Vitucci has young Walleye poised for playoffsWritten by Chris Schmidbauer | | firstname.lastname@example.org
Toledo Walleye head coach Nick Vitucci had one goal entering the 2009-2010 hockey season.
“Right from the first day, I have said the benchmark for a successful season for this team is to make the playoffs,” Vitucci said.
Some might have thought that was a lofty goal for a first year expansion team that was rebuilding its roster. But Vitucci has never been known to shy away from his vision.
“Getting to the playoffs is a challenge,” Vitucci said. “But I knew that coming in. I think we have done a nice job of building a core of talent that can help us be successful on the ice.”
Perhaps this season’s success has just as much to do with the man behind the bench for the Walleye, as well. Vitucci has been Toledo’s hockey czar since he took over the head coaching position with the now defunct Toledo Storm during the 2003-2004 season.
In the midst of a losing campaign that season, the Storm fired then head coach Steve Harrison and replaced him with Vitucci. While it was exciting for the Welland, Ontario native to get his first crack as a head coach, Vitucci knew it was going to be a challenge as well.
“Anytime a coach is replaced midseason like that, it means things are not going well by any means,” he said. “I was an assistant at the time so I was probably just as much to blame for the performance as anybody. So I had to look for new ways to help the team improve that year.”
Vitucci’s first opportunity to be a head coach was also bittersweet because it came at the expense of a good friend.
“It was a very confusing time for me,” he said. “Steve (Harrison) is a good hockey coach and a good friend of mine. It was tough to see him go.”
The tough times did not last though, as Vitucci led the Storm to three consecutive Riley Cup playoff appearances from 2004-2007.
Just as the Storm seemed to be reclaiming its place at the top of the ECHL, the franchise was bought by Toledo Arena Sports Inc., the group that owns the Mud Hens. The team suspended operations until the completion of the Lucas County Arena, which meant Vitucci was out of a job.
“I was certainly concerned initially because the future was uncertain for me,” Vitucci said. “I met with Joe Napoli from the Mud Hens and Michael Miller from Lucas County, and I expressed my desire to join the new franchise. I was very excited and relieved when they offered me the head coaching position.”
That was when the real work began for Vitucci and the Walleye organization. Since the franchise ceased operation, much of that hockey talent that had assembled in the Glass City had gone elsewhere. But now just five months into the franchise’s freshman season on the ice, Vitucci and the Walleye are in the hunt for the Riley Cup playoffs and on the doorstep of completing the goal that was set for the franchise prior to the start of the season.
“This team is talented enough to make a run, and I feel good about where we are at as a team right now,” Vitucci said. “It’s been a nice success so far to see the community come out and create such a great atmosphere, but the competitor in me still wants that playoff berth.”