By Mark Monroe
The Toledo Blade
TOLEDO, Ohio – Nick Vitucci hoisted a Cup as a young goaltender the last time one was celebrated in Toledo a decade ago, and he would like nothing more than to bring one back as a coach.
Vitucci returns behind the Storm bench for his second full season fresh off of earning ECHL coach of the year honors.
Vitucci was part of the Storm’s 1994 Riley Cup championship team and served as the team’s goaltender from 1993-95. He coached Toledo to a 41-26-5 record and a berth in the Kelly Cup playoffs last season.
“It was nuts when we won it here. There was a parade. It was crazy,” said Vitucci, whose Storm begins its quest for another title tomorrow night with the season opener at the Sports Arena against Dayton.
“It was something I’ll never forget,” he said. “This city rallies around a champion. You saw it with what the Mud Hens did. It would be unbelievable to carry a Cup in the Sports Arena.”
Vitucci, 38, was named interim coach in December, 2003, then led Toledo to a 30-point improvement last year as coach. The Storm reached the postseason semifinals, but lost 3-1 to Reading.
Vitucci has been a member of five championship teams during his career, including one as an assistant coach.
“I’ve learned lessons from each one. You look for character and chemistry,” he said. “When I won as an assistant in Greenville, I was more like a proud father. I’d helped put the team together and nurture it and watch it grow.
“They were all equally rewarding. I’d love for every player from this team to be able to enjoy a championship.”
Vitucci has brought back seven core members from last year’s team.
Only two days ago, Vitucci received perhaps the biggest returnee in goaltender Logan Koopmans, who had a 12-10-1 record with Toledo last season while posting a 2.82 goals-against average and a .906 save percentage.
“Koops is a very good goaltender,” Vitucci said. “Last year he was very good for us on an interim basis. We’re hoping he starts 50 to 55 games for us this year.”
Forward Todd Jackson also was a late addition to the 20-man roster. Last year Jackson scored 25 points in his 35 contests with the Storm.
“He has incredible talent and great speed,” Vitucci said.
Vitucci also is excited about the return of forwards Scooter Smith, Mike James and Rob Snowball.
He said Smith had an incredible training camp and should have a productive year. Vitucci said James is not only an agitator, he also is very skilled. Snowball, the team’s tough guy, is more focused and has a stronger work ethic, according to Vitucci.
Two defenseman also return. Vitucci said Jason Maleyko is a vocal leader and a hard competitor, while P.J. Martin is a quiet leader who takes care of business.
“All of those seven guys love it in Toledo,” Vitucci said. “They love the atmosphere in the Sports Arena and they love the fans. It’s a credit to the community that they want to come back and perform here.”
Vitucci said his top newcomers include defensemen Jeff Lang, Gerry Burke, Josh Zavitz, and forwards Ryan Gale, Ken Magowan, Brad Bonello and Bracken Kearns.
Veterans B.J. Adams (defenseman) and Mark Turner (center) also are expected to lead and be productive, according to Vitucci.
Five college players will make their pro debuts with Toledo.
Vitucci said he was pleased with his team’s goals-against average and penalty kill unit last season. His team yielded 2.69 goals per game which was 11th best in the 28-team league. The penalty kill was ranked seventh in the ECHL at 86.1 percent.
However, Toledo was 18th in goals scored per game at 2.82. The power play converted only 16.1 percent of the time, which was 16th in the league.
Toledo moves to the ECHL’s American Conference but remains in the North Division to face traditional foes Dayton, Johnstown, Reading, Trenton and Wheeling. The Storm takes on Dayton tomorrow in the first of 13 games between the Ohio adversaries. Toledo will face Johnstown, Reading and Trenton 12 times this season.
“I like that you play a lot of the same teams because you build up very good rivalries and grudges,” Vitucci said.
The Storm gets an early advantage as it plays 14 of its first 20 games at the Sports Arena.
“Hopefully, all of those home games will get us off to a good start,” Vitucci said. “The building is so small, it’s tough for teams to adjust. The crowd is very vocal. I hope that will give us an edge.”
The smaller ice surface also leads to close, tight-checking contests which suits Vitucci, who considers himself a defensive-minded coach.
“I concentrate on the d-zone coverage,” he said. “It’s like football. Good defense wins you games and championships.”
Vitucci will leave the offensive side of the ice to new assistant coach Stan Drulia, who played forward in 126 games in the NHL. Drulia was the head coach of the ECHL’s Augusta Lynx last season and his team had the best power play in the league at 20.4 percent.
“We’ve been working together and I’ve learned a lot from Stan,” Vitucci said.
“Stan adds a completely different outlook.”
Vitucci said neither coach is “set in their ways” and he pointed out that Drulia has been a head coach for three years. The “co-head coaches” also let the players provide ideas, as well.
“This is our team,” he said. “We all need to be together if we want to get where we want to be.”
Vitucci said he is relieved that the Storm is actually playing this season. The organization nearly had to suspend operations last spring due to increased costs and dwindling attendance. But a successful season-ticket drive saved the team.
“It was an incredible ticket campaign and it was great to see the fans and the city of Toledo rally to keep this thing going,” he said.
Vitucci said he also likes that the organization has brought back the franchise’s founder, Barry Soskin, to run the team.
“He has connection with fans,” Vitucci said. “Barry runs the team from a fan’s perspective.”
Soskin said he has a business and a personal relationship with Vitucci, who played for the Soskin-owned Storm in the mid-90s.
“Nick is very well organized and well thought out,” said Soskin, the team’s new president. “He turned the whole team around last year. He was coach of the year. He has what I want in a coach.”
Storm general manager Mike Miller said Toledo has 11 titles in its history, which is the most in minor league hockey.
“That is why we are in this,” Miller said. “You compete to win it all. We’d love to get another piece of hardware.”