Hooked: Toledo Walleye lure in fans, find winning minor league formula

By Matt Schoch
Special to The Detroit News
From left, Toledo teammates Dylan Sadowy (15), Ben Danford (8), Connor Schmidt (3) and Hunter Smith (34) celebrate the go-ahead goal in the third period by Justin Kea, blocked from view in the rear of the group, in front of Walleye fans, in the third period of game Jan. 31 against the Kalamazoo Wings.

Toledo — John Denver once sang: “Saturday night in Toledo, Ohio, is like being nowhere at all.”

Denver was probably right in the early 1970s, and he’s obviously never been to a Toledo Walleye hockey game.

“There were tumbleweeds blowing through this downtown area,” said Walleye usher Gary Simons of Toledo, in between postgame sips of beer last Sunday at nearby Jed’s Downtown bar. “Now, people love coming downtown. It’s been a resurgence.”

Now, the minor league ECHL franchise has sold out all 25 home Saturday night games over two seasons, plus most others, becoming a formidable winter partner to Toledo’s historic baseball team.

Michigan sports fans are well aware of the Toledo Mud Hens, the longtime partners of the Tigers with a well-worn path on Interstate 75 carting prospects and rehabbing regulars back and forth to the farm.

But the Walleye also seem to have found the winning formula in a topsy-turvy industry, putting an exclamation point on Toledo’s claim as one of America’s great minor league sports towns.

Family night out

With the fickle and fleeting nature of sporting success, the Walleye organization keeps their eye on the big picture, said Neil Neukam, the team’s executive vice president and general manager.

“If you put all your eggs in that basket of wins and losses, then you start to condition the market to think it’s all about that,” he said. “But we know we’ve done our job when you can come out and have a great time and not even know who won the game.”

That means all the minor league promotions, from "Harry Potter" and "Game of Thrones" themes to a zombie night centered around aptly named player Dominic Zombo, who gamely played the starring role of an undead player leading up to the 2016 promotion.

In 2014, the team played two games outdoors at the Mud Hens’ Fifth Third Field over a 10-day festival during the holiday season that attracted more than 60,000 people downtown.

The team recently announced a Winterfest re-boot for 2020 in Ohio’s fourth-most populated city.

Earlier this month, the Walleye hosted Princess Palooza, where youngsters could get their pictures taken with Ariel, Jasmine, Mulan and others before the game and during intermission.

Young children in Disney costumes dotted the arena.

Toledo’s Sarah Larcom and her 4-year-old daughter, Aurora Jones, were there, taking in a few minutes of the game before hitting the concourse to get as many photos with princesses as possible.

“It’s nice for Toledo; it’s perfect. They need more stuff like this for little kids,” said Larcom, who was visiting the Huntington Center for the first time. “It was exciting, the loud horns and everything. She really loved it.”

It wasn’t exactly the “Slap Shot” version of minor league hockey, but the idea is to turn the casual fan into “FINatics,” as the Walleye faithful are known.

“The die-hard fan — we love them and they’re important and we don’t forget about them,” Neukam said. “But at the end of the day, we really have to be sure that we can attract the casual fan. There’s not enough die-hards to make it work.”

Neukam recalls the day when the team announced the first princess night promotion a few years back.

An angry longtime fan from yesteryear posted on social media: “Professional hockey in Toledo, as I have known it, is officially dead.”

“Two days later, the same guy is on Facebook: ‘Anybody got an extra ticket for Princess Night? Because my grandkids want to go,’” Neukam said.

Attending his first Toledo Walleye game, Benjamin Havekost, 6, of Monroe rings a cowbell over the head of his grandfather, Brent Havekost, in the third period of game Jan. 31 against the Kalamazoo Wings at the Huntington Center in Toledo, Ohio.

Mud Hens model

Perhaps contributing to the family atmosphere is that county residents own the facilities. Lucas County owns Fifth Third Field, opened in 2002 with the Mud Hens as the main tenant, as with Huntington Center and the Walleye in 2009.

Toledo’s baseball team became known as the Mud Hens in the late 19th century, playing near a marshy area where the American coot bird resided.

In the mid-1950s, a private owner moved the team to Wichita, Kansas, leaving northwest Ohio without a team for about a decade.

In the mid-'60s, a team moved to Toledo from Richmond, Virginia, but was set up as a nonprofit, the Toledo Mud Hens Baseball Club Inc., to ensure the Mud Hens stay.

Attendances soared in the late 1970s at Ned Skeldon Stadium in Maumee, southwest of town, as Jamie Farr’s character on the hit television show "M*A*S*H" was a huge fan, giving the team a national footprint.

The $39.2 million Fifth Third Field was opened in 2002, and the Mud Hens have enjoyed a strong following despite limited success, making the playoffs last season for the first time since 2007.

The Walleye copied the Mud Hens model by being owned by the Toledo Arena Sports Inc. group, an Ohio not-for-profit corporation, and by building the Huntington Center downtown for $105 million. This was after the Toledo Sports Arena failed to draw in its final years of minor league hockey east across the Maumee River.

Fans stand during the national anthem before a game Jan. 31 between the Toledo Walleye and Kalamazoo Wings at the Huntington Center in Toledo, Ohio.

Hockey crazy

The model works.

Celebrating 10 years this season, the Walleye are second among 27 ECHL teams in attendance with 7,715 fans per game, selling out 20 of 25 games, including a 5-3 win on Feb. 17 against Kalamazoo in front of 7,779 fans.

The Walleye sold out 28 of 36 home games last year. This season, the Walleye has more than 2,600 season-ticket holders, a franchise record, and all 22 suites are sold out for the season.

Group sales are king, Neukam said, as the Walleye sold more than 63,000 group tickets to outfits ranging from birthday parties and school groups, to the local Future Farmers of America chapter.

Meanwhile, the Mud Hens have had more than 500,000 fans each season since Fifth Third Field opened in 2002, an average of 7,847 fans per game. That includes 485 sellouts over the 17 seasons on Washington Street. The stadium seats 10,300.

Neukam said there were about six employees when he started with the then-Storm hockey franchise in 1993.

Now, about 70 people work for the combined management operations of the Walleye and Mud Hens franchises.

All home games for both teams are carried live on the Buckeye Cable Sports Network, a rarity in minor league sports, in addition to road playoff games. Those broadcasts are simulcast on radio station 1230-AM WCWA.

According to a study last year released by ratings and survey giant Nielsen and market investigation company Scarborough Research, 167,400 residents either watched, attended or listened to a Walleye game. That’s more than four times higher than the same 2010 survey, when the Walleye were starting out. That 20 percent market share from 2018 is higher than the 15 percent concluded in the Grand Rapids market for the American Hockey League’s Griffins, the next level up in the minors.

“When you look at baseball and you look at hockey, the attendance numbers are right there,” said Matt Melzak, Walleye play-by-play broadcaster and Mud Hens color commentator alongside veteran voice Jim Weber in the summer. “It’s a very good sport town, maybe one of the best minor league towns in the entire country.

“It just continues to build and get better.”

Sports Business Journal named Toledo the top minor league sports market in 2013, beating out more than 200 others. The city has stayed near the top of that biennial list since.

Katie McInerney, 9, of Sylvania, Ohio, cheers between her parents, Michael McInerney and Tammy McInerney, right, during the second intermission of a game between the Toledo Walleye and Kalamazoo Wings on Jan. 31 at the Huntington Center in Toledo, Ohio.  McInerney and his wife, Tammy, are wearing hats that Michael customized with walleye pinned to the tops and also featuring many player signatures. The family attends about 15 games a season.

Downtown spark

Huntington Center has attracted major concerts to Toledo, including Bob Seger, Zac Brown Band, Kiss, Blake Shelton, Elton John, Keith Urban and Carrie Underwood.

Toledo was the only stop of 28 to get two dates for the Tim McGraw and Faith Hill the 2018 North American leg of their tour last summer.

“Maybe where Toledo used to be a little blip on the radar, but now I think it’s really become an attractive spot for artists coming through, whether on the (Ohio) Turnpike or down 75,” Neukam said.

There were 81 ticketed events and 114 total events at Huntington Center in 2018, Walleye spokesperson Andi Roman said, right in line for the 10-year averages.

Jeremy Hartle, who opened the sports bar Jed’s Downtown in June, said the Walleye and Huntington Center have been a boon for the north end of downtown.

Although only a couple of blocks separate the sports facilities, the businesses north of Huntington Center are an emerging pocket that lags behind the south side, where the Mud Hens help boost 70 dates with their home games.

“The Walleye and Huntington events probably account for 50 percent of our business — it’s been a phenomenal add to downtown Toledo,” Hartle said. "The impact it’s had economically, you probably can’t even chart it. It’s crazy.”

Jed’s bartender Haleigh Beck of Monroe, whose dad drives down from Michigan as a season-ticket holder with his wife for Walleye games, said the bump is obvious.

“Every night that we have a Walleye game or an event at the Huntington Center, I make double in comparison on a non-event night,” Beck said. “As far as servers or bartenders go in the service industry, it upholds us on the north side.”

Readying Red Wings

The Walleye are a secondary affiliate for the Red Wings, basically an equivalent to baseball’s Double-A level below the Triple-A version in Grand Rapids of the AHL.

Red Wings center Luke Glendening played 27 games with the Toledo Walleye during the 2012-13 season. He says the fans were "outstanding."

In 10 seasons, eight players have played for the Walleye and later Detroit, including Red Wings center Luke Glendening. Eight other Walleye alums have played in the NHL, but there’s a soft spot for Glendening in the hearts of fans, said Ray King, a longtime Toledo hockey fan who now tracks faceoffs and hits for the team’s stat crew.

“Best two-way hockey player I ever saw in this building,” King of Sylvania, Ohio, said of Glendening, who played 27 games for Toledo in 2012-13 shortly after graduating from Michigan and before a midseason call-up to Grand Rapids.

“When I was there, the fans were outstanding,” Glendening said. “They packed the Huntington Center it seems like every night. It was an exciting place to play, especially for my first taste of professional hockey.”

Glendening said the atmosphere in Toledo is better than a lot of AHL franchises.

“They’ve done a great job of getting the players involved in the community, which I think helps,” Glendening said, recalling times that he’d interact with fans after games.

Nick Jensen, whom Detroit traded last week to Washington, played three games for the Walleye in 2014, but his brief time in Toledo made an impression on him.

“They have a great arena and the fans that came out there to watch the game, it was unbelievable,” Jensen said before the trade, noting it was similar to his experience in juniors, playing for Green Bay of the USHL. “You’re treated pretty well down there, and that was one of the biggest things I remember is that the fans were selling out the game and they love the Walleyes there.”

The Walleye won the Brabham Cup for the ECHL’s most points twice since 2014-15, but haven’t yet delivered Toledo its 12th hockey championship, as the town is stuck at 11 since the Storm won in 1994.

Toledo has won division titles in each of the past four seasons, but faces an uphill climb in the Central this year, trailing the Cincinnati Cyclones by double-digit points in the standings.

“They’re fast and they’re skilled,” King said of the Cyclones. “The last four years have been great, the only thing we haven’t done is finished. That’s our problem now.”

Toledo forward Tyler Spezia (7) comes over to the corner to assist a teammate in the second period of game Jan. 31 against the Kalamazoo Wings at the Huntington Center in Toledo, Ohio.

Attracting talent

While the Tigers organization decides every player on the Mud Hens roster, the Walleye round out most of their roster on their own.

Toledo typically has three or four Grand Rapids affiliate players on loan, Neukam said, making the ECHL minimum $525 per week in addition to their higher AHL salary, paid by the Griffins.

The rest of the weekly ECHL salary cap is distributed by coach Dan Watson, who doubles as the front office, rounding out the roster with players who can be plucked anytime by AHL teams for a call-up.

Most players are making less than $1,000 a week, although housing and health care are covered by the franchise.

While money for the players is tight, it makes the bottom line easier to cover for the franchise, sending savings to fans.

Tickets range from $15-26, affordable for fans who form relationships with players.

On Feb. 17, fans skated around the ice after the game with the players, celebrating the win.

“We’re selling out Sunday games, which is pretty rare in this league, and Thursday night it’s a sold-out barn,” said Shane Berschbach of Clawson, the all-time points leader for the Walleye. “It’s definitely one-of-a-kind in this league, I’d say.”

Berschbach, who played at Western Michigan, said whenever friends and family come down from Metro Detroit, they’re amazed at what they see.

He said former Broncos teammates Danny DeKeyser and Luke Witkowski, who play for the Red Wings, have noted each summer how the Walleye pack Huntington most nights, while the Red Wings sometimes lag with empty seats at Little Caesars Arena.

“A lot of times it’s really tough to describe to somebody that is not really familiar with the landscape of our league and how a lot of things like that work,” said forward A.J. Jenks of Wolverine Lake. “We get as good or better fan support than a lot of (AHL) franchises, for sure.

“It’s a real privilege to be a part of.”

Walleye fans sold out the ECHL All-Star Game on a Monday night on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, a game carried on NHL Network.

“It speaks volumes of the people who run the organization, the day-to-day operations over in the offices there,” said Watson, who played for the Storm in 2006-07. “This Walleye organization has got to be the best in the league.”

Making players comfortable and happy goes all the way down to the ice surface.

Operations manager Jesus Rivera, probably one of the only professional ice men from Puerto Rico, has maintained what the ECHL has given the Best Ice Award in the league three years running.

“I’ve got a good team, and I work with the players and coaches directly about what they need for the ice and keep them happy,” said Rivera, who worked for the Griffins before coming to Toledo 10 years ago. “Keeping it real: With the people and the Walleye organization, they’re like my second family.”

Wendy Laubenthal of Perrysburg, Ohio, makes noise with her cowbell in the first period of game Jan. 31 at the Huntington Center in Toledo, Ohio.  Laubenthal was at the game with Jon Burkett, to her right, and seated behind her is her daughter, Emily Laubenthal, 15, far right.

Town fabric

“Toledo has always been a big hockey town,” Simons said at Jed’s.

Since 1947, “The Glass City” has hosted the Mercurys, Buckeyes, Mercurys again, Blades, Hornets, Goaldiggers, Storm and Walleye.

The statistician King fondly recalls the mid-1970s days where coach Ted Garvin’s teams embodied bruising old-time hockey.

“Our first line in that days was nicknamed Murder Inc.,” King said. “They used to fight before they dropped the puck. That’s the way it was.”

Mike Eruzione played two seasons for the Toledo Goaldiggers in the late 1970s before he became known globally for the game-winning goal in the 1980 “Miracle On Ice” Olympic victory over the Russians.

The Huntington Center construction ushered in a new era, and the team hasn’t looked back.

“We went from what I call the outhouse to the penthouse,” King said.

Season-ticket holder Michael Scott of Perrysburg, Ohio, waves the Walleye flag after a late goal cemented a 5-3 victory against Kalamazoo on Feb. 17 at the Huntington Center in Toledo, Ohio.

A nod to Great Lakes culture, the Huntington Center uses the horn from the former S.S. Willis B. Boyer ship — docked for years on the Maumee River — which reverberates with each Walleye goal even for near passersby outside the arena.

“There’s Walleye fever once October hits,” said Watson, in his third season as coach. "Our city has embraced us and we’ve sort of created a monster.”

The ECHL level of hockey fits seamlessly in the blue-collar area, said season-ticket holder Michael Scott, who waves a big Walleye flag at games, expect when he has to leave games early for the third shift as a medical laboratory scientist.

“Everybody out there, they’re playing hard. They want to get that call-up. It doesn’t matter if you’re a vet or a young guy,” said Scott, 25, of Perrysburg, Ohio. “You sometimes will notice an NHL game where it seems off. Usually in the ECHL, they’re coming out and they’re playing hard every single night. And fans appreciate it.”

Matt Schoch is a freelance writer.

Toledo Walleye

League: The Walleye are in the Central Division of the Western Conference of the ECHL.

Affiliates: Detroit Red Wings (NHL), Grand Rapids Griffins (AHL)

Home arena: Huntington Center, Toledo.

Attendance: The Walleye are averaging 7,715 fans per game this season, ranking second in the ECHL behind the Fort Wayne Komets (7,905).

Tickets: toledowalleye.com

Notable: The Walleye were founded in 2009 after the Toledo Storm ceased operations in 2007.

Michigan minors

Here are a list of the minor league hockey and juniors teams throughout Michigan:

►Detroit Fighting Irish (Brownstown), United States Premier Hockey League, juniors

►Flint Firebirds, Ontario Hockey League, juniors

►Grand Rapids Griffins, American Hockey League, Red Wings affiliate

►Kalamazoo Wings, ECHL, Vancouver affiliate

►Lansing Wolves (Dimondale), United States Premier Hockey League, juniors

►Metro Jets (Fraser), United States Premier Hockey League, juniors

►Motor City Hockey Club (Troy), United States Premier Hockey League, juniors

►Muskegon Lumberjacks, USHL, juniors

►Port Huron Prowlers, Federal Hockey League, independent

►Saginaw Spirit, Ontario Hockey League, juniors

►Soo Eagles (Sault Ste. Marie), Northern Ontario Junior Hockey League, juniors

►Tri-City IceHawks (Bay City), United States Premier Hockey League, juniors

►USA Hockey National Team Development Program (Plymouth), USHL, juniors