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Published: 10/13/2010

From baby steps to a big jump, Walleye turn attention to winning

BY DAVE HACKENBERG
BLADE SPORTS COLUMNIST

When Vitucci, the head coach and player personnel boss for the Toledo Walleye, and Stokes hooked up on the phone during the off-season it became apparent to both what Stokes wanted to accomplish during the 2010-11 season and where he desired to accomplish it.

Stokes donned four sweaters a year ago, playing in 32 games for the expansion Walleye and in 39 games for three different American Hockey League franchises. He called Vitucci late in the season and requested to be brought back to town for the ECHL playoffs. As it happened, Stokes suffered an injury and it wasn't possible.

But Vitucci was delighted to make it happen this time.

"Here's the key," the Walleye coach said. "I asked Ryan if he wanted me to help find him a spot in an American League camp, to give him a chance to maybe open some eyes at that level. He said, 'Nope, I want to come to Toledo and win.' That's the focus of a leader."

Imagine that. Here's an athlete at the proverbial fork in the road, a guy possibly with options, a guy who has suited up in Houston and Providence and Toronto (with the AHL's Marlies) and he wants to play in Toledo. Bless him.

Vitucci understands completely. Leading the first-year Walleye to the ECHL playoffs opened some eyes to his talents behind the bench. He admits a couple teams called this past summer. He said it was nice to feel wanted. It's nice for us to note that he's still here.

"A lot of my friends in this business are desperate to move up," Vitucci said. "I've seen some of them make moves and it might be bigger, but it isn't always a better situation. I'm hesitant to dip my foot in the water and find out because, honestly, I don't know if I can better this situation."

Scooter Smith's affiliation with Toledo hockey began with the now-defunct Storm in 2004-05. Adam Keefe wore that same old ugly logo during the 2005-06 season. Both forwards found themselves with the Walleye a year ago and both were eager to return for the 2010-11 season that begins Friday.

So, if you were thinking this Toledo love affair with hockey is a one-way street, you just might be wrong.

And there's no question local fans love their Walleye. A year ago, 226,575 fans filed through the gates at Lucas County Arena for 36 regular-season home games. That 6,294-fan average ranked second in a 20-team league behind only Ontario (Calif.), which averaged 6,451 fans. The league average was 4,485.

Some of that was hockey, which had been absent locally for two years. Some of it was a brand, spanking new arena, which is now named Huntington Center. The hockey was pretty good. The new digs are merely great, whether you're a fan or a player whose second home for five-plus months - they call it "the room" - is darn close to National Hockey League caliber.

A year ago, the Walleye presold about 2,200 season tickets. Club president Joe Napoli said they surpassed that total for 2010-11 three weeks ago with a 90 percent renewal rate, far above the norm for minor league sports.

"When you consider the challenges of the local economy it's a great testament to this community," Napoli said. "There is nothing but upside to hockey in Toledo. As people continue to sample the experience we'd like to think we've just scratched the surface."

The Walleye, like their summer brethren, the Mud Hens, are fairly unique in pro sports in that they are owned by a government agency, in both cases Lucas County, and operated as nonprofit businesses.

Napoli said in a typical year, "if staffs do their jobs well," net income for a minor league hockey team might range from $400,000 on the low end to about $1.5 million on the high end.

"A lot of it is driven by the schedule," he said. "Ideally, you have weekend dates back-loaded and a team that is still contending when you get to those dates. It doesn't always work out. There are ECHL teams and Triple-A baseball teams, too, that lose money. How much did we net? We fell on the higher side."

The Walleye did it, in part, by holding lower-bowl (available for single games) ticket prices to $13 for seniors and children and $15 for adults. The top-priced adult single game tickets for Storm games in the final season (2006-07) at the old Sports Arena were $15 in advance and $16 on game days. So if you are complaining about ticket prices now, we assume you were complaining then, too.

The Walleye shoveled last year's profits into paying down the mortgage debt and making repairs and capital improvements to Huntington Center, although it's hard to imagine it could be improved upon. Regardless, there should be little to complain about this season, especially if Vitucci's team reaches his goal of an ECHL championship.

"We're going to be greedier, for sure," he said. "We're aiming higher. Making the playoffs in the first year was a realistic goal and it was a successful year on and off the ice. It's year two. A championship is the goal now."

And wouldn't that really stoke up the love affair?

Contact Blade sports columnist

Dave Hackenberg at:

dhack@theblade.com

or 419-724-6398.



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