Vitucci wants to bring ECHL championship to ToledoWritten by Mike Bauman | | firstname.lastname@example.org
When Nick Vitucci decided to leave the Toledo Storm at the conclusion of the 1997-98 season to join the Greenville Grrrowl it wasn’t because he didn’t like the rowdy atmosphere of the Toledo Sports Arena and the boisterous fan base that loudly cheered on him and his teammates.
Vitucci headed to Greenville because he was given the opportunity to join the Grrrowl’s coaching staff and learn from his former coach John Marks. Vitucci played for Marks in 1995-96 as a member of a Charlotte Checkers squad. It was a team that won the ECHL Championship and saw Vitucci take home that year’s postseason Most Valuable Player Award.
“It was a great opportunity because John was a tremendous teacher and somebody that I respect as much as anybody in the hockey world,” Vitucci said. “Because of him and what I was able to learn from him, it really prepared me to be a head coach.”
Five years later, Vitucci finally got that opportunity. While in Greenville, the franchise was struggling to hang on and inevitably eliminated Vitucci’s position when they cut costs. Ironically, that coincided with Mark Bernard leaving his assistant coach position with the Storm to become the head coach of the Rockford IceHogs in the United Hockey League, opening up a spot for Vitucci to return to Toledo as an assistant.
After the Storm got off to a rocky start that season, the reins were handed over to Vitucci as interim head coach, and he’s been the leader on the bench in T-Town ever since.
“Now, that gave me a great opportunity to come back to an area and to a team and a franchise that I had success with playing for, had a great experience playing for and now the ownership and the management group at that time had faith in me in naming me a head coach,” Vitucci said. “I’m forever grateful for them. I’ve really been able to mature as a person, as well as a coach, because of that opportunity that I got.”
In Vitucci’s last season playing with the Storm, 1997-98, he was named East Coast Hockey League Goaltender of the Year and First-Team All-ECHL after winning 27 games with a goals against average of 2.76 and a save percentage of .918.
The success Vitucci had as a player in the ECHL parlayed into his new role as a head coach as he compiled a 140-104-18 overall record with the Storm, winning ECHL Coach of the Year honors in 2004-05.
Vitucci’s calm, cool and collected demeanor on the bench is a style all his own, one that he’s crafted over time and one that’s been received well by his players, including in his first year with the Walleye. In the franchise’s 2009-10 inaugural season, Vitucci guided a relatively young group playing together for the first time to a 35-30-0-7 overall record and a trip to the first round of the ECHL playoffs.
“I was fortunate that I had a great teacher and mentor in John Marks to prepare me to be a head coach,” Vitucci said. “John is somebody that I’ve learned a lot from in how I wanted to be once I got to be a head coach. [That]was somebody who can sort of walk that fine line of being a friend and patting a guy on the back, but also being a coach and kicking somebody in the rear when they need it. I never wanted to be that kind of coach who just screamed and hollered all the time.
“I’d like to think that I’m a fair coach and a coach who’s a good teacher, but also fair to the players.”
This year, Vitucci wants to put together a team of tough, self-motivated players who work hard night in and night out and take just as much pride in playing good defense as they do in scoring. He had players like that last season, citing center Scooter Smith, left wing Mike Hedden and right wings Adam Keefe and Evan Rankin as blue collar guys who turned it up a notch and played their best hockey when things got tougher and more physical. Those are the type of players he wants on his team this season.
“Those are the kind of players that I tried recruiting this year. I feel I’ve done a good job of signing this year,” Vitucci said. “Toledo’s been known for tough hockey. We’re going to be just a good, solid, hard-working, tough hockey club that’s going to surprise a lot of teams this year.”
And even though Vitucci has won an ECHL-record five championships with four as a player and one as an assistant coach, there’s still one more title he’d love to add to that list.
“Obviously, I’ve never won one as a head coach, and that’s something that I desperately want to do, but not just for myself,” Vitucci said. “I want to be that coach looking at his players celebrating and tears in their eyes, and how 20 people came together through eight months and achieved a common goal.
“To bring a championship back to this great hockey city that’s won so many of them over the years, but also give the Walleye their first championship as well, that would be a great experience to be part of that. But there’s a lot of people that would also be a big part of that, that I would just be one of many.”