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Published: Monday, 10/5/2009

Arena leaves Walleye, fans hooked: 8,500 tour site as excited team holds 1st skate

BY MARK MONROE
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Enthusiasm flowed from the locker rooms through the plush seats at the Lucas County Arena Sunday as players and fans alike celebrated the possibilities of creating new hockey memories in the spectacular facility.

More than 8,500 spectators toured the $105 million arena during the second day of an open house. The venue's main tenant, the Toledo Walleye hockey team, jumped onto the ice for the first time.

Walleye goalie John Petrous said it was exciting to see so many people come out to support the club during preseason camp.

"They brought a lot of energy, and it gives you a rush," Petrous said. "I think the fans are excited for it because it's been a couple of years without it. It's a beautiful arena. I've never seen anything like it. The facility is awesome. Everything is state-of-the-art. There's nothing more the players on this team could ask for."

Walleye General Manager Joe Napoli said he had a number of people approach him and express their pleasure with the new arena while the Walleye held a scrimmage and practiced Sunday.

"So many people have come up and said, 'Hey, you got it right,'•" Mr. Napoli said. "It's been such a rough year with the economy. People are looking for good news. Nothing gives me greater pleasure than seeing people down here smiling and excited."

He said even the diehard supporters of the old Sports Arena went out of their way to show their appreciation.

"The last two days have been very satisfying," Mr. Napoli said. "We're restarting the tradition of hockey in Toledo."

Walleye defenseman Brock Wilson said just walking into the rink was a thrill.

"Even in practice, guys were going 110 miles an hour just because they were so excited to be out there in front of the new fans," Wilson said.

Wilson, who played for Dayton in the ECHL last year, said the buzz yesterday made him even more pumped up for the team's home opener on Oct. 16.

"I've played in a few [American Hockey League] facilities, and I've been in some NHL rinks. This is one of the top ones I've ever seen," Wilson said. "They've done a beautiful job. It's great for the city and the ECHL."

Walleye coach Nick Vitucci said he caught a glimpse of himself on the 600-square-foot video board during the team introductions.

"I was skating around and looking around," Vitucci said. "They had me on the big screen, and you can't help but look at that. It was a neat experience."

Vitucci said the players were keyed up in the locker room. One yelled, "There's a couple thousand people out there. Let's go!" the coach said.

"And that's great. For practice and training camp it's usually grunge work," Vitucci said. "Usually, players don't look forward to it. We're anxious."

Center Malcolm MacMillan, who has played four seasons in the ECHL, was equally impressed.

"This is probably the best rink in minor pro hockey. I've seen a lot of rinks over the years, and this is the best one by far," MacMillan said. "Even the seats are padded. In some of the new facilities, the seats are still the old, hard plastic. The Jumbotron is unbelievable. It looks like it's high-def. The whole setup is nice."

MacMillan, who often served as the villain for Storm fans when he played for opposing teams at the Sports Arena, said his new home is "a family-oriented rink."

"It's like night and day. It's a huge boost to this community," MacMillan said.

Chuck Strange, an East Toledoan who said he interviewed for a job to drive the Zamboni for the new team, toured the arena yesterday. Mr. Strange, who works at Team Toledo Ice House, also was a mascot for two years with the Storm.

"It's a beautiful place. I can't believe Toledo finally got something like this," he said.

But Mr. Strange said he still has reservations about the location of the arena.

"We voted to put the arena on the east side. The next thing you know, the arena is built downtown. I was a little upset that my vote was not heard," Mr. Strange said. "But it's here now, and I will support it."

Toledoan Steve Kwiatkowski, who said he has been a huge hockey fan since the days of the Goaldiggers in the 1970s, said he plans to attend every Walleye game just as he attended every Storm contest.

"You get used to something old and you like it. But you don't realize how something could be better until you actually give it a chance," Mr. Kwiatkowski said. "With this new arena, you couldn't ask for anything more. This is incredible."

Contact Mark Monroe at:

mmonroe@theblade.com

or 419-724-6354.


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