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Published: Sunday, 8/26/2012

NHL labor stalemate won't impact Walleye

Locked-out players wouldn't skate in ECHL

BY MARK MONROE
BLADE SPORTS WRITER
Walleye coach Nick Vitucci, left, and team captain Kyle Rogers. Walleye coach Nick Vitucci, left, and team captain Kyle Rogers.
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The storm cloud of a potential NHL lockout should not rain on the Toledo Walleye's upcoming season.

The loss, or at least a delay, of the NHL season is looking more and more likely with labor negotiations stalled. The current collective bargaining agreement is set to expire on Sept. 15, and if a deal is not reached, the start of the regular season on Oct. 11 will be delayed.

But the ECHL season will go on as scheduled with the Walleye set to play their first game on Oct. 13.

Walleye coach Nick Vitucci, who also is the team's director of operations, said his roster would go largely unaffected by the loss of the NHL season.

"It shouldn't affect us at all," Vitucci said. "It's business as usual for us, and we're moving forward."

He said the prevailing opinion that the talent level in the minor leagues would increase due to "a trickle-down effect" would not apply to the Walleye.

Players that have NHL and American Hockey League two-way contracts would start in the AHL if the lockout occurs. And players on AHL and ECHL two-way contracts will start in the ECHL, which is two steps below the NHL.

But Toledo's affiliation agreements with the Detroit Red Wings and the Chicago Blackhawks would remain the same, according to Vitucci.

"We are prepared to get a certain amount of players," he said.

The Walleye will receive a small, set number of players from Detroit's AHL affiliate in Grand Rapids, Mich., and from Chicago's AHL affiliate in Rockford, Ill.

"I don't think it will affect us as much as people think," Vitucci said. "I know we will be getting good players from our affiliates either way."

One positive aspect that an NHL lockout would have for the Walleye players would be an increase in the number of scouts at Toledo's games.

"Pro scouts have to see games, and if they're not at an NHL game, then they will have to be at AHL or ECHL games," Vitucci said. "We should see a surge for scouts in our building. It's a great opportunity for our players to showcase their abilities."

Walleye captain Kyle Rogers, who enters his sixth year of pro hockey, said no one wants to see the loss of the NHL season.

"I hope they get back to normal, but at the same time it will open eyes to them seeing ECHL guys," Rogers said. "It could pay off for us, especially the younger guys."

The labor strife already has altered the way Vitucci and his scouts prepare for the upcoming season.

The Red Wings canceled their annual rookie camp held in Traverse City, Mich. The Blackhawks also canceled their tournament for first- and second-year players held annually in Toronto.

"Those are big events for us at our level," Vitucci said. "We would go and watch possible future Walleye players there."

Vitucci said he and his staff will attend the upcoming AHL camps which also would be unaffected by the lockout. Vitucci is familiar with the affect that an NHL lockout can have on an ECHL team.

Vitucci was coach of the Toledo Storm when the entire 2004-05 NHL season was lost due to a lockout under a similar disagreement. Back then league owners also wanted players to give up a significant amount of salary to stabilize the sport while the players' union favored more revenue sharing between teams.

"As a huge fan of hockey, I'm disappointed we're going down this path again," Vitucci said. "It's bad for the game."

But Vitucci said he didn't recall that the previous lockout had a major impact on his Storm team.

"I don't recall a surge of players being sent down to us," Vitucci said.

Many NHL players opted to play in European leagues or took the year off. The same scenario is expected if the season is canceled this year.

Yet one elite NHL player did opt to play in the ECHL during the 2004-05 lockout. Forward Scott Gomez, who had a 12-year career in the NHL, played 61 games for the Alaska Aces of the ECHL.

"I don't recall it being much more than him," Vitucci said. "That was a unique situation with him being a superstar and choosing to play at our level."

One rumor swirling around the Storm that season was that NHL forward Bryan Smolinski, a Genoa native, would join the team. "I tried really hard that year to get Bryan Smolinski because he was so respected," Vitucci said. "I know he would have loved to play in Toledo because he grew up watching hockey here. But he would have been taking a big risk playing at this level. Our league did not allow us to pay extra insurance."

Former Storm center Nick Parillo, who played for the team in 2004-05, also didn't recall the lockout having a major impact.

But he did remember the Smolinski rumor. "All I was thinking was that I was I was going to have a great right winger," Parillo said.

Parillo said he doesn't think the lockout will negatively affect the Walleye.

"But as a fan, I hate that I won't be able to watch the Wings," Parillo said. "I know the fans don't appreciate it. It's not a good thing at all."

But the NHL suspension may lead to more fans coming to Walleye games, according to Vitucci and Parillo.

"It's tough to say," Vitucci said. "I don't recall whether it benefited us back with the Storm or not. But maybe some diehard Red Wings fans will come to our games."

But Rogers pointed out that the Walleye finished second in the ECHL in overall attendance with an average crowd of 6,252 at the Huntington Center.

"We attract a lot of fans," Rogers said. "It might be tough for Red Wings fans to get into a Walleye game."

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



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