Walleye head coach Nick Vitucci, center, addressed the media Tuesday alongside assistant coach Dan Watson, left, and Walleye president and general manager Joe Napoli, right, in the Walleye locker room at the Huntington Center in Toledo. Vitucci announced his resignation. Watson will be taking over as head coach for the remainder of the team's season.
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Beneath a quiet and reserved facade, an underlying fire fuels the Walleye’s new interim coach.
■ Age: 34
■ Birthplace: Glencoe, Ont.
■ Experience: Former Toledo Storm defenseman began his fifth season as an assistant for Nick Vitucci, handling the defense. In May, 2000, Dan signed as free agent with the Columbus Blue Jackets. He played seven professional seasons in the AHL, UHL, and ECHL. He played in 447 games and had 23 goals, 66 assists, and 394 penalty minutes. He was Vitucci's assistant captain in the Storm's final season (2006-07). Watson was named the 2004-05 ECHL defensive player of the year with the Long Beach Ice Dogs and was team captain in Long Beach in 2004-05 and 2005-06 seasons. His favorite player growing up was defenseman Ray Bourque.
Longtime assistant coach Dan Watson has taken over the reins of Toledo’s ECHL hockey team. Watson will lead his new players with a stern and demanding demeanor over the remaining 21 games of the season.
Watson, who will turn 35 on March 12, was named the interim coach after Nick Vitucci resigned on Tuesday with the team floundering in last place. Toledo (16-31-4) has lost a franchise-record eight straight games.
Watson, who has handled the defense for Vitucci since the organization’s inaugural season in 2009-10, said he hopes the change will provide an instant jolt of energy.
“And then we will try to sustain that for the remaining 21 games,” he said. “I’m coaching for my job for next year, and there are players here that are still playing for a job next year. We won’t take it easy. We will all show what we are worth.”
Watson said he will provide “a different voice” and will employ new systems and shake up line combinations.
“I want to provide passion for the players,” Watson said. “I am going to try to get these guys to buy into what I’m all about. It will be a little different philosophy.”
Walleye president and general manager Joe Napoli said Watson will get every opportunity to prove himself.
“Nothing would give us greater pleasure than for Dan to have a great run this month,” Napoli said.
But Napoli also said that the organization will take a look at the
head coaching position after the season in the hopes of turning it into “a platform of success.” He said it took less than an hour after Vitucci stepped down for interest in the position to heat up.
“I already have resumes floating into my email box and phone calls coming in. This is a highly desirable position in the ECHL,” he said.
Watson played seven professional seasons as a defenseman in the AHL, UHL, and ECHL. Watson was an assistant captain under Vitucci in the last season of the Storm. He said he has learned a lot from Vitucci.
“I’ve learned how to deal with people and being a people person,” Watson said. “Being professional every single day even when times are tough. The amount of respect and passion he has for hockey has leaked over into my blood from him. I can’t thank him enough for the opportunity he gave me.”
Vitucci said Watson has a great hockey mind.
“He does more work in his role than any other assistant in the league,” Vitucci said. “He studies our team, he studies the game, and the NHL. This is a great opportunity for him. It will be a 21-game learning experience for him — to see how he handles the media, the referees, and the good and bad in the locker room.”
Napoli said there are a lot of pluses in the timing.
“You create your own success out of adversity,” he said. “It only makes you stronger. We will use this as a catalyst. We are too good at everything else to fail on a consistent basis on the ice. When we look back on the history of the franchise, we will look at this as a blip on the radar.”
Walleye captain Kyle Rogers said Watson has the respect of the players.
“He’s been working really hard the last five years,” Rogers said. “He’s always in the room writing up notes on the board. He harps on video for teaching points. He has always been involved on the bench. He’s fired up, and he wants to win. He will get on guys.”
Watson said an immediate goal is to give up fewer goals.
The Walleye are averaging a league-worst 3.84 goals-against per game.
“I was a defenseman, and we will be a defensive team,” he said. “I want to be a tough team to play against. That is what I will demand out of the 21 guys here.”
Watson said it has been his dream to be a head coach since retiring in 2007.
“Some coaches are content with being just an assistant. But not me,” Watson said. “I want to be a head coach. I’m going to dive headfirst into this. I will show the organization and players for a 21-game tryout here what I’m all about.”