Coach Vitucci familiar with miracles on iceWritten by Dave Woolford | | firstname.lastname@example.org
We were sitting over a couple cups of Joe and I said to Nick, “Nick, in 875,000 words or less, what goes into starting a hockey franchise from scratch?”
He doesn’t hesitate.
“Caffeine,” he said, sliding his cup my way for emphasis. “A lot of caffeine.”
Nick Vitucci is the stimulant that will make Toledo’s return to the ECHL this year succeed after hockey left town for two years to recoup, regroup and kill time until the soon-to-be unveiled Lucas County Sports Arena could stand on its own.
Vitucci’s specific “Joe” is Joe Napoli, president and general manager of the Toledo Walleye and the Toledo Mud Hens. He had the foresight and intuition to make sure that the high-spirited and hard-working Vitucci, the former Toledo Storm coach, would stick around to re-energize hockey in Toledo.
Vitucci maintained that the entire process wouldn’t be possible without the professional organization behind him and the positioning of the right people in the right areas.
Now, with the management team and all of its patronage in place, all Vitucci has to do is sit back, wait for players to arrive, pick 18 and contend for an ECHL title.
And if you believe that, you’re childish well beyond your years.
During the past two years, Vitucci has attended about 200 hockey games. He has a scouting staff of six people who have seen another few hundred, bringing the total to about 500 games per year seen by both Vitucci and his staff as they search every frozen nook, cranny and hockey haunt for the perfect, unequaled, ultimate Walleye.
Once Vitucci has the prospect’s attention, there’s the dickering with his agent, the gathering of background information from his former coach and the cajoling of his mother, for starters.
Then, we’ve got to make arrangements to get the prospect here for a tryout. What about immigration? Vitucci, take care of all of that, get him signed to a contract and don’t forget the salary cap.
And what about the budget, scheduling bus travel, player per diem when on the road, hotels, equipment pickup and drop off, and where did Pierre leave his cell phone? Nick, check into all of that.
And then there are the phone calls. No cauliflower ears yet, but Vitucci is working on it when you consider that during an eight-hour day in his office, he’s on the phone six hours, by his own estimate, followed by another two hours on the horn at home each night.
Let’s not forget about our NHL affiliations with the Detroit Red Wings and Chicago Blackhawks. Vitucci has to keep in constant contact with them, so he has a idea of how many players they’re going to send to his main training camp starting Oct. 2.
And there’s always the task of pinpointing players who might be worthy of sending up to the NHL affiliate’s training camps in an effort to impress Big Brother, which is always a concern.
Vitucci recently invited 60 sort of, off-the-street players to a two-day mini-camp where he sifted through the goods in pursuit of one or two morsels of hockey talent.
Actually, Vitucci and his staff discovered eight or nine players who they might invite to their regular training camp. Vitucci hopes to have about 40 players in camp, which is more than a lot of ECHL coaches care to deal with.
“I would like to have 40 in camp because I would like to have a brand-new team to have good competition right from the get-go,” he said. “I want people looking over their shoulders saying, ‘Wow. There’s six other left wingers here. I’ve really got to step up my game if I want to make this club.’”
There will be four exhibition games in four consecutive nights starting Oct. 8 with mix-and-match lineups involving all 40 players. Who’s going to handle all of that, including the logistics? Hey, Nick. Got a minute?
“There’s been so many coaches from our level that have advanced to the NHL and American Hockey League in different capacities other than coaching because those leagues recognize that these people at our level work hard, there’s a lot on their plate and they can multitask. Once you get up to the NHL it’s, ‘Here’s your team. Go coach.’” Vitucci said. “Coaches at that level don’t have to do any of these other things. At our level, there’s so much more that goes into it.
“I’ve learned you have to turn it off for an hour or so. You’ve really got to be in the right frame of mind as well. If you’ve got an interview and there’s a million things on your mind, like mowing the lawn or getting an oil change, I’m sure it becomes hard to really get into asking the right questions. To me a lot of that applies to recruiting. You’ve got to be ready to go, to be sharp. Which reminds me, I’ve got to brush the dog. She’s shedding all over everything.”
So I said to Nick, exhausted from just listening to him describe his countless duties, “Nick, do you suppose I could walk into the new Lucas County Arena and grab a quick peek?”
Vitucci was on his feet immediately. He’s ready to turn it off for an hour or so and do a personal tour, something that stimulates his enthusiasm even more. It’s as if he’s also seeing it for the first time as we tour every level of this extraordinary hockey emporium.
Vitucci pointed out all the amenities, how it helps recruiting, how it impresses the NHL affiliates and most importantly the size of the ice surface. It’s regulation size, 200-feet-by-85-feet, something Toledo hockey fans have never seen here.
What a great home-ice advantage the old, undersized sports arena ice surface was when all our hulking hitters on defense stalked the visiting forwards, luring them into the corners for loose pucks and then wrinkling them like an old towel accidentally left in the washer.
But Vitucci was quick to point out that the same style was a big detriment on the road where the rinks were bigger, the players faster and the inclination for goon and doom not as prevalent.
The Sports Arena’s stunted ice surface also deterred NHL affiliates from stocking Toledo with quality prospects because developmental players couldn’t play the same style that’s required of them at all the higher levels.
Speaking of size, the dimensions of the Walleye dressing room and, yes, even the ancillary dressing room, are extremely impressive when compared to the broom closet that served as the dressing room in the Sports Arena. Let’s just say that the new trainer’s room is just as big as the old sports arena dressing room.
As we took off our hardhats, glow-red vests and goggles (you’re welcome, OSHA), Vitucci proudly proclaimed, “That’s our barn.”
And that’s our coach, someone Toledo hockey fans should already know is definitely the best man for the job. Make that jobs — lots and lots of jobs.