By Dan Saevig
TOLEDO, Ohio – Nick Vitucci may be the only coach in pro hockey who’s recently traded Mark Messier, Gordie Howe and Phil Esposito.
He’s also paid cash for Frank Mahovlich, Bobby Hull and Wayne Gretzky.
If you’ve got a line on Bobby Orr and his 1966-67 crewcut, the head coach of the Toledo Storm might be willing to work out a deal.
If necessary, a player to be named later can be arranged.
Vitucci isn’t hesitant about making a move. He proved that last week, arranging a real-life seven-player blockbuster with Greenville designed to bolster Toledo’s chase for the ECHL’s Kelly Cup.
When he’s not collecting assets to improve his hockey club the coach relaxes by looking for missing pieces to another hockey puzzle, one that he’s been working on for more than 30 years.
Vitucci is a memorabilia enthusiast, with one of the largest collections in North America. If it’s a card, puck or artifact, he’s either got it or he’s ready to play Monty Hall and make an offer.
“I grew up loving the sport,” Vitucci said. “I think all of my collecting reflects back to a little boy’s love of the game.”
Vitucci first fell head over heels at the age of 6. Three times a week, his dad, Vince, and mom, Judy, would pile Nick and his two sisters, Vicki and Lisa, into their Mercury Cougar for a 15-minute drive from their home in Welland, Ontario to neighboring Fort Erie.
After dropping mom and the girls off at a local rink for skating lessons, father and son would drive a quarter-mile down the road to Bickel’s, a locally owned grocery, drug and convenience store.
Their routine never changed. Nick and his father – the owner of a plumbing and heating company – would buy 10 packs of O-Pee-Chee hockey cards on each trip. Treasure in hand, they’d return to the warmth of the Cougar and treasure the moment, carefully handling each bundle of joy as if it were a newborn baby.
“I’d read off the numbers from the backs of the cards and my dad would check them off the checklist,” Vitucci said. “We never marked the checklists that came with the cards. My dad would make his own checklist on a piece of paper, 396 cards in a set.”
They collected cards. They also collected memories.
“I can remember the last card I needed to finish off my first set,” Vitucci said. “1974-75. It was an Ed Westfall, New York Islanders.”
He still has that card.
Thirty years later, he has at least 750,000 others. Vitucci has complete sets of O-Pee-Chee, Canada’s version of Topps trading cards, dating from 1973. He’s got five Gretzky rookie cards, partial sets from the 1960s and 17 or 18 complete sets of doubles to use as trade bait for when he returns to his new home in Welland in the off-season.
“He’ll come in a couple of times a month and sit down for an hour or two and go through stacks of cards,” said Bob Griffin, owner of The Bullpen, a card store on Tremainsville Road. “He knows the players and the cards real well.”
Pucks, too. The retired puck-stopper – the ECHL’s all-time winningest netminder with 265 victories – is still catching rubber. He has snared more than 1,700 pucks for his cache’. When a Storm player is called up to the American Hockey League, they’regently reminded to bring a disc or two back to Toledo.
An assistant coach in Greenville before taking a similar position with the Storm last season, Vitucci displayed his collection on the basement wall of his previous home in South Carolina.
“We’d host a Super Bowl party every year and the whole team would come over,” Vitucci said. “The guys would spend the night studying the pucks, looking for teams they played for or tournaments they played in.”
The collection doesn’t stop with cardboard and rubber. Vitucci, who replaced fired Toledo coach Steve Harrison in December, 2003, has some 25 scrapbooks filled with newspaper stories that chronicle teams he’s played for and coached. A like number of game-worn sweaters from his career hang in a closet, and he’s kept all but one of his goalie masks.
“The one I don’t have is one from Charlotte,” Vitucci said. “I traded that to NASCAR driver Todd Bodine for his racing helmet.”
There’s one thing he’ll never relinquish, though. It’s one reason why he’s still collecting at the age of 37.
“Everything I collect, I collect with the idea that someday I’ll be able to hand it down to my son so he can enjoy it,” Vitucci said. “Just like my dad did for me.”
When the weather warms, Vitucci and his 5-year-old boy, Keegan, will get in the car on a Saturday morning, stop at Tim Horton’s for doughnuts and then drive around town looking for garage sales.
He paid $2 for a Toledo Mercurys puck at one stop last summer. At another, he was recognized by the homeowner who sold him a Darryl Sittler postcard.
Always searching, there’s one thing the coach has yet to find. Nowhere in his travels has he discovered any Nick Vitucci memorabilia.
“I won’t, either,” Vitucci said with a laugh. “I’ve kept it all.”