The root of Willie Coetzee's amazing stick-handling abilities can be traced back to his roots growing up in South Africa, where his parents were both pro athletes.
Coetzee, a Walleye forward who leads the team in scoring, lived in Johannesburg until he was 4. It was around that age when his grandfather spotted a glimpse of the future.
“My grandpa was a great field hockey player, and one day he saw me sweeping up with a broom,” Coetzee recalled. “He told my mom, 'One day that boy will be a a great hockey player.' He was talking about field hockey. It just turns out he was wrong about what kind of hockey.”
Coetzee, who turned 22 last Wednesday, apparently showed how he could handle a stick at a young age. Coetzee, who is in his second stint with the Walleye, has racked up 11 points in 13 games.
The highly skilled forward has scored five goals and has six assists.
“I think I'm doing OK,” said Coetzee, who scored just 16 seconds into the third period of Toledo's loss to South Carolina on Sunday. “But I know myself. I know I can do better. I'm extremely competitive.”
Coetzee said a strong desire to be successful at everything was instilled him by his athletic parents.
His father Willem was an ultra marathon runner, and his mother Thelma played semi-pro tennis. Willem Coetzee, who Willie is named for, also qualified to represent South Africa in speed walking but did not because of the country's struggles with Apartheid.
“They are extremely competitive, too. I get it from both of them,” Coetzee said. “Every day I see it. I know how competitive they are just watching me. Even with the little things. I'm competitive with video games with the guys.
“But you have to have that to be a pro athlete. So it helps to come from a sporty background.”
Coetzee moved to Vancouver at age 4 and immediately took an interest in the country's main sport.
“That was when the Canucks had Pavel Bure and they went to the finals,” Coetzee said. “My parents would watch me use a pencil as a hockey stick and knock around a piece of paper.”
But Coetzee also loved soccer, the sport of his native South Africa. Coetzee was a goalie and played at the highest level in Vancouver. He also excelled at golf and had a 3 handicap when he was 16.
“But by that time my hockey coach said I had to decide,” Coetzee said. “You can be good at both, but you can't become a pro at both.”
At 17, Coetzee began playing for a team in the Western Hockey League located in Alberta called the Red Deer Rebels. In his first full season he recorded 42 points (18 goals and 24 assists) in 72 games in 2008-09.
In September of 2009, the Detroit Red Wings signed Coetzee as a free agent to a three-year, entry-level contract.
“That gave me confidence, and I had a blow out year,” Coetzee said. “I believed I was a good player.”
Coetzee racked up 81 points in 72 games for Red Deer in 2009-10. He scored 29 goals and had 52 assists.
“I had a great year and that was a big stepping stone,” he said.
At then end of the 2010 season, Coetzee made his pro debut with Toledo's American Hockey League affiliate in Grand Rapids. He split the next season between Toledo and Grand Rapids. With the Walleye, Coetzee had nine goals and 11 assists in 36 games.
Coetzee, who is 5-10 and 180 pounds, spent all of last season in the AHL with the Griffins. He had 22 points (11 goals and 11 assists) in 61 games.
Coetzee was in Grand Rapids' training camp but was assigned back to Toledo just prior to the start of the season.
“Every year in pro hockey has been a learning curve,” he said. “It's not exactly what I wanted so far. Everyone wants to stay up there and then make it to the NHL. I'm still trying to do that. I know what kind of player I am and I can compete for a spot.”
Coetzee backed up such lofty ambitions with an incredible goal against Wheeling last Saturday. He displayed his soft hands and play making abilities when he slickly made his way around a Nailer defender and finished it with a nice deke to beat the goalie. Toledo when on to win 5-3.
“That was a highlight reel goal,” Walleye coach Nick Vitucci said. “That was a beautiful goal.”
The Walleye (6-6-1) are off to an inconsistent start. The team has had three, two-game wining streaks. But they've also had a four game losing streak. Toledo is 3-4-0 at home and now is in fourth place in the five-team North Division.
“We've been up and down,” Coetzee said. “But it's been an adjustment period with our lines [changing]. I think maybe the guys are trying to do too much, including myself. I think we'll start opening up eyes. We're eager to go out there and prove that we're good.”
The Walleye travel to Fort Wayne for the first time this season on Friday. The Walleye have lost two meetings with the Komets (7-3-1) this year. Toledo returns home on Saturday night to host Wheeling (3-6-3). The Walleye are 2-0-1 against the Nailers this year.
Coetzee said while his ambitions are to get called back up as soon as possible, he has enjoyed every minute in Toledo.
“I've felt at home here with the players and the staff,” he said. “The people here are so gracious and they really enjoy watching us.”
FISH TALES: At Saturday's game, former Detroit Red Wings enforcer Joey Kocur will be signing free autographs during the first intermission. Tickets to a VIP pregame buffet dinner with Kocur also available. Call 419-724-WALL for more info. … Olympic silver medalist and Rogers graduate Erik Kynard will be dropping the game puck. … Fans donated 700 pounds of food last weekend that will go toward helping the victims of the East Coast storms. … A total of $17,000 was raised from a jersey auction on Saturday. The money was donated to Wounded Warriors & Heroes In Action. Kyle Rogers' jersey sold for $4,000.
Contact Mark Monroe at: firstname.lastname@example.org, 419-724-6354 or on Twitter @MonroeBlade.