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Toledo Walleye molded by Hall-of-Famer Vitucci

by Lindsay Kramer
Christmas is arriving daily in Toledo, or at least it is in Nick Vitucci's world.

Vitucci is the head coach/ architect of the new Toledo Walleye. As that franchise is about to take its first breath, its rink, the Lucas County Arena, is coming to life before Vitucci's eyes. New stuff rolls in by the hour, the finishing touches on dressing rooms and offices.

"This time of year is a lot of fun," Vitucci said. "We get boxes in all the time. It's like Christmas every day. It brings the little kid out of you again."

The biggest ribbon has yet to be unwrapped: actual competition. What else would Vitucci live for? If the ECHL wanted a face of the league, it would need look no further than Vitucci's mug.

The former goalie has been involved with the ECHL as a player and coach since the league began in 1988-89, and was a member of the inaugural class inducted into the ECHL Hall of Fame in 2008. His five ECHL championships are the most in league history. He coached the Toledo Storm from 2004-07 before the team took a voluntary suspension while the Lucas County Arena was being constructed.

Vitucci deserved a much-earned vacation during that time, but, of course, he would have none of that. He was heavily involved in several aspects of getting the new Walleye started, including the luxury of actually scouting other levels of hockey.

"That's how I've been spending my time. I've been eating a lot of arena (food) and drinking a lot of arena coffee the last two years," he said. "I haven't had to yell at a linesman for a missed call or yell at a referee for a bad penalty. I'm excited about (coming back). But I'm nervous about it, too. You hope that you are the coach you used to be, and you can still get it done."

Walleye fans are casting their votes of faith. Vitucci said season tickets are near the 2,200 mark, more than four times the total of the final Storm season.

"When it (the hiatus) first started, I'm thinking we had 2 1/2 years before the first puck drops. Jeez, what are we going to do," he said. "The time has really gone by quickly. The excitement in Toledo for hockey, it's building by the minute."

When the first puck drops, it will be yet another peak in Vitucci's mountain range of career highlights. Wisely, he doesn't waste time comparing the moments. He prefers to just enjoy them.

"It ranks right up there," he said of the impending debut. "You are proud of your children. That's what this feels like."
No interest in mortgaging future -- Jason Dawe didn't want to be one of those guys whose expertise started and stopped within the boundaries of hockey.

Which is one reason why if you need any advice on getting a mortgage or into the field of medical sales, Dawe can help you out.

There are hobbies and then there are passions, though, and Dawe is back where he's meant to be for most of his life.

Dawe, 36, has been hired as an assistant coach for the Charlotte Checkers. It is his first pro coaching job, and one that comes five years after he retired from a career that included 366 NHL games.

"I couldn't ask for a better opportunity to get back into the game," Dawe said. "I'm going to go in this at full steam and will try to make this my career for a long, long while."

Dawe concluded his pro career with Charlotte in 2004-05, playing for current head coach Derek Wilkinson. Dawe had moved to that area and remained there after hanging up the skates. He worked with local youth hockey programs, and dabbled in the side careers of mortgages and medical sales.

"To be honest with you, I enjoyed it. My passion is in hockey. But I really didn't want to be one of those guys who had nothing else to do," Dawe said. "I know so many guys who are retired from hockey who have no clue what they are going to do in the real world. I wanted to make sure if I got back in hockey, I was doing it for the right reasons."

"That's how I've been spending my time. I've been eating a lot of arena (food) and drinking a lot of arena coffee the last two years. I haven't had to yell at a linesman for a missed call or yell at a referee for a bad penalty. I'm excited about (coming back). But I'm nervous about it, too. You hope that you are the coach you used to be, and you can still get it done."
-- Toledo coach Nick Vitucci

Dawe said he applied for several positions in the OHL, and also became what he termed a "pest" to Wilkinson. Every offseason, Dawe would check in with his former boss to see what he had heard about coaching openings through the grapevine. Last summer, Wilkinson told Dawe there might be a spot available in Charlotte, and an appreciative Dawe pounced on that re-entry point into the sport.

"I don’t think (a lack of experience) is going to be an issue at all," Dawe said. "When I was playing, I was involved in a lot of coaches' discussions. I've never been a person that didn't work hard."

Johnston's new body of work -- With nothing comparable to an exhibition game available as a practice mode, Denny Johnston rolled up his sleeves and boldly plunged into his new field of interest last month.

Johnston wants to be a doctor, and retired from hockey at the age of 27 to pursue that interest at the University of Saskatchewan. He came face-to-face with the reality of his challenge when he and his classmates began their work with cadavers. Consider Johnston a changed man already.

"It's a lot to get your head around. It changes you forever. It's not something you can prepare yourself for," he said during a quick study break. "It's not like the (hockey) exhibition, where you get a middle ground. They throw you in the fire right away. I was expecting the worst. It was worse than that. It's not something I can't handle. But it's something you can't prepare yourself for."

Johnston is getting used to those types of curveballs, both big and small.

He's at an age where he still expected to be playing hockey. The forward played 10 games in Manchester of the AHL and 20 with Ontario as a rookie last season. But while playing for the Monarchs he broke his left wrist, and the injury turned out to be worse than expected.

He's had two surgeries on it already, and needs another this month. He would not have been able to play until January, costing him 13 months of playing time overall. It was tempting to wait it out, but Johnston decided it was a better idea to start getting on with the rest of his life's plans.

"Although I love the game, I had to step into something more secure," Johnston said. "It's funny how hockey works. If you do your best and try your best to be a good person, hockey will lead you to some good places. Although I miss hockey, I realize this is an exceptional opportunity and I hope to do the best I can with it."
Condors counting on Fisher -- Shaun Fisher's sandpaper voice carried a naturally weathered tone on a recent afternoon, the result of equal parts commitment and age.

Of course Fisher had been coming down the home stretch of his preseason conditioning in preparation for the start of his season with Bakersfield. But at age 30, the defenseman's energy level wasn't quite snapping back like a taut rubber band.

"I am actually a little tired," he said. "I'm working at it, getting back in shape. I guess I'm not that old. I do feel it (soreness) a little more. The first couple of weeks are always a little tough on me. After that, I'll be fine."

The Condors are counting on it. The team recently signed Fisher as its first veteran of the season. This Bakersfield edition is looking like one of the youngest in team history, with Fisher the only player so far with more than 200 games or 200 points in his North American pro career.

Although perhaps a bit worn, Fisher has the reputation as a safe investment. He had a career-high 41 points (9-32) last season, while skating into the second round of the playoffs with Muskegon. He's produced 46 goals and 187 assists in his pro career, which includes 225 games of ECHL experience.

The Condors acquired him in 2005-06 to help bolster the roster before the playoffs. After skating in seven regular-season games with the club, he set team records for assists (9) and points (10) by a defenseman in a playoff season

"I definitely expect that to carry over," he said of the production. "It's doesn't feel like it was that long ago. You don't realize how nice of a place this is until you are gone. I'll be able to put that in the younger guys' minds. But they have to live it themselves."

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