a player when you go to an opposing rink, you always look forward to going out on the ice and looking at the building. The first time I skated out of the tunnel at the Huntington Center, the place was packed and it was so loud. It was one of the arenas I always wanted to play in because of the atmosphere.
“It's tough to go into some places when there are 500 or 600 people in the building. Knowing that Toledo was going to be my home rink was one of the most appealing things.
“It helps that we are good and we win a lot.”
The 25-year-old signed with Elmira before last season and appeared in 68 games with the Jackals. Vandane had the third most points (37) for an Elmira team that struggled mightily. The Jackals went 17-47-8, finishing with the fewest points in the ECHL.
“I got to play so much. It helped me being on a bad team,” said Vandane, who posted 11 goals and 26 assists. “That helped grow my game so much. I have confidence.”
But the native of Yorkton, Saskatchewan, said it was difficult playing before sparse crowds in Elmira.
“When my agent called and said Toledo had an offer on the table, it was kind of eye-opening,” Vandane said. “When you come to the rink and want to be there, it's fun and enjoyable. You hang out with your friends and joke around like they’re brothers.”
Walleye coach Dan Watson said he attempted to acquire Vandane last season.
“Davis was a player we tried to get last season at the deadline, but couldn’t get it done,” Watson said. “ His ability to move pucks like a pro and shoot pucks with authority are two reasons why we brought him in. He’s also 6-4 and will have the ability to protect pucks, knock players off pucks, and make plays under pressure when the season gets harder.”
Vandane, who sports a thick black beard, embraces his role as a “glue guy” — a steady defenseman who contributes in all situations. He has scored five goals and has 16 points in 37 games.
“I want to be the reliable defenseman,” Vandane said. “I want to be out there with a minute left in the period or for a key faceoff. If I contribute with points, that's awesome. But I want to play a solid 200-foot game.”
Vandane said he no longer believes that there are labels such as an offensive defenseman or stay-at-home defenseman in today's game.
“Now you have to be able to do a little bit of everything,” he said. “You have to be reliable in your own end. Everyone has to contribute.”
Vandane leads the team in an often overlooked category, standing at plus-18 in plus/minus rating. The number represents how often a player is on the ice when his team scores a goal or gives up a goal when at even strength or shorthanded. The difference is the player's plus/minus rating.
“I think it's very important,” Vandane said. “If I'm a plus in a game, that means I was very involved. And if it's a minus, I was involved in a negative way. No one wants to get scored on, so you want to keep your plus/minus rating up the best you can. You don't want to be easy to play against.”
Vandane also is a regular contributor on special teams. Five of his 11 assists have come when Toledo is on the power play.
“I love shooting the puck,” he said. “It's a chance to contribute. But the [penalty kill] is also one of the more fun parts of the game. If you're a man short, you have to work as hard as you can. If you deny a power play, that's a momentum swing.”
Despite his size advantage, Vandane is among the players with the fewest penalty minutes on the team. Vandane has just 18 penalty minutes.
“Growing up I didn't ever want to take a penalty,” he said. “Sometimes you have to take one to prevent a goal. But if your penalty minutes are up, you are taking a lot of minors.”
Still, Vandane said he would like to be more of a physical presence on the ice.
“If I could go back the last 30 games or so, I wish I had established myself more,” he said.
Vandane established his athletic prowess at an early age. He said he grew up in Western Canada playing baseball in the summers and hockey in the winters. He also became a highly regarded lacrosse player and represented his region at a national tournament when he was in the fifth grade.
“I just loved playing sports, throwing the football around on the front lawn,” he said. “Then I had to give it up because hockey took over. It's 12 months out of the year, working on power skating and staying on the ice.”
Vandane played four seasons in the Western Hockey League, a major league based in Western Canada and the northwestern U.S. He then played two seasons at the University of Calgary, appearing in 33 contests with 18 points (five goals, 13 assists), before turning pro in 2015-16.
That first season, Vandane split time between Greenville, Alaska, and Norfolk while posting two goals with six assists and 10 penalty minutes.
“It was a turning point in my life,” he said. “I just wanted to play hockey. That first year I bounced around a bit. It was very tough. I did some reflecting.”
Watson signed Vandane in August. He said Vandane brings a big, strong element to Toledo's defensive core.
“He brings a toughness to the position while adding in an offensive flair,” Watson said.
With a 6-2 win over Cincinnati on Sunday, the Walleye wrapped up the month of January with an 8-3-1 record. They went 6-1-0 at home and 2-2-1 on the road.
“It was huge,” said Vandane, who had an assist against the Cyclones. “We were coming off seven games in 11 days, and we knew that Sunday game would be tough. We had to stick together. The way we won proved the fact we are a team.”
Toledo (28-12-4) has the third most points (60) in the ECHL. The Walleye lead the Central Division by four points. They are six points out of first place in the Western Conference.
Toledo has just one game this week with a Saturday trip to Indy. The Walleye have a record of 4-0-0 this year against the Fuel, a division foe. The team has won three straight after enduring a three-game losing streak.
“Everyone talks about the dog days of January,” Vandane said. “We went through a little rough patch. But things seem to be settling down now.”
Just as Vandane's career seems to have settled into a groove.
“It's all worked out for me,” he said.
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