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Walleye seek Kelly Cup for the city of Toledo and for their fans

First-year coach Dan Watson relates to his players on all levels

by Arthur J.Regner @arthurjregner /

Toledo Walleye head coach Dan Watson understands the life of a hockey player toiling in the minor leagues.

Signed as a free agent by the Columbus Blue Jackets in 2000 after playing junior hockey for the Sarnia Sting, Watson spent seven seasons playing in three different professional leagues, the AHL (American Hockey League), the UHL (United Hockey League) and the ECHL (East Coast Hockey League).

Watson began his pro career with high expectations and grew into the reality that before he hung up the skates for good, he wanted to win a championship regardless of the level.

Though he never fulfilled his championship dream as a player, Watson, in his first year as head coach, has the Toledo Walleye in the ECHL's Western Conference Finals against the Colorado Eagles. The winner of the series will advance to the ECHL Finals and play for the Kelly Cup.

It has been an outstanding season so far for the Walleye, who have already captured The Brabham Cup, which is awarded to the league's regular-season champion and gives Toledo home ice throughout their playoff run.

Some may be surprised by the Walleye's success, but Watson is not the least bit shocked by what his team has accomplished.

"Right from the start when we had a bunch of guys wanting to return to Toledo," Watson said when asked when he knew his team was championship caliber. "They're doing it for the right reason -- they want to win, they want to do it together, they've been together now, some of them for three years, which is almost unheard of at this level.

"So the care level for each other is what makes it so special and so, right at the start of the year when we got going I could see the type of team we were going to have and we brought in some great leadership too.

"We could see it right from the beginning, but we wanted to make sure that we got off to a great start, which we did and then our special teams, first overall in power play and penalty kill, and also our goals for per game and against per game were first overall in the entire league, which is the first time that's happened to lead in those four major categories in one season in the ECHL ever."

Another factor for the Walleye being the ECHL's top team is Watson's experience as a player and as a coach. He's been a part of the Walleye coaching staff since the team's inception in 2009 and was a player for the Toledo Storm during their last season in 2007.

He is familiar with the sports culture of Toledo and his players know he has been through a similar situation as many of them. Watson comprehends each player's plight.

"The dynamics of our team, it's very interesting because you have our veteran guys, the older guys who maybe the American League has passed them by," said Watson. "So, they're just here for the love of the game; still trying to win a championship, still trying to play hockey before having to potentially go to working a 9-to-5 job, we have that group of guys.

"We have another group of guys that are in the middle of the row who know that their window of opportunity is closing in so they have to make the most of their opportunity while being here so they can still get that shot at the American Hockey League level and you have another group the rookies who are gung ho.

"They're ready to go, they want to learn. They're sponges and they are trying to make the most of what they do every day to get to that American League. So, you have an interesting dynamic at this level and you have to manage each one of those groups individually and as a team."

After splitting their first two games of the Western Conference Finals over this past weekend in Toledo, the next three games will be played in Colorado, with Game 3 taking place on Wednesday.

"Colorado is a very good team and we have to understand that our work ethic and our dedication to this playoff series has got to be greater than anything these guys have done before," said Watson. "We just can't like the idea of winning; we have to go out there and love the idea and we make sure we do everything possible to win.

"One of our Achilles heels is our puck management. In our loss the other night, two turnovers end up in the back of our net. We are an offensive team, we are always going to get our chances, so we have to make sure we focus on the defensive side of the puck as well. That whole cliché of defense wins championships; I think that's partly true, but at the same time we have to make sure that when we do get that puck we're heading in the offensive zone, which has been one of our strengths this season.

"It's been a great series so far in two games, we've got three here; Wednesday night is going to be a battle. Three straight games here on the road so we're going to play this as a best of three and try and get two out of here so we can get back home for game six."

When the Toledo Storm folded, Watson was asked by the Storm's coach, Nick Vitucci, if he'd be interested in becoming an assistant coach when Toledo's new ECHL franchise began play two years later. The Walleye were on hold until their new arena, The Huntington Center, was completed.

Watson expressed interest and with his family living in Cleveland, he spent the next 20 months keeping in contact with Vitucci, while he attended coaches' clinics and taught one-on-one skill development and small group skill development.

"Part of being an assistant coach at this level is developing these players before and after practice," Watson said. "The little skill development drills that you see all these guys do to get better. So I sort of tried to perfect that part of the coaching craft, I guess you would say.

"We started up in October 2009 and I was hired in September a little over a month before our season started that first year. In 2014, Nick stepped down and I took over as an interim coach and coached the final 21 games that season.

"After that season ended they did a coaching search, that's when Derek Lalonde was hired for the past two years (Lalonde left to become a head coach in the AHL). So this season is actually my first season as the head coach."

Watson always knew that coaching was in his blood, but what has contributed to his ease in becoming a head coach is the philosophy of the Red Wings organization when it comes to all their players, not just the Red Wings.

In the eyes of many, the ECHL is a second or third tier league to which players are banished when the big club believes they have outlived their usefulness on the ice. It is one of the biggest issues Watson has to address when a player is sent down to Toledo.

"The one thing people (players) don't understand is how good this league really is; once they get here and understand how good it is you see all types of players," Watson said. "You see first rounders, second rounders playing in this league. It's an eye opener they have to understand and Detroit does a phenomenal job and Grand Rapids when they send a player down it's truly about player development -- getting experience, getting confidence and exposure to all things and situations.

"It's not a place to go where they're trying to bury you. Detroit does not do that, we're thankful they don't have that; they have the philosophy that one day these guys will wear a Grand Rapids jersey and hopefully a Red Wings jersey.

"We appreciate that message when they get sent down and then it's our job to get them comfortable right away, show them exactly what we're all about."

In a matter of a few weeks Watson and the Walleye could be Kelly Cup Champions. It would be a championship that Watson would love to deliver to Toledo as he has an emotional bond with the city and its fans.

"Toledo people want to be a part of something special and hockey has been in Toledo forever, it's part of the fabric of the community; people want to see a championship, people want to see a winner," Watson said. "We are proud of what we've accomplished and in terms of the crowd, we don't take it for granted. We get out there, we greet the fans, we say hello, we say thank you and hope they came back and support us even more.

"To win it for Toledo, I have been here eight years on staff as a coach and one year as a player. It would be one of the biggest parties I would ever be a part of."

Most of us have heard of the native son and the prodigal son, but for the city of Toledo it could be its adopted son that leaves the lifelong impression.

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