Walleye could be in store for a big seasonWritten by Chris Schmidbauer | | email@example.com
When you think about it, what the Toledo Walleye did last year was pretty amazing.
In its first year of existence, the Walleye, weathered through call ups and injuries, made the ECHL playoffs. Granted, there were only five teams in the league that didn’t make the playoffs last season, but considering other disastrous first years for new franchises, it is impressive.
There are plenty of horror stories of newly minted professional sports franchises having ghastly first seasons in their leagues.
Baseball’s Tampa Bay Rays lost 99 games in its first season in the major leagues. The “new” Cleveland Browns lost its first seven games in 1999, en route to an ugly 2-14 record. To give you a hockey comparison, the NHL’s Atlanta Thrashers finished with a record of 14-61-7 during its freshman campaign.
I would say the Walleye did all right.
Now you might say that a minor league hockey team doesn’t carry the same weight and responsibilities of a major professional sport. That is correct, but it is actually more.
Walleye head coach Nick Vitucci spent the better part of a year and a half crisscrossing this country scouting hockey players. For Vitucci, he handled all the player recruitment and development. In fact, Vitucci pretty much handles any and all of the personnel decisions for the Walleye.
I can’t imagine sitting in dank, dimly lit hockey rinks hoping to spot a talent or a diamond in the rough. But Vitucci did, and he was quite successful at it, too.
At one point during the early part of last season, the Walleye were the hottest team in the ECHL. Well, it was until American Hockey League (AHL) affiliates Grand Rapids and Rockford came calling.
Call ups decimated this team and the team was left to fend for itself. Then throw in the serious and nagging injuries that seem to dog a hockey team and the accomplishments of last year’s team becomes more impressive.
Last season’s success did more than just give the team an accomplishment, it also established the groundwork for this season as well.
Toledo is an established name in the minor league hockey circuit. The Glass City has a proud lineage when it comes to hockey, and the city is nuts about the sport.
When you look at this season’s roster, there will undoubtedly be some familiar names. Evan Rankin, Joe Charlebois, Adam Keefe, Ryan Stokes, and Scooter Smith are just a few of the fan favorites who will be back on the ice at the Huntington Center this season.
While the goaltender situation is still an unknown, that has not stopped this team from talking about making the playoffs again and competing for the Kelly Cup. The major players in the locker room have repeatedly said that they were not happy with just making the playoffs.
History might be on their side, too.
It is amazing the similarities between the Walleye and the now-defunct Toledo Storm. Die-hard fans might remember that the Storm made the playoffs in its first season of play, and the team also lost in the first round of the playoffs.
The Storm’s sophomore campaign brought the first of back-to-back ECHL championships to Toledo, and the teams have one more thing in common as well. Nick Vitucci was a part of the 1993-1994 Storm that won it all that season.
It brings me back to my original point. The Walleye’s successful debut was a smashing success, all things considered.
The Toledo Walleye’s second season might be shaping up to be the perfect encore as well.
Chris Schmidbauer is sports editor for Toledo Free Press and Toledo Free Press Star. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. He is also the co-host of the “Odd Couple Sports Show” on Fox Sports Radio 1230 WCWA and can be heard every weekday from at 10 a.m. to noon. He can also be seen weekly on the “Friday Night Frenzy Tailgate Show” on NBC 24.