Chemistry and leadership help Toledo to best start in club history

Since the start of the 2014-15 season, no ECHL team has won more games than the Toledo Walleye. Entering this weekend’s three-game series at Alaska, the Walleye have gone an impressive 113-38-12 for a .730 winning percentage over the past two-plus seasons.

If you talk to a player on the Walleye squad, the key to the team’s success quickly becomes apparent.

“They back it up when they say they take care of their people here,” Walleye captain Jared Nightingale said.

Nightingale would know. He’s in his third season with Toledo, but has also suited up for 10 other teams in the ECHL and American Hockey League over the course of his 11-year pro career.

“We have great people throughout the organization from the front office to the locker room, and it makes it fun to come to the rink every day,” he added. “It makes you want to do your best on a daily basis.

“When you enjoy going to work every day, it’s a good way to get the best out of people.”

The fan and community support in Toledo also ranks near the top of the ECHL. The Walleye have averaged over 6,000 fans per game in six of the previous seven seasons, and this year rank second in the league with just over 7,000 fans per game through nine home games.

“The fan support has been incredible and has exceeded my expectations,” said defenseman Jacob MacDonald, who is in his first season with the Walleye. “I knew a little bit of what to expect since I played at the Huntington Center last season with Elmira, and it was a lot of fun to play in front of a big crowd. The home opener this year, the first time playing here as a Walleye, was an incredible experience. Before the game, the coaches told us in the room to just take a moment when we are out there and soak it all in and enjoy it.”

“The fan support here is second to none,” Nightingale added. “I’ve spent most of my career in the AHL, and I’ve never seen anything like our fans here in Toledo.”

This year’s Toledo squad features a mix of returning players and newcomers. Twelve players have previously played for the Walleye, and that base certainly helps new players entering the locker room for the first time feel comfortable.

“We have a good returning core and that’s a huge plus for the team,” MacDonald said. “They’ve been here and experienced a lot of success the last two seasons. So they know what it takes to be successful and make sure that everyone else knows what is expected. It’s helpful to have the older guys around to help lead the way.”

Nightingale describes his leadership style as leading by example rather than by delivering vocal messages.

“For me, leadership as a captain is not really words. Myself and the rest of our core group, we believe our actions speak louder than words and that’s the approach we take with the team.”

The coaching staff also receives kudos from the players for the team’s quick start out of the gates this season. Head Coach Dan Watson, who was promoted to the head job after Derek Lalonde accepted the head-coaching position with the AHL’s Iowa Wild during the offseason, has been with the team since its start in 2009-10, serving as the team’s assistant and associate coach over that span, and also filling the role as interim head coach for the final 21 games of the 2013-14 season. New to the bench this year is Assistant Coach Andy Delmore, who played nearly 300 games in the National Hockey League and was an assistant coach in the Ontario Hockey League prior to joining Toledo.

“(Dan’s) not too far out of the game as a player himself, he’s not even 40 years old,” Nightingale said. “So he feels like one of the guys in the locker room which makes him approachable. He’s a quality person, and he brought in another quality person this year in Andy Delmore.”

“Dan and Andy are awesome coaches to play for,” agreed MacDonald. “They both played pro hockey for a long time so they know the lifestyle and that guys aren’t always going to be 100 percent. They have a feel for how we are feeling and know how to adjust practices to make sure we are always ready to go. I’ve learned a lot from both of them already and enjoy playing for them.”

The Walleye’s 16-3-0 start this year is the best in the 24-year history of ECHL hockey in Toledo. And that’s an impressive feat considering the Toledo Storm captured two Riley Cup titles and enjoyed one of the best home-ice advantages in the early days of the League at the Toledo Sports Arena. The Walleye haven’t been slouches either, winning back-to-back division titles, and the Brabham Cup as ECHL regular-season champions in 2014-15.

Toledo’s eight-game winning streak will be put to the test on a six-game western road trip which starts with three games in Alaska this weekend, and continues with another three games in Utah next week. The trip, and the challenge of facing unfamiliar opponents, is something the team is looking forward to.

“We are excited to go west and see some different teams and some good competition,” according to Nightingale. “I started my career in Boise, so I know all about the trips to Alaska and Utah. We are going to go out there and treat the two series like playoff series against two good teams and see where we stack up.”

The team chemistry that the Walleye possess can only get stronger with an extended road trip.

“Our team chemistry has been key to the good start to the season,” said MacDonald. “Our guys all get along really well and enjoy doing things together away from the rink which is a huge plus. As players and coaches we have fun on and off the ice and we have bonded well. We have one cohesive unit which really shows when we get out on the ice.”