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Published: Saturday, 3/31/2012 - Updated: 2 years ago

Despite woes, Walleye fans have packed house

BY MARK MONROE
BLADE SPORTS WRITER

Despite the Toledo Walleye's significant struggles on the ice, support of the team remained consistently strong all season long.

Another large crowd is expected to file into the Huntington Center for the Walleye's season finale against Kalamazoo on Saturday night.

Although Toledo's record never climbed above the .500 mark, the team still led the ECHL in attendance for much of the season.

Going into the final home game the Walleye ranked No. 1 in the league with a total of 217,589 tickets sold to the team's 35 games at the downtown arena.

No Toledo team has ever led the ECHL in attendance for a single-season. The club also leads in average attendance with 6,271 tickets sold per game.

"We have a great fan base and they're very supportive," Walleye coach Nick Vitucci said. "We're very appreciative of that. I just wish we gave them more of a reason to cheer more often."

The organization is neck and neck for the lead in attendance with Ontario. The California-based team has enjoyed a far better season and plays in a larger arena. Ontario, has averaged 6,156 fans per game.

The Walleye have played before eight sellout crowds this season. The capacity at the Huntington Center is 7,431 for hockey.

During its inaugural season in 2009-10, the organization ranked second in the ECHL in attendance. Last season, the team was third.

There have been 29 sellouts in the organization's three seasons at the Huntington Center.

Erik Ibsen, the team's assistant general manager, also is in charge of its ticket sales and operations. He called it "a historic attendance season."

"We are pleased to see the continued support of the team and to reach the 200,000 mark for three straight seasons is a testament to this terrific region," Ibsen said.

More than 12,000 fans attended Toledo's home games last weekend and an announced crowd of 7,002 fans showed up for the Walleye's 6-1 loss to Kalamazoo on Wednesday.

On some nights there is a clear discrepancy between the announced attendance and the crowd that is actually in the building. Walleye officials said the announced number is based on actual tickets sold or paid attendance.

The team was eliminated from playoff contention last Friday. Toledo has been in last place in the ECHL North Division for the entire season and has posted a 14-18-3 record at home.

"It says a lot about the staff and their ability to promote hockey despite a dismal year," Vitucci said.

Ontario has led the league each of the last two seasons and finished second in 2008-09. The team, which has drawn a total of 209,308 fans, closes out its schedule with home games against Alaska on Friday and Saturday.

Stockton, another California-based team, ranks third in the league with 5,916 spectators per game.

At the other end of the spectrum has been the expansion Chicago Express. In its first season, the team ranks last in the league with a total of 85,610 fans over 35 games (2,446 per game).

Chicago is still in the playoff hunt, battling Wheeling, South Carolina, Reading, and Cincinnati for one of the eight playoff spots in the 12-team Eastern Conference.

A crowd of more than 7,000 is expected Saturday when Toledo (28-36-6) hosts Kalamazoo (37-25-8), which won the North Division, and has already clinched a playoff spot.

The Walleye have lost five in a row and have been outscored 28-5 during the rough stretch.

Entering the final week of the regular season, the ECHL was on the verge of reaching the 3-million mark in total attendance for the 19th season in a row. This season the average attendance has been 4,237 per game.

Vitucci said the coaches and players appreciate playing before the large and vocal crowds.

"Those days where you are dragging, it gives you extra life," Vitucci said. "By all means we want to finish this on a high note."

FINALE FESTIVITIES: The Walleye will be holding a season-ending party at the Huntington Center's Aquarium, which is located adjacent to the main lobby of the arena.

The free event, which will begin at 5 p.m., features drink specials, "spring cleaning" giveaway items to the first 150 fans and live music.

The team will be wearing its traditional warm-up "Hooks" jerseys during the game and fans will have opportunities to purchase one. Five of the jerseys also will be raffled off. Proceeds will benefit the Walleye Wishing Well, the team's charitable fund.

FISH TALES: Faceoff is at 7 p.m. ... Toledo is 5-6-2 against Kalamazoo this season. … The K-Wings are first in the ECHL in scoring with 3.67 goals per game, while the Walleye are ranked 18th with 2.64. … Toledo is second to last in goals against. The Walleye have given up 3.57 goals per game.

Contact Mark Monroe at: mmonroe@theblade.com, 419-724-6354 or on Twitter @MonroeBlade.



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