Hockey has undergone a rebirth in Toledo as the Walleye organization has taken on an important role in the developmental pipeline for the Griffins and Detroit Red Wings.
Story by Mark Newman
In relative terms, Toledo is not far from Detroit – only 59 miles by car.
In a hockey sense, however, the distance is much farther because the road from Toledo to Detroit goes through Grand Rapids, establishing an affiliation triangle that is nevertheless one of the smallest in hockey – allowing for no-hassle travel, quick callups and easy oversight of prospects throughout the Red Wings’ organization.
The connection between the Toledo Walleye and the Griffins is a fairly recent development, a minor league affiliation that has been in place since the inception of the ECHL franchise in 2009-10. It’s an arrangement that has only strengthened in the years since.
“We have an advantage in that we are one of the few NHL organizations that has an American Hockey League team two hours away and an ECHL team only an hour away,” said Ryan Martin, assistant general manager of the Red Wings. “It’s really important for us to be able to watch our prospects so that when an opportunity for a callup comes, we’ve seen the players and know what they can do.”
Like the Griffins, Toledo has become one of the top organizations in minor league hockey, both on and off the ice:
• Toledo has won the ECHL’s Overall Award of Excellence four times in its seven years (2016, 2015, 2012, 2010). The award is “presented by the league office to teams that are first-rate, who excel in all categories of sales and marketing, and who distinguish themselves in their community, both on and off the ice;”
• The Walleye have won consecutive North Division championships, with 2014-15 being the most successful of their seven seasons. Toledo has made four trips to the playoffs, the longest run occurring in 2014-15 when the team posted the best record in the ECHL at 50-15-5-2 (107 points) before losing to South Carolina in seven games in the Eastern Conference Finals;
• In terms of attendance, the Walleye organization has never finished lower than fourth in the ECHL. Toledo was second out of 28 teams last season with a franchise-record average of 6,982, and the city’s playoff average of 5,709 led the league;
• The renaissance of Toledo hockey coincided with the construction of the 7,431-seat Huntington Center, a state-of-the-art facility which replaced the old Toledo Sports Arena, home to the Toledo Storm, the city’s previous entry in the ECHL.
“The old Sports Arena was a great building to play in because it wasn’t the most friendly confines for the opposition,” said Dan Watson, who spent seven years as an assistant coach in Toledo before becoming the Walleye head coach this season.
“The new building has really helped revitalize downtown,” Watson continued. “The energy in the building when it’s full is fantastic. I think it rivals even some of the bigger pro sports arenas around. It’s got a great atmosphere.”
While capital improvements have kept the seven-year-old building in great shape, the fans have brought renewed excitement to the arena with their support of a winning team.
“It’s been crazy,” Watson said. “Toledo hockey fans are very passionate and very knowledgeable about the game. Whether you’re winning or losing, they’re behind us all the time. They live and breathe Toledo Walleye hockey in the winter.”
The rebirth of Toledo hockey started somewhat quietly. Martin remembers sitting in the stands one Sunday five or six years ago with Joe Napoli, who is the president and CEO of the Toledo Mud Hens, the same organization that oversees the Walleye organization.
“The team was dead last, but the building was packed,” Martin recalled. “I said to Joe, ‘Do these fans have any idea that you’re in last place?’ The baseball mentality has always been more focused on developing players, win or lose. Hockey, I felt, was different.
“I told Joe if he could ever get the hockey operations to match their business side, they would have a complete home run. With the Red Wings, we feel that winning is really important to the development of young players. We want them to experience the playoffs.”
Martin envisioned a new hockey development model that more closely resembled the baseball farm system but one that emphasized winning, a concept that he shared with Nick Vitucci, who was the coach and general manager of the Walleye at the time.
“We started talking about trying to improve that relationship, not necessarily just between Toledo and Detroit, but league-wide,” Martin said. “With the introduction of the salary cap, we felt the need to sign some younger players to minor league deals. It was the beginning of what I feel is now more like a baseball development system with AA and AAA affiliates.”
Eventually, Martin pushed taking that relationship to a new level.
“Toledo has always been an A+ organization from the business side, and there was a mutual desire to improve the hockey operations component,” he said. “We felt if we could get a top-notch coach in there and supply him with some good minor league players, we could have a more true development farm system.”
It was a change of philosophy. In years past, the ECHL had been viewed by many in the NHL as a dead end. “I don’t want to sound disrespectful, but in reality sometimes it was a spot to put the mistakes that you had signed,” Martin said.
Watson, who played the last three years of his career in the ECHL, is even more blunt. “It used to be that you were sent there to go and rot and hopefully go away,” Watson said. “They would pay guys their money and pray that they would never see them again.”
The new developmental model has already paid dividends. Current Red Wings Luke Glendening and Petr Mrazek began their pro careers in Toledo while Louis-Marc Aubry, Martin Frk, Jared Coreau, Nick Jensen, Brian Lashoff and Zach Nastasiuk have all played there.
“With the salary cap now, we think it’s a really valuable relationship,” Martin said. “It allows us to sign 5-6 guys to minor league deals so that we can use them for depth in Grand Rapids. I think in the last two years, we’ve led the league in man-games in recalls from the ECHL.”
In recent years, Toledo has become the preferred destination for prospects to get playing time rather than sitting on the bench or the stands in Grand Rapids.
“When you might play only five or six minutes in Grand Rapids, you can go to Toledo, play a lot, get your feet moving and get going,” Martin said. “It’s a great conditioning tool, but it’s only half of the equation. More importantly, every player we’ve sent down there has come back a better hockey player. Derek (Lalonde, the Walleye’s previous head coach now with the Iowa Wild) and Dan Watson have done a phenomenal job teaching these players.”
ECHL is becoming a panacea rather than a purgatory for hockey players who might otherwise find themselves buried in the AHL.
“It’s part of our sales pitch to players,” Martin said. “We tell players, ‘You’re not going to an ECHL-level team. You’re going to our farm club to develop you into an American Hockey Hockey player and eventually an NHL player.’ It’s not a penalty. They’re not being punished. They’re going there to play and play a lot in all situations, and that’s why they come back better hockey players.”
There is no better example than Glendening, the East Grand Rapids native who was sent to Toledo after a successful college career at the University of Michigan.
“In Toledo, the team is allowed to dress 10 forwards and Luke was literally the 10th forward on the depth chart,” Martin recalled. “I now joke with Luke that if we had room for another forward, he might have been No. 11. But Luke worked himself from the 10th spot to the second line and then to the first line and within six weeks, he was the team’s leading scorer.”
Glendening has fond memories of the role that Toledo played in pushing his career forward.
“When I got to Toledo, I wasn’t sure what to expect, but the way they treated me was outstanding” he said. “With a mix of veterans and good young guys, it’s really a strong league. In the ECHL, there are a lot of great players who work hard and play the right way. I was fortunate to get the opportunity to prove myself there.”
Martin Frk was a second-round pick of the Red Wings in the 2012 NHL Entry Draft, but when he struggled during his first season in Grand Rapids, he was sent to Toledo, where he was able to gain confidence over the course of two seasons there.
“Going to Toledo was good for me because I got more ice time than I was getting in Grand Rapids,” Frk said. “I played a lot of minutes and got to play against a lot of good players. I realized what I had to do, so I worked harder and tried to get better, and eventually I did very well. I had two fun years in Toledo.”
Goaltender Jared Coreau also found his footing in Toledo. Signing as a free agent by the Red Wings after three years at Northern Michigan University, Coreau struggled during his first pro season in 2013-14. After posting only one victory in 23 ECHL and AHL decisions during his rookie year, he gained confidence during his second season with the Walleye.
“I went to Toledo with mixed feelings,” Coreau admitted. “Coming from college, you don’t hear a lot of good things about the ECHL just because it’s the lower of the three leagues. But it was an eye-opener for me. It’s a good league with good players.
“In terms of my development, it helped calm my game down. It also instilled a bit of mental toughness. To get out of that league and stay out of that league is not always easy. Toledo and the ECHL did a good job of preparing me for the AHL and eventually, I hope, a shot at the NHL.”
In fact, recent years have seen Toledo become the preferred destination for prospects who need to play to improve.
“Zach Nastasiuk is a perfect example,” Martin said. “He was a guy who played well in the playoffs after his junior career and he looked like he might springboard himself into a position with Grand Rapids as a first year pro (in 2015-16).
“But due to our depth, it turned out that he might be our 14th or 15th forward in Grand Rapids and rather than have him sit in the stands, we felt it would be better for him to go down to Toledo where he could get more ice time and play important minutes.”
More ice time can do wonders for confidence.
“These younger guys are used to playing,” Watson said. “After being the best player on their college or junior team, it doesn’t help them or their confidence to sit. If they come to Toledo and play and gain confidence, they should be flying high when they get called up.”
Even so, some players’ egos are more fragile than others. When your aspiration is to play in the NHL, Toledo can seem a million miles away.
“It’s a tough dynamic because their hearts are broken,” Watson said. “But they’re getting sent down to get ice time so they can get better. You can improve more quickly if you’re playing rather than practicing all the time. It’s not a punishment to get sent to Toledo and once they understand it, they can walk into our building with confidence.”
A positive atmosphere can help a player’s adjustment. Joining a winning team is even better. “A winning environment is critical,” Martin said.
Thankfully, Watson has seen the fortunes of Toledo hockey change for the good.
“In the last couple of years, we’ve changed the culture to create a winning atmosphere,” Watson said. “It’s a very healthy and positive environment where guys can grow at a quicker rate. We really promote that when you come to the rink, you work and if you’re winning for Toledo, you’re going to improve your chances of playing in Grand Rapids. It makes it a fun place to work.”
Watson is excited about the opportunity to be the head coach of the Toledo Walleye for 2016-17, especially given the apparent depth of the Red Wings organization.
“If you’re doing a good job developing players, winning and success come quicker,” Watson said. “Those things go hand in hand and we do our best to find that balance. With the roster we’re putting together for this season, I think we’re going to be dangerous. We’re ready to go.”