The most upsetting aspect of the Walleye's year-long struggles for captain Kyle Rogers is the perception by some that the players aren't trying or working hard.
Rogers, who has played in more games for the Walleye than any other player, said nothing seems to have gone Toledo's way this season.
In his fourth season with the organization, Rogers said the Walleye (16-29-3) dug a huge hole when they started out the season 5-11-3.
“We have a young team and we tried to get everyone to gel and buy into the system, but at the beginning of the season everyone was just kind of lost,” he said. “Obviously it's a year we did not plan on having. We came into the year positive. Unfortunately the season took a swing on us.”
Few have questioned the veteran's commitment. Rogers played in 225 straight games in a Walleye uniform without missing a start before suffering an injury in late November. The 6-foot-3, 223-pound forward, who has been captain for three seasons, said the practices have been intense all season.
“It's frustrating because we all show up and work hard,” Rogers said. “We battle with each other. We hit each other hard. We push each others' buttons. We prepare for games. Sometimes the game just won't go your way.”
Rogers said the players and coaches take the criticism to heart.
“We try so hard to battle and then we hear the boos. It's part of the game. People can express their thoughts,” Rogers said. “It touches a button in you. You don't want the fans out there thinking we're not trying. Everyone on this team puts their heart out there.”
Rogers perhaps takes it harder than others because he said he considers Toledo a second home. He has raised his daughter Kendra, who is now 4, here with his wife, Emily.
Rogers has played in 256 games for the franchise. He moved past former Storm forward Andrew Williamson for fourth in most games played in a Toledo uniform. He is only behind legends Rick Judson (455), Robert Thorpe (364), and Nick Parillo (262), who all played for the Storm.
“That's huge to me,” Rogers said. “This city is so big into sports. They have the best venues. The fans are very passionate about Toledo hockey. They are diehards about their hockey. I love this organization. I care about the hockey here because of the feedback I get from fans. We're not having the best year and we are still selling out [games]. It gives me drive to care.”
The Walleye wrapped up a stretch of five games in seven days on Tuesday, including four on the road. Rogers, who is on injured reserved with a thigh bruise, could not make the latest road trip.
“It's the first road trip I've missed in four years and it's kind of boring,” Rogers said.
Rogers has missed a total of seven games this season, but hopes to return to the lineup on Friday when Toledo hosts Orlando.
Rogers said aside from the team's youth one of the biggest culprits for the team's struggles has been roster movement. He said he couldn't say for sure how many different forwards have played with him on his line this season.
“I can't tell you how many [player] transactions we've had this year, but it's been a lot more than last year,” he said. “We are a development league and we have two [American Hockey League] affiliations. It's just been hard to get the same guys on the same lines.”
Rogers said such roster turmoil and uncertainty affects chemistry.
“The game is one of fastest games out there and you have to know where your linemates should be,” he said. “You have to trust they will be there. When get a new guy on your line …. you hope he is there. It's a split second there and you have a guy on top of you. It's hard to gel with a new linemate in a morning skate. It's a challenge.”
Another problem has been the team's inability to put together a full 60 minute effort.
“It's all about preparation,” Rogers said. “The first period has been a struggle for us this year. You have to find a way to get involved early. Every player goes over the game plan. But we've been struggling to get our legs.”
Rogers said as the captain he does all he can to get his team pumped up.
“It's part of the challenge to get these guys motivated,” he said. “Everyone hits a speed bump in the road. It's about how you battle back.”
Rogers, 29, said he hopes to play one more season before considering retirement.
“I'd love to play here in this atmosphere one more year. I don't think I can put in another five years,” he said.
“It's taking a toll on my body and mentally. I want to stick around the city and find a role in the hockey world. I would be comfortable here.”