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Published: 10/13/2010

Vitucci balances goals of players and team

BY MARK MONROE
BLADE SPORTS WRITER
Vitucci knows players want to get to the next level while he tries to produce a winning team. Vitucci knows players want to get to the next level while he tries to produce a winning team.
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An enormous Catch 22 confronts Walleye coach Nick Vitucci every season as he tries to reel in top talent only to lose many of them to call-ups to the next level.

Vitucci also serves as the team's director of player personnel which means he is responsible for the signing of every player that he will take into battle.

Most minor league coaches face a similar dilemma - developing players to build a solid team only to see those players called up to higher levels. But Vitucci is responsible for the makeup of the Walleye roster.

Yet Vitucci makes it a point to sign many players on the fringe of emerging from the ECHL and making it to the American Hockey League. He encourages promotions despite the fact that it has a negative impact on his No. 1 stated goal of winning a championship.

"It handcuffs us sometimes," Vitucci admitted. "Sometimes it will bite you because you lose some good players. But at end of the day it will help you immensely."

He said it can be a major recruiting tool.

"My No. 1 job as a coach is developing players and allowing them to move up," he said. "It sends a message to other players."

Defenseman Brett Blatchford, a Temperance, Mich., native who played in college at Notre Dame, played for Idaho of the ECHL last season. The St. Francis de Sales graduate said one of the things that attracted him to play in Toledo this year was Vitucci's willingness to lobby on his behalf.

"He knows our goal is to get called up," Blatchford said. "You need team success and the right people to get called up to the AHL."

The Walleye have AHL affiliation agreements with Rockford and Grand Rapids through contracts with the NHL's Detroit Red Wings and Chicago Blackhawks. A handful of players on Vitucci's roster this year are under contract with those AHL teams. But he also lobbies for his players that do not have AHL contracts.

He said part of the reward of coaching at the Double-A level is seeing players promoted.

"I'm proud of our players and we want them to move up. You care about them," he said.

Mark Bernard, the Blackhawks general manager of minor league affiliations, praised Vitucci's work when the organizations agreed to a contract extension.

"Nick Vitucci has done a wonderful job with all of our prospects and we look forward to having him help develop the next group of future Chicago Blackhawks," Bernard said.

Vitucci said if an ECHL organization routinely promotes players to the next level it creates "a first-class environment."

"Players will always remember that," Vitucci said. "Guys that enjoyed their season here will help you recruit. They know it's a good situation. They tell their friends that this organization tries to promote players."

Vitucci loves to recall the story when he was the coach of the Storm about the loyalty of goalie Drew MacIntyre that has become a legend. In April 2006 with Toledo in the ECHL playoffs, MacIntyre had been called up to Grand Rapids.

One night MacIntyre led the AHL Griffins to a double overtime victory in Toronto and then hopped in a rental car and drove overnight to rejoin his Toledo team in Wheeling.

It cost MacIntyre a $125 speeding ticket and a night of sleep but he led the Storm to a win.

"He loved it here. He got it," Vitucci said. "It's those type of players I want. I'll do all I can to promote them. If you treat them right, they'll come back and help you."

He also said two current players Adam Keefe and Scooter Smith, who played for him with the Storm, have helped bring in recruits.

Vitucci's unselfish approach manifested itself in the re-signing of last year's captain, defenseman Ryan Stokes. Vitucci essentially talked Stokes out of retirement to return to Toledo.

Stokes was a steadying influence but was called up multiple times. Vitucci said he was surprised Stokes did not stick with an AHL team and said he will do the best to champion the veteran's cause.

"I hope he'll be back and forth [between Toledo and the AHL]. He is that good of a hockey player," Vitucci said.

Stokes, 27, said he weighed the option of ending his six-year pro career but opted instead to join Vitucci.

"I was on the fence," Stokes said. "I think my plan this year is to stay and help Toledo win a championship."

When the Walleye earned a berth in the playoffs last season, Stokes requested to be sent back down from the AHL to help the ECHL club.

Vitucci said the team missed Stokes more than anyone last year. But he still hopes Stokes spends more time in the AHL than in Toledo.

"For his sake I hope he does. But I know we'll miss him when he's not here," Vitucci said.

Goalie Alec Richards is a perfect example of a player who helped Vitucci's team win but also advanced to the next level. Richards had a 17-12-5 record with a 3.35 goals against average leading Toledo to a playoff berth last year. But he earned a spot this season with Rockford and will spend the entire season at the higher level.

Dave Aleo, the Walleye's equipment manager, said when he was with Hamilton of the AHL the team was able to win a title despite losing many players to the NHL.

"I really believe you can have guys go up to the next level and still win a championship," Aleo said. "I saw it first hand with Hamilton."

He said when players get called up others must step up.

"It gives other guys opportunities," Aleo said. "The players talk to each other. They look at Toledo and see we've had more guys called up and that really helps."

Vitucci said he wants the type of player that goes all out to be good enough to move up to the next level.

"I want a bunch of hardworking players that have an eagerness and want to move up," he said. "I want them to be chomping at the bit. I encourage and support that."



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