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Published: Wednesday, 8/5/2009

Blackhawks, Walleye join forces

BY MARK MONROE
BLADE SPORTS WRITER

The Toledo Walleye will have even greater access to resources and young talent after signing a second NHL affiliation agreement.

The Walleye will sign a one-year contract today to serve as a minor league affiliate of the Chicago Blackhawks.

It is the second NHL affiliation agreement that Walleye officials have

announced in the last three days. Toledo also will be the Double-A affiliate of the Detroit Red Wings. Such "dual affiliations" are not uncommon.

Mark Bernard, Chicago's general manager of minor league affiliations, said he expects the Blackhawks to send three to six players to Toledo.

"Right now our strength is that we have a lot of goalies and forwards coming up through our system," Bernard said.

The key to the contract was a longtime relationship between Bernard and Walleye coach Nick Vitucci. The former ECHL goaltenders were teammates in Hampton Roads. Bernard also played for the Toledo Storm and was an assistant coach here in 2002-03.

"I have firsthand knowledge of what a rich hockey history that Toledo has and how passionate the fans are," Bernard said. "I also know Nick is a very good coach. We believe he has the ability to get our players ready to move on to the next level."

Vitucci said he is honored to have affiliations with two of the NHL's Original Six teams. When Vitucci coached the Storm in its last season (2006-07), the team also had affiliation agreements with the Red Wings and Blackhawks.

"We're obviously thrilled to be able to team up with the Blackhawks," Vitucci said. "They have some of the best, young exciting players."

The Walleye will exchange players with Chicago's American Hockey League team in Rockford, Ill.

"The proximity is appealing. It'll be easier for me to watch our players," Bernard said.

It's less than a six-hour drive between Toledo and Rockford.

"We can get a player out in an afternoon if we need to," Bernard said.

Bernard, who led the Storm to the best record in the ECHL in 2001-02, said he toured the new arena last spring.

"I'm very impressed with the new setup with the Mud Hens and the Walleye," Bernard said. "It will be a first class organization. Our prospects will have a chance to play in a state-of-the art building. It's a great recruiting tool."

The Storm also had dual affiliations with both Detroit and Nashville and with San Jose.

"It's very common," Vitucci said. "It benefits both [NHL] teams."

Vitucci said he anticipates receiving a couple forwards and maybe a goalie from the Rockford IceHogs. But he said injuries, performance in training camp, and other transactions can alter those plans.

"I wait until I see the whites of their eyes," he said.

Bernard said he has a special place in his heart for Toledo.

"Two of my most enjoyable years in hockey were spent in Toledo," Bernard said. "The fans push you to be your best."

Contact Mark Monroe at:

mmonroe@theblade.com

or 419-304-4760.



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