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Published: Thursday, 10/20/2005

Quest for a Cup: Coach Vitucci lived life of Riley as a player

BY MARK MONROE
BLADE SPORTS WRITER
Storm coach Nick Vitucci prepares his players for their ECHL opener tomorrow night against Dayton at the Sports Arena. Last season Vitucci led the Storm into the playoffs with a 41-26-5 record. As a player, Vitucci was a member of five title teams. Storm coach Nick Vitucci prepares his players for their ECHL opener tomorrow night against Dayton at the Sports Arena. Last season Vitucci led the Storm into the playoffs with a 41-26-5 record. As a player, Vitucci was a member of five title teams.
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Nick Vitucci hoisted a Cup as a young goaltender the last time one was celebrated in Toledo a decade ago, and he would like nothing more than to bring one back as a coach.

Vitucci returns behind the Storm bench for his second full season fresh off of earning ECHL coach of the year honors.

Vitucci was part of the Storm's 1994 Riley Cup championship team and served as the team's goaltender from 1993-95. He coached Toledo to a 41-26-5 record and a berth in the Kelly Cup playoffs last season.

"It was nuts when we won it here. There was a parade. It was crazy," said Vitucci, whose Storm begins its quest for another title tomorrow night with the season opener at the Sports Arena against Dayton.

"It was something I'll never forget," he said. "This city rallies around a champion. You saw it with what the Mud Hens did. It would be unbelievable to carry a Cup in the Sports Arena."

Storm coach Nick Vitucci, a former goaltender, holds
the ECHL record for games (479), minutes (27,291)
and wins (265). He also holds the Storm goaltending
records in wins (77).
Storm coach Nick Vitucci, a former goaltender, holds the ECHL record for games (479), minutes (27,291) and wins (265). He also holds the Storm goaltending records in wins (77).
Enlarge

Vitucci, 38, was named interim coach in December, 2003, then led Toledo to a 30-point improvement last year as coach. The Storm reached the postseason semifinals, but lost 3-1 to Reading.

Vitucci has been a member of five championship teams during his career, including one as an assistant coach.

"I've learned lessons from each one. You look for character and chemistry," he said. "When I won as an assistant in Greenville, I was more like a proud father. I'd helped put the team together and nurture it and watch it grow.

Barry Soskin, who is back with the Storm as team president, is a longtime Chicago businessman
who admits that hockey is in his blood. He is intent on making the organization fan-friendly.
Barry Soskin, who is back with the Storm as team president, is a longtime Chicago businessman who admits that hockey is in his blood. He is intent on making the organization fan-friendly.
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"They were all equally rewarding. I'd love for every player from this team to be able to enjoy a championship."

Vitucci has brought back seven core members from last year's team.

Only two days ago, Vitucci received perhaps the biggest returnee in goaltender Logan Koopmans, who had a 12-10-1 record with Toledo last season while posting a 2.82 goals-against average and a .906 save percentage.

"Koops is a very good goaltender," Vitucci said. "Last year he was very good for us on an interim basis. We're hoping he starts 50 to 55 games for us this year."

Forward Todd Jackson also was a late addition to the 20-man roster. Last year Jackson scored 25 points in his 35 contests with the Storm.

"He has incredible talent and great speed," Vitucci said.

Vitucci also is excited about the return of forwards Scooter Smith, Mike James and Rob Snowball.

He said Smith had an incredible training camp and should have a productive year. Vitucci said James is not only an agitator, he also is very skilled. Snowball, the team's tough guy, is more focused and has a stronger work ethic, according to Vitucci.

Two defenseman also return. Vitucci said Jason Maleyko is a vocal leader and a hard competitor, while P.J. Martin is a quiet leader who takes care of business.

"All of those seven guys love it in Toledo," Vitucci said. "They love the atmosphere in the Sports Arena and they love the fans. It's a credit to the community that they want to come back and perform here."

Vitucci said his top newcomers include defensemen Jeff Lang, Gerry Burke, Josh Zavitz, and forwards Ryan Gale, Ken Magowan, Brad Bonello and Bracken Kearns.

Veterans B.J. Adams (defenseman) and Mark Turner (center) also are expected to lead and be productive, according to Vitucci.

Five college players will make their pro debuts with Toledo.

Vitucci said he was pleased with his team's goals-against average and penalty kill unit last season. His team yielded 2.69 goals per game which was 11th best in the 28-team league. The penalty kill was ranked seventh in the ECHL at 86.1 percent.

However, Toledo was 18th in goals scored per game at 2.82. The power play converted only 16.1 percent of the time, which was 16th in the league.

Toledo moves to the ECHL's American Conference but remains in the North Division to face traditional foes Dayton, Johnstown, Reading, Trenton and Wheeling. The Storm takes on Dayton tomorrow in the first of 13 games between the Ohio adversaries. Toledo will face Johnstown, Reading and Trenton 12 times this season.

"I like that you play a lot of the same teams because you build up very good rivalries and grudges," Vitucci said.

The Storm gets an early advantage as it plays 14 of its first 20 games at the Sports Arena.

"Hopefully, all of those home games will get us off to a good start," Vitucci said. "The building is so small, it's tough for teams to adjust. The crowd is very vocal. I hope that will give us an edge."

The smaller ice surface also leads to close, tight-checking contests which suits Vitucci, who considers himself a defensive-minded coach.

"I concentrate on the d-zone coverage," he said. "It's like football. Good defense wins you games and championships."

Vitucci will leave the offensive side of the ice to new assistant coach Stan Drulia, who played forward in 126 games in the NHL. Drulia was the head coach of the ECHL's Augusta Lynx last season and his team had the best power play in the league at 20.4 percent.

"We've been working together and I've learned a lot from Stan," Vitucci said.

"Stan adds a completely different outlook."

Vitucci said neither coach is "set in their ways" and he pointed out that Drulia has been a head coach for three years. The "co-head coaches" also let the players provide ideas, as well.

"This is our team," he said. "We all need to be together if we want to get where we want to be."

Vitucci said he is relieved that the Storm is actually playing this season. The organization nearly had to suspend operations last spring due to increased costs and dwindling attendance. But a successful season-ticket drive saved the team.

"It was an incredible ticket campaign and it was great to see the fans and the city of Toledo rally to keep this thing going," he said.

Vitucci said he also likes that the organization has brought back the franchise's founder, Barry Soskin, to run the team.

"He has connection with fans," Vitucci said. "Barry runs the team from a fan's perspective."

Soskin said he has a business and a personal relationship with Vitucci, who played for the Soskin-owned Storm in the mid-90s.

"Nick is very well organized and well thought out," said Soskin, the team's new president. "He turned the whole team around last year. He was coach of the year. He has what I want in a coach."

Storm general manager Mike Miller said Toledo has 11 titles in its history, which is the most in minor league hockey.

"That is why we are in this," Miller said. "You compete to win it all. We'd love to get another piece of hardware."

Contact Mark Monroe at: mmonroe@theblade.com or 419-724-6110.

Barry Soskin, who is back with the Storm as team president, is a longtime Chicago businessman who admits that hockey is in his blood. He is intent on making the organization fan-friendly.

Toledo Storm founder Barry Soskin is back managing the team as its president. Blade sports writer Mark Monroe talked with the Chicago businessman who established the franchise 15 years ago, winning two Riley Cups and four division titles. Soskin, who owned the team for seven years, signed a management agreement with current owner Tim Gladieux to run the team with an option to purchase the club.

Q: Where did you grow up?

A: Chicago. I ve owned a business there since 1978. It s a gun shop. It s a retail store that brings in about a million dollars a year. It also is one of the largest indoor pistol ranges in the country.

Q: How many hockey teams have you been affiliated with?

A: Five. I ve owned two baseball teams as well.

Q: Why are you such a fan of hockey?

A: It is my favorite sport to play. I turned 48 a week ago and I still play. I play defense or wherever they put me. I know in person it is the greatest sport to watch live. I just love it so much. It s in my blood. Last year was the first year since 1990 that I did not own a hockey team and I still went to a million hockey games.

Q: What is it about Toledo that you missed and what brought you back?

A: To be honest, I was brought back because Tim Gladieux finally contacted me and told me he needed some help. I ve been offering my services as a consultant or friend to steer the ship back on course.

Q: What are the key things you will do to bring the fans to Storm games?

A: Being fan-friendly is No. 1. We need to create a different atmosphere right from the time they get out of their car. We have to be more family oriented when it comes to money. There is a reason why I dropped the cost of parking and I lost on that deal. Now they only have to pay $3. I m thankful to those fans and I want to show my appreciation, specifically to the season-ticket holders who helped save the Storm.

Q: What are the things you can do to help the team bring back a championship to Toledo?

A: A different attitude and mindset. A different philosophy. You have to think like a fan, act like a fan. I believe fans want flexibility. They want a little bit back. We will take care of the people who took care of us.

Q: What was the best team that you ve ever been associated with?

A: The first championship in Toledo [1993]. I have five rings. I ve won two baseball championships and three hockey championships.

Q: How committed are you to helping get a new arena built in Toledo?

A: As much as I possibly could be, 110 percent. A different place to play entails a brand new 10,000-seat arena. I had a great, long meeting with Lucas County [officials] and I got a lot discussed. We still have a lot more to talk about. I was not promised or guaranteed anything. I just want to come in and do the job that will make a deal possible, to make it a successful organization.

Q: What do you like about the Sports Arena?

A: There s not a bad seat in the house. I like the ambiance. I like what it brings. It s 47-years-old, but there are 30-year-old places that look worse. They ve been doing a good job keeping the old barn looking good.

Q: What are your thoughts on the rule changes in the NHL and ECHL?

A: It s too early to tell. So far I like what I see. I ve always been a special teams guy. I think it is imperative to have excellent power play and penalty kill units. That is what I liked about Stan [new assistant coach Stan Drulia]. His team in Augusta led the league in the power play.

Q: Who is the person you most admire?

A: My parents, Jerry and Myrna.

Q: How would you describe your style of doing business?

A: Unique. Controversial! When I do something and I care about it, it shows. If you re really into something, you can t do a bad job.

Q: Why should the fans be excited that you re back?

A: I m just like one of the regular fans. They can talk to me, shake my hand and say hi.

Q: What should fans expect at Storm games this season?

A: The fans won t have to wait for players outside the locker room. They will all be in the exhibit hall after every game. They ll be able to talk to them and get autographs.

Q: Why should someone come watch the Storm play?

A: I believe we will have a very exciting team. I will make your visit as pleasurable as I can. There be more entertainment than just a hockey game. We ll have games and prizes and giveaways and different types of entertainment.

Q: What are your goals for this season and beyond?

A: I have four years to finish purchasing the team. I want to right the ship. I want what is best for the Storm organization.



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