By Len Bardsley
The Times of Trenton
Nick Vitucci proved early in his career he could adapt and make the most of a difficult situation, so it should come as no surprise that the best goalie in ECHL history has settled in nicely in his first head coaching job in Toledo.
It was nearly a year ago when Vitucci was named the Storm’s interim head coach, taking over for Steve Harrison after the Titans dominated the Storm 6-1 on Dec. 19, 2003.
The Titans are back in Toledo this weekend, but instead of facing a reeling team, the Storm under Vitucci are in the thick of things in the North Division in a tie for fourth place, but only two points behind the second-place Titans.
Vitucci made the most of last season despite the Storm’s disappointing 23-38-11 record. Vitucci was behind one of the biggest trades of the season with the Storm out of contention, sending Nick Parillo and Alexandre Jacques to Atlantic City for Danny Eberly and John Longo and future considerations.
Those futures included Sam Paolini and Pierre-Luc Sleigher, forming the foundation for a competitive team this season.
“It has been an easy transition after last season,” said Vitucci. “Things could only go up. I have been through the worst part of it having to endure a season like last year. It was not any fun. I did have free reign which was a nice thing. I made a lot of late season trades and I was able to play a lot of guys and see how they would fit.”
Vitucci loves coaching in Toledo where he spent three seasons during his storied playing career which included four championships and 265 wins, tops in league history.
Vitucci can’t get enough of coaching the charged atmosphere of Toledo Sports Arena, one of the oldest and grittier rinks in the league, with a rabid fan following.
“I love it,” said Vitucci. “I do. If there is not pressure the rewards are not that strong. Maybe it comes from being a goalie. I love the pressure.”
Vitucci never imagined he still would be involved in the ECHL after his humble start. Vitucci was one of several goalies who tried out for the Johnstown Chiefs during the inaugural season of the ECHL in 1988-89. Vitucci and Toby O’Brien (now the coach of the Chiefs) didn’t make the cut.
Vitucci stopped in Erie to see if he could play for another ECHL team on his way home to Welland, Ontario. Erie couldn’t make room on its roster for a 21-year-old goalie with marginal numbers in the Ontario Hockey League so Vitucci waited at home for an opportunity.
Vitucci got his chance when O’Brien injured his knee with the Carolina Thunderbirds.
Vitucci made the most of his opportunity, helping Carolina win the first ECHL championship (then the Riley Cup), defeating Erie and Johnstown on the way. Vitucci would win three more championships, with Greensboro (1990), Toledo (1994) and Charlotte (1996).
Vitucci started to think about coaching while playing for John Marks in Charlotte, when Marks started a team in Greenville and asked if Vitucci wanted to work as a player-assistant coach he jumped at the chance.
“It was one of those things he slid into,” said Marks, who recently won his 200th ECHL game with the Grrrowl. “His career was winding down and he wanted to stay in the game. As a head coach you need an assistant you can trust. I was very comfortable with Nick and he knew he needed some time. We felt it was a natural fit to step out of the net and start learning the ropes and he has adapted very well.”
It was in Greenville where Vitucci experienced his first championship from behind the bench when the Grrrowl defeated Dayton to win the Kelly Cup in 2002.
“It is different,” said Vitucci of winning as a player or winning as a coach. “It is like being a father and being proud of your son or daughter doing something you had a hand in. It is just as satisfying.”
Vitucci is amazed at the changes in the ECHL since he made his debut in the fledging league.
“I remember the broken buses and some scary nights on and off the ice,” said Vitucci. “I never dreamed this league would become as professional as it has been. It is a tribute to the owner and general managers, making it a competitive and classy league where the NHL is comfortable bringing its developing players.”
Vitucci has enjoyed being involved in the ECHL from day one and watching the league evolve, but he admits there are times he yearns for the early days when a player is willing to do anything to just play the game.
“Part of the reason why players from the early years are coaches is because we love the game and would do it all again,” said Vitucci. “Back then, we were just happy for a place to play and money was secondary. We were the lowest level of pro hockey, there was no where else to play.”