Walleye could look to Alaska’s ECHL success as a model


A party took place in Anchorage last week where the local ECHL team was honored by a boisterous crowd as the fans and players celebrated another championship.

The wait for a Cup and a similar celebration to come back to Toledo has now stretched to 20 years.

Rob Murray, the head coach of the Alaska Aces, said about 2,500 people took part in the event at Sullivan Arena. The Kelly Cup was hoisted in the air at the team's home rink just two days after the Aces clinched the ECHL title in Cincinnati.

“It was raucous,” Murray said. “It was really good and a lot of fun.”

The last time a pro hockey trophy was lifted in the air here was in 1994 when the Toledo Storm claimed the second of back-to-back Riley Cup titles.

Coming off a dismal 21-44-7 season, the Walleye have brought in a new coach with the hopes of capturing that elusive Cup.

Walleye officials can look to the Alaska ECHL franchise as a model. The Aces have won three Kelly Cup titles since 2006.

While the Walleye have missed the playoffs in three of their five seasons of existence, Alaska has never missed the postseason in its 11 years of existence.

Murray, a former NHL forward, is in his third year with the successful franchise. His teams have gone 137-52-26 in those three years for a .700 winning percentage.

“The expectations here are that we are going to win,” Murray said. “The fans expect you to win a Kelly Cup.”

Murray, whose 16-year playing career included 107 NHL games with Washington, Winnipeg, and Phoenix from 1989-99, is now a hot coaching commodity. His teams have finished with the best regular-season record in the ECHL in all three seasons. Two of the team's previous coaches are now assistants in the NHL.

The Walleye are hoping for similar things from their new young coach, Derek Lalonde. Team president and general manager Joe Napoli said he hopes Toledo also becomes a hotbed for future NHL coaches.

“We looked at his upside and saw he was on the fast track,” Napoli said. “We can become a coaches' factory. We would hope to have him about three years. But we're thinking that we would like to develop an assistant coach who would then take over.”

Murray said there is no magic dust to succeed at the ECHL level. He attributes the Aces' perennial success to a number of factors. Those include an ability to attract good, veteran players, bringing in high quality goaltenders, and a rabid fan base that demands championships.

“I think that one of the things is that we've been able to draw good veteran players here. Character guys,” he said. “In my tenure another one of the main things is having quality goaltending. At this level, you can't win without good goaltending.”

Alaska veteran goalie Gerald Coleman, a native of Evanston, Ill., had a 1.33 goals-against average in the playoffs. Coleman recorded four wins in the Kelly Cup finals, giving him eight career wins in championship series. That ties the all-time record for most wins in the finals which was set by Dave Gagnon, who led the Storm to the Cup in 1994.

“We've had Gerald Coleman for three years and he is as good as you will ever find in this league,” Murray said. “He could play in [the American Hockey League], but he decided to make a life for himself in Anchorage.”

Murray said recruiting players to come to the farthest reaches of the West Coast is challenging.

“A lot of those guys are hard to convince to get here. It's a scary thought going to Alaska. Going so far away from home. But once they do, they realize how great it is. They want to come back,” Murray said.

Hockey hotbed

It helps that hockey is the only game in town. Murray said while cities like Toledo have other college and professional sports to compete with hockey, the sport enjoys the sole spotlight in Anchorage.

“It's similar to a small Canadian town,” Murray said. “You get that push for hockey. There is no basketball or football to speak of. Hockey is all. That's the focus here. People gravitate to it. They love the Aces.”

Yet, a total of 1,129,697 spectators have attended Toledo Walleye games since the team's inaugural season in 2009. The team also plays in perhaps the best venue in the ECHL, Huntington Center.

An average crowd of 6,022 attended Walleye games last season in the 7,431-seat downtown arena, which was fourth highest in the league. Alaska ranked 12th with 4,619 at Sullivan Arena, which seats 6,399.

While Walleye games remain a social outing and an evening of entertainment for many, Murray said the emphasis in Alaska is the product on the ice. He said success breeds success.

“We have rabid support. That is one of the things that makes it a bit different here,” Murray said. “It's a pressure situation as a coach. The fans expect that the team is going to win year after year. Expectations are always high here. In my first press conference I was told the fans are expecting a Kelly Cup.”

In his initial press conference last month as the new Walleye coach, Lalonde said he hoped to “build a culture of success.” Lalonde also expressed a goal of finding the balance between development and winning.

Murray said he has implemented a similar philosophy.

“I want my players to advance,” Murphy said. “The young guys here in the ECHL, you want the best for them. It's a feather in your cap when you see a guy you brought in as a free agent and see them advance. That happens a lot here.”

Roster movement

Roster instability with call ups to the higher level has been cited as the main source of Toledo's struggles.

The team has had dual NHL affiliations with the Detroit Red Wings and Chicago Blackhawks for five seasons and the Walleye's record in the span is 154-171-35 for a winning percentage of .467. The team dropped its affiliation with Chicago at the end of last season to avoid so much roster shuffling.

Murray's Aces are affiliated with only the Calgary Flames and their former AHL affiliate in Abbotsford, British Columbia. He said the association has been beneficial.

“It may have been the perfect storm because Calgary had a glut of players up [in Abbotsford],” Murphy said. “They were huge contributors for us. We had a ton of call ups and players were up and down. But overall our core players under ECHL contracts made the difference.”

He said another hurdle is dealing with the ECHL's $12,000 per week salary cap.

“That's a huge thing you're always battling,” he said. “You're looking to bring in key players and looking for more money. So you have to cut guys that have been big parts of the team to fit under the salary cap.”

He said the signature characteristic with this season's title team was selflessness.

“At the end of the day, everyone accepted their roles and checked egos at the door,” he said.

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

Toledo Walleye at a glance

Five-year record: 154-171-35 (.467)

2013-14: 21-44-7 (.340) record for 49 points (last in the ECHL North Division; last in Eastern Conference)

2012-13: 37-26-9 (.576) record for 83 points (2nd in North, 7th Eastern Conference) *qualified for playoffs; lost in first round to Cincinnati (4 games to 2)

2011-12: 28-38-6 (.431) record for 62 points (4th in North Division; 11th in Eastern Conference) *did not make playoffs

2010-11: 33-33-6 (.500) record for 72 points (4th in North Division; 9th in Eastern Conference) *did not make playoffs

2009-10: 35-30-7 (.535) record for 77 points (3rd in the North Division; 8th in American Conference) *qualified for playoffs; lost in first round to Charlotte (3-1)