Families keep hockey strong for ECHL's Walleye

Gregg Krupa
The Detroit News
Ray Dile holds his daughter, Sydney, 7, while she throws a hockey puck on the ice between periods during a promotional event for fans.

In this "Five Days of Hockey" series, The Detroit News will look at how the game intertwines with family, community and the desire to excel.

Toledo — The roads were already wet, when flurries became a squall and the snow began to accumulate.

A storm would sweep 50 miles to the south and through the Ohio River Valley and on to the east. But, at this hour, no one could be certain. The forecasts stressed doubt.

On a slate gray Sunday, businesses downtown were mostly closed, regardless.

But near the Huntington Center, the streets began filling with cars and the sidewalks with people.

Despite competition from the NHL on television, 7,051 fans — including a proportion of families noticeably in excess of a far more expensive NHL game — were filing in for a game between the local hockey club, the Walleye, and the Wheeling Nailers.

The previous night, the Walleye set an attendance record of 8,300 against the Allen (Texas) Americans.

In Toledo, hockey is no newfound joy.

With a town adjusting to peace in 1947 — and the old Willys-Overland plant converted from wartime production, but struggling to find a niche in the consumer market for new Jeeps — they started playing the game here professionally.

Four decades after the Canadians established professional leagues across Lake Erie, and two after the Red Wings sunk their foundation in the big industrial city 60 miles to the north, the Mercurys started skating down on Main Street, at the old Toledo Sports Arena.

It was the Mercurys until 1962, the Blades until 1969 and the Goaldiggers from 1974-86, all in the old International Hockey League.

The Storm followed, from 1991-2007. And then it was the Walleye, in the new building, a few blocks — and number of watering holes and restaurants — from Fifth Third Field, where the Mud Hens, the Tigers' Triple A club, play.

The Walleye, as was the Storm, is an ECHL franchise.

On this day, as the crowd assembled, young boys and girls were carrying their hockey and figure skates. For $60, a family of four can attend the game and stay for an indoor skate on a huge sheet of prime ice, where the players play.

They can pay extra to wash down pulled pork nachos with a beverage, and have Belgian waffles-on-a-stick for dessert.

"I used to make it up to see the Wings more. But now, with the family, it's a little harder," said Trent Garno, of suburban Northwood, who attended with his kids.

"Toledo's always been a great hockey town. Regardless of the situation, we've always supported our hockey team

"It's about the hockey. It's exciting at every level. The guys are always all out, all of the time, regardless."

The several thousand people and the advertising on the concourse evidence how the operation is financed.

Labatt and Pepsi are here. The big boys understand the passion for local sport in this mid-sized city.

And the smaller businesses play, too.

"When your goal is to make northeast Ohio's best ice cream — Go Walleyes!" trumpets Toft's, on WCWA-1230 AM during the radio broadcast of the game.

Just before the puck was dropped, the Red Wings assistant general manager, Ryan Martin, walks into a booth shared by team officials and the media.

At any time, about a half-dozen Walleye may be Wings property. College or European players in transition to the AHL such as Luke Glendening and Andrej Nestrasil — who played in Detroit earlier this year, before the Flyers obtained him on waivers — often stop here to prepare for the AHL.

"In the last three or four years, there's been a real concerted effort from the NHL level to have more involvement down here, to try to develop more NHL-contracted players as well as minor league players that Grand Rapids can utilize," Martin said.

"With Detroit, Grand Rapids and Toledo all within two or three hours of each other, we're really the only NHL organization that has that. And we should take advantage of that both from the staff development standpoint or the player development side.

"We're gearing more towards a baseball model where the Double A team can feed the Triple A team, and vice versa.

"It's a great business down here," Martin said. "And now the hockey's starting to come along, too."

As businesses, minor league sports carry notoriously narrow margins. In minor league hockey, it is generally accepted that about one-third of the teams are reasonably profitable. The rest struggle.

The Walleye does well.

"When you take a look at places like Toledo, you can be profitable in mid-sized, Midwestern communities," said Joe Napoli, president and general manager of both the Walleye and Mud Hens. "And both the Toledo Mud Hens and the Toledo Walleye are profitable.

"But both our franchises are not-for-profit corporations. The reason for that is the community, our fans, the sponsors, just love the story that our profits are reinvested back into the team and back into the buildings, and then we also designate a portion of the profits into debt service.

"So it's really a great community story."

Meanwhile, it is all much about family.

According to Napoli, market opinion research reveals that about 50 percent of the fans attend games because they are affordable and family oriented.

Only 12 percent say they are "avid" hockey fans. The rest identify as "casual."

In the NFL, for example, about three times that proportion identify as "avid."

Good place to play

Mostly casual, or not, it hardly mattered. Everyone was whipped into a frenzy by the start of the game.

The Walleye skated out through a two-story-high inflatable model of a fish head, to roaring acclaim.

The Walleye float a large inflatable version of its mascot between periods at the Huntington Center, one of many concessions for youth contingent at the game.

Just 39 seconds in, Red Wings prospect Marin Frk scored on the first shot of the game — the second game in a row the Walleye tallied on the first volley.

"Hit somebody!" someone in the crowd implores, at the top of his lungs, as the play continues.

The teams, like all in the ECHL — formerly the East Coast Hockey League before it expanded — are mixtures of young and aging prospects, and guys late in their 20s, for whom time for a productive NHL season nearly has passed.

For Frk, 21, it is a matter of playing in Grand Rapids when he can, and Toledo when he must. But, right now, skating for the Walleye is not a bad place to be.

Especially when you get the boys on the board, quickly, with a scintillating wrist shot.

"It's perfect. It's a good building, and we've got a lot of fans this year," said the Czech Republic native, who is touted as a scorer.

"We've been playing good hockey, so I really enjoy playing here."

Personally, for his career development, Frk said, "It's about how much ice time I get. If I get enough ice time, I know I can show I can play hockey."

Nice mix

For an older player, it is a professional career, albeit not in the big time, but enjoyable and a living, nonetheless

Kyle Rogers, the Walleyes captain, leads in games played and is fairly the most popular player in the history of this team in Toledo. At 30, it is rewarding to play in a hockey-loving region.

"It's definitely the location and the fans," said Rogers, who has made stops in Grand Rapids and Toronto, with the Marlies in the AHL, after playing at Niagara College.

"Being in this kind of area in the hockey world, you've got a lot of teams around you, especially if you go to the AHL," he said. "But it's also the fans that we get in Toledo and this area generally and the long history that Toledo hockey goes back to with all the other teams.

"The fans are so loyal. They really come out. Even last year, when we had a rough year, they still had sellout crowds."

With little chance of an NHL career, Rogers says he likes playing for the Walleye, especially this season.

"You got right mindset with all these kids coming up from college, and everyone's got the mindset to get up to the AHL. And you've got the older guys who are mentors who are trying to get them up to that level."

Special atmosphere

The game entertained. There was plenty of scoring, and even some rough stuff.

The Walleye won 5-2, continuing a hot season.

After they built an early lead, any attempt at a comeback by the Nailers was repelled by 28-year-old former Spartans goalie Jeff Lerg.

The diminutive goalkeeper — 5-foot-6, 163 pounds — ran his victories up to 19 for the season in 23 decisions, after playing a seasons in Italy, and another in France.

"I'm really enjoying it," Lerg said. "When I played in this league a few years ago, I was always hopeful if I played in this league again, it would be here in Toledo because it's close to home, and I knew the facility was top-notch.

"Since college, when everyone's best friends and we're all in the same boat, I think this is my most enjoyable team, where everyone has a lot of personalities that mix and lot of guys have the same goal and the same desire to try to win and prolong their careers.

"And, there's just the support, overall, in the community," he said.

Shaking his head and smiling, Lerg said, "I mean, Sunday afternoon, today, and the place was unbelievable as far as the atmosphere.

"And, that's what you play for."