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Published: Thursday, 3/24/2005

Storm wins, but spins its wheels

BY DAN SAEVIG
BLADE SPORTS WRITER

Notes and quotes from the ECHL and other communities, acknowledging long-time Toledo Storm defenseman Derek Booth who this week was named Southern Professional Hockey League coach of the year for his efforts as a rookie bench boss for the Fayetteville (N.C.) FireAntz . . .

So this is what meteorologists are referring to when they talk about a stalled storm front.

From Mar. 11-20, the Storm went 4-0-1, taking nine of 10 possible points. But when it was over Toledo remained in fifth place, still one point out of fourth in the ECHL's North Division.

Such is life up in the cold North where four teams qualify for post-season play and only six points separate first place Reading from the Storm and Peoria, who are tied for fifth.

Based on points, all six of the North Division challengers - Atlantic City, Reading, Peoria, Wheeling, Trenton and Toledo - would qualify today for post-season play should they reside in the ECHL's American Conference, which is made up of the East and South divisions.

"The North Division is good," Toledo winger Pierre-Luc Sleigher said. "It's the best hockey in the league."

At the very least, an argument can be made that it's the most competitive.

"I've never been in this kind of situation," Storm defenseman Jason Maleyko said. "There were times in [major] junior where you'd have a couple of teams fighting for first place or the last playoff spot, but nothing like this.

"It's fun, but it's also nerve-racking."

For fellow backliner P.J. Martin, it's a case of been there, done that.

"Last year in Trenton, it came down to the last weekend of the season," Martin said. "Two games that we had to win, Wheeling and Johnstown, for the fifth and final spot and we ended up losing both.

"I don't want that to happen this year."

With only nine games remaining in its regular season and five of its next six against also-rans Dayton and Johnstown - easily the most favorable schedule of the North contenders based on winning percentage - Toledo would appear to be in a good position.

To a man, Storm players say they don't want to wait until the last weekend to qualify for the playoffs. Toledo closes the road campaign at Reading on April 7, followed by home games against Peoria on April 8 and Trenton on April 9.

"When [current Storm assistant coach] Tony [MacAulay] coached us last year in Roanoke, we ended up in second place by going 12-0-2 in our last 14 games," Toledo winger Kevin Bergin said. "We had 84 points, Florida had 84 points, South Carolina had 83 and Greensboro [which didn't qualify for post-season competion] had 82.

"It was good practice for this. I just hope this year we have two, three, maybe four games when we're going to know that we're in the playoffs so we can breathe a little bit."

Referee Nygel Pelletier made quite an impression at the Sports Arena last weekend.

On Friday, he ordered an announcement threatening ejection for any fan leaning over the dasherboard glass. Within seconds, two individuals ignored the highly unusual directive and were immediately tossed, setting off a chorus of boos from the crowd.

One evening later, both Storm coach Nick Vitucci and his Trenton counterpart, Mike Haviland, were visibly upset with Pelletier for calls he made and others he didn't during a 3-2 Titans' overtime win.

Yet you'll likely never hear an ECHL coach vent his frustrations.

Gone are the colorful days when the likes of the Goaldiggers' Ted Garvin could and would unload publicly. The ECHL has warned its teams of harsh financial penalties for coaches who beef about officials in the newspaper. With budgets as tight as they are, it's an effective gag order.

"I wish I could comment, but I can't," Vitucci said Saturday night. "Let's just leave it at that. Anybody can read between the lines of that, if they want."

Good recruiting is the key to success and survival for coaches in the ECHL. It's been that way since the league was founded in 1988.

Coaches rely on NHL partners, friends, free-lance scouts, an occasional fan and their own players to build rosters.

Vitucci was a goaltender for the Storm during the 1994-95 season when then Toledo coach Greg Puhalski, now with Fort Wayne of the United Hockey League, inquired about a skater - who would later join the Storm - from Vitucci's hometown of Welland, Ont.

"●'Chief' said he'd heard about this player named Rob Radobenko who was highly regarded by a scout in Canada," Vitucci recalled. "He wanted to know if I knew him.

"I said I did.

"He asked, 'Can you put in a good word for us here?'

"I said, 'Yeah, I can put in a good word. He's been dating my sister for seven years!' "

Contact Dan Saevig at:

dsaevig@theblade.com.


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