By Dave Hackenberg
The Toledo Blade
TOLEDO, Ohio – It was 5 o’clock on a Tuesday morning and Nick Vitucci was already in his car en route to Metro Airport in Detroit. An early flight, plus benefit of the time change heading west, allowed Vitucci to arrive in Las Vegas in time for the Wranglers’ morning skate followed by that of the Phoenix Roadrunners.
That afternoon, he met with coaches of both teams and then attended the ECHL game between the two that night. He went from the arena to the airport and was home about 24 hours after he left.
“That may be the extreme when it comes to my travels, but there sure has been a lot of it,” Vitucci said.
Two seasons without hockey has provided Vitucci, the director of operations and coach of the Toledo Walleye, with more hockey than anyone can imagine. If there has been a college game, a Canadian junior game, or a minor league game played within distance of auto, dogsled or a cheap air fare, Vitucci has been there and has the scouting reports on every player who appeared in every game to prove it.
Hockey returns to Toledo after a lengthy hiatus late next fall with the completion of Lucas County’s arena and it won’t be long before Vitucci is charged with putting together the first roster of players who will don the powder blue sweater of the Walleye, a stick-wielding fish with a missing tooth.
Vitucci will have the help of at least one NHL affiliate, but most of the players he signs will be those he scouted over the last year or two and can be acquired without a transaction.
“I’ve actually seen little of the ECHL because the majority of those players are owned and under contract,” Vitucci said. “We’d have to trade to get them and we don’t have any players to trade.”
The ECHL did lose five teams this past season, including three – Dayton, Mississippi and Phoenix – at the end of the year, so he did see those teams and has a handle on the players who will be free agents.
“We’re starting to make calls, but it’s still early for players to be committing for next season,” Vitucci said. “Our league is the AA level and we’re sort of like the grim reaper. Nobody wants to hear from us yet. A lot of players coming out of college and juniors have bigger dreams. What I will convince them of is that if you have to start at our level, this is a pretty good place.”
It didn’t use to be. Operating out of an arena that belonged in a museum and with declining budgets that reflected dwindling fan interest, Vitucci nonetheless led his final three Toledo Storm teams to a combined 126-77-10 record and three ECHL playoff berths.
That’s why a new ownership group that put the franchise on ice, so to speak, for two years while a dazzling arena rose from the ground up didn’t have far to look for a guy to run the hockey operation. Vitucci, a onetime Storm goalie, will be 42 and very eager by the time the first puck drops.
“It was kind of nice to step away for a while, have a different view, and just enjoy the game,” he said. “Now, I’m chomping at the bit to be emotionally invested in a new team.”
So are Toledo’s fans, both the old guard and the new blood who just like the look of that silly fish.