By Leif Skodnick
Special To ECHL.com
In an ECHL playing career that spanned 14 seasons and 479 games, Toledo Storm head coach Nick Vitucci proved himself a winner.
Vitucci, who holds almost every league career goaltending record, is the only player to win four ECHL championships, capturing the Jack Riley Cup in 1989, 1990, 1994 and 1996, and twice he was named playoff Most Valuable Player (1989 and 1996). He picked up his fifth ECHL title in 2002 when he was an assistant coach with Greenville.
Vitucci returned to Toledo, where he played three seasons, prior to 2003-04 as an assistant coach to Steve Harrison. Harrison was taking over for Claude Noel, who had been ECHL Coach of the Year in 2002-03 after the Storm won the Brabham Cup, awarded each season to the regular season point champion. Following a 9-11-3 beginning, however, Vitucci was named as interim head coach for the foundering team which struggled to a last place finish in the North Division with a 23-38-11 record.
After being named head coach and director of player personnel in May 2004, Vitucci began to work on recruiting a new-look team for 2004-05.
“I was looking for players who know what it means to be professionals, both on and off the ice,” says Vitucci, who won 265 regular season games and 43 playoff games in the ECHL. “We didn’t have that last year. We didn’t have any chemistry and I was looking for personalities that were going to come to work every day. Not just players who would put in their time, but players who put in their time with their heart behind it.”
Vitucci took a building-block approach in assembling the team, beginning with the defense which had allowed 3.58 goals per game in 2003-04.
“The number one position we needed to improve on was our team defense. We were able to get P.J. Martin and then we re-signed Danny Eberly and Jason Jozsa came back, so we had a core of guys who I felt comfortable with,” says Vitucci, whose team is allowing only 2.57 goals per game this season. “Your best person on defense has to be your goaltender and Scott Fankhouser was somebody that I hounded all summer. He was the guy that I wanted and it worked out.
“From there, I went to the forwards and brought some guys back from last year, but not too many of them, and filled in the holes with guys that have proven to be successful,” says Vitucci. “You want guys who are good people as well as good hockey players.”
During his long career, Vitucci had the opportunity to play for some of the great coaches in hockey, and he has integrated aspects of their theories to build his own coaching philosophy.
“I’ve taken something from every coach that I’ve ever had,” says Vitucci, who won each of his championships under a different coach. “John Brophy was a tough hard-nosed guy and he taught me the importance of conditioning while Chris McSorley and Greg Puhalski were both great X’s and O’s guys. And then there is John Marks, who gave me my start as an assistant coach. I basically learned everything from him because he was the only guy that I really spent a lot of time around.
“John is one of those guys who can walk the fine line of being a buddy who is patting you on the back and being a coach who is kicking you in the rear end when you need it,” Vitucci says of Marks, who recently won his 700th career game and who has coached more than 1,400 games. “Besides his hockey mind, which is fantastic, he’s probably the one person that I’ve learned the most from in this game.”
The importance of bringing in fresh coaching ideas led Vitucci to possibly do his most important piece of recruiting during the off-season, hiring former Roanoke head coach Tony MacAulay to be his assistant coach.
When the ECHL terminated the membership in Roanoke, MacAulay received a lot of telephone calls from the ECHL coaching corps, but most were in regards to his players. Vitucci, however, called and inquired about MacAulay’s plans.
“(Toledo General Manager) Mike Miller and I talked at the end of the season and he said if it was the right person and the right situation that he would allow me to have another coach with me this year,” says Vitucci. “When the situation occurred with Roanoke, I made my case to Mike to bring Tony in as an assistant. I was at Guelph University working a hockey school when I called Tony to ask him what his plans were. We hammered out a deal and got him in here.”
“I really had no plan,” says MacAulay candidly. “I probably would have stood at center ice in cement boots saying we were going to play in Roanoke again and I guess I convinced myself of it. Fortunately I got a telephone call from Nick that day.”
After spending 2002-03 as an assistant in Roanoke, MacAulay became head coach in 2003-04 and led the Express to a 38-26-8 record and a tie for second place in the division. MacAulay says that he doesn’t see his current position as a demotion from last season.
“I don’t really consider myself to be an assistant because Nick lets me do so much,” explains MacAulay, who was named the 2002 Washington Post Coach of the Year while at DeMatha Catholic High School in Hyattsville, Md. “One of the great things about coming to Toledo was that one of the first things Nick said to me was ‘It’s not going to be my team and it’s not going to be your team, but it is going to be our team’. I think that approach is what has helped us to grow with each other.”
Together the two coaches have taken a team that was hovering around the .500 mark on New Year’s Day and helped it go 12-4-1 in the last 17 games to vault the Storm into second place in the North Division of the National Conference.
What has keyed the turnaround?
“It’s all coaching. No, really we have a great group of players who have really come together as a team,” quips MacAulay. “We have different combinations that we can use and we have some ‘back pocket’ plays as Nick and I call them. But really what we have gotten is very good leadership and we have such a close group with everyone taking pride in what they are doing in every practice and every game. That has been a big reason for our success.”
“Hopefully we’ll see more of the same,” says Vitucci when asked to predict the Storm’s future. “We’ve been on a roll as of late, and a lot of that comes from confidence and chemistry.
“We’ve got great team chemistry right now and that’s important to the team,” Vitucci adds. “We’ve got a great bunch of guys and it is fun to be a member of the Toledo Storm hockey club.”