On the Job: Off-ice action keeps Walleye games smooth for fansWritten by Brian Malkowski | | firstname.lastname@example.org
Editor’s Note: Reporter Brian Malkowski will spend shifts at various Toledo workplaces to offer insight into the people who work some of the area’s most interesting jobs.
Recently, two magazines named The Huntington Center one of America’s top venues. Pollstar.com named the arena one the top 100 worldwide venues and Venues Today ranked the arena 11th on its list for arenas with 5,000 to 10,000 seats. Since its opening, the $105 million, 8,000-plus-seat arena has attracted national touring concerts, family shows and sporting events. Its main sporting event, hockey, is facilitated by the ECHL’s Toledo Walleye, General Manager Joe Napoli and head coach Nick Vitucci.
Napoli, GM of the Walleye and Mud Hens, has one of Toledo’s toughest jobs — selling sports entertainment to a city laboring under a 10 percent unemployment rate. I asked Napoli how Toledo hockey fans have adapted to the Walleye and the new arena.
“Toledo hockey fans have enthusiastically embraced the Walleye,” he said. “The Walleye are among the league leaders in season ticket sales and merchandise sales again this year. Scarborough Research also placed Toledo as one of the top five markets in America for avid minor league hockey fans.”
Head coach Nick Vitucci is no stranger to hockey. Having decided to put down his plumber’s wrench for a goalie’s stick, he has been involved with the ECHL since its inception. Playing 14 seasons as a goalie and being inducted into the ECHL Hall of Fame’s inaugural class, Vitucci decided that coaching would be his next challenge. He started as head coach in 2003 with The Toledo Storm and after two-year hiatus remained Toledo’s Head coach with the Walleye.
So what’s it like to be the head coach of The Walleye? I spent a day with Vitucci to find out.
I met Vitucci on a 9 a.m. Saturday gameday morning in his office at the Huntington Center. With a bagel and coffee he sat and watched video of the game the Walleye won the night before on his laptop. Using STEVA software, he cut clips from the game to show players what he’d seen. Around 10 a.m., players hit the ice for their skatearound while the coach gave me a tour of the locker room.
The locker room was designed to keep the trainer’s room and equipment room up front and the player’s lounge and stalls in the back. This keeps any activity or commotion away from Vitucci while he talks to his players. The coach’s office is located in the middle with a TV, computers and a couch. After the tour, the coach then walked me out on the ice. Surprisingly, it wasn’t as slippery as I expected.
During the skatearound, players wore white and blue jerseys while running drills. The forwards took shots and the defense defended the goal. The coach noticed everything on the ice, including the opposing coach off the ice scouting the team. After the skatearound, the coach headed back to the computer to tighten up loose ends.
The computer is loaded with payroll, free agents and scores of incoming emails. Common email requests for the coach include hockey players who want a try out for the Walleye. This is actually possible because for the past two years, the Walleye have offered a summer free agent camp. Anybody who thinks they have what it takes is given a whole weekend to prove it. Unfortunately, the past two camps have not been able to produce a signed player.
“It’s only a matter of time until we sign a walk-on,” Vitucci said.
Pulling all nighters at the rink and numerous days on the road is not easy on a family. Vitucci, married to wife Dawn, tries to be home as much as possible while raising their 10-year-old son Keegan. When the coach is home, the family watches movies or hockey on TV. Keegan has followed in his dad’s footsteps and is a goalie on his hockey team. He also plays baseball and enjoys fishing with his dad.
After the skatearound, the players and staff sign one of the camouflage jerseys being worn that night to be auctioned for charity. One of the Walleye’s own, Pvt. Aaron Bauer, who recently went active, will soon receive his personalized Walleye jersey from the team. Pvt. Bauer is an assistant equipment manager for the Walleye. Soon after the military is recognized, the national anthem is played and it is game time.
The game I watched, versus Elmira, almost went down in history before the first period was finished. Elmira scored six goals to Toledo’s one. When the Boyer horn blew signaling the end of the period, the coach left the ice and walked straight forward to the locker room. Vitucci challenged his players to work harder and believe they could come back.
“We have two periods left, so let’s peck away at it,” he said.
That must have worked because when the Walleye hit the ice to start the second period, the players were all business. Changing course, the Walleye ended the second period down 7-5. Still walking straight to the locker room, Vitucci told the players, “to keep the intensity and keep the belief.”
The third period started with three quick goals and with the last goal at 12:41 left in the third, the Walleye held on to win 8-7. The Walleye, who were once down 5-0, came back for an unbelievable win.
After the game, it was time for the Walleye players to auction off their military jerseys one by one. The Walleyes charities include Heroes in Action and Honor Flight. Heroes in Action of Toledo is a nonprofit that sends care packages to military personnel and helps aid their families while they are away during service. Honor Flight is a nonprofit that flies veterans from Northwest Ohio to Washington, D.C., to visit the memorials that built and dedicated for their service.
Behind the scenes
Spending the day with the Walleye, I saw all the behind-the-scenes activity, from players being counseled in the locker room to the Zamboni being cleaned. Toledo should be thankful for the $105 million venue located Downtown and the people who work there for the fans’ enjoyment.