If you are a die-hard NHL fan, you won’t enjoy the ECHL. It’s slower, sloppier and cornier than the big leagues. The players can be lackluster or at the end of their prime. The organizations in which they’re affiliated seek new and interesting ways to embarrass the hell out of them (I once saw a team photo featuring the Wendy’s girl) and everyone seems angry and frustrated for being there. To the die-hard hockey fan, however, the games can be loads of fun. Which is why I’m excited about the season opener of the Toledo Walleye.
The Walleye (formerly the Toledo Storm) are the ECHL affiliate of the Detroit Red Wings and Chicago Blackhawks; or, more accurately, the Grand Rapids Griffins and the Rockford Ice Hogs. Whenever a potential player needs to be seasoned or additional ice time, the AHL teams will send them down to the ECHL. Sometimes, they get better and move on to “The Show”. This occasionally happens with moderate success (Aaron Downey, Dan Carcillo and Paul Bissonnette). Sometimes, the talented players end up leaving the states for a European club or retiring from the sport altogether.
The most recent Toledo alum to play in the NHL was goaltenders Joey MacDonald, Jordan Pearce and Thomas McCollum (who returns to the Walleye). MacDonald was Jimmy Howard’s primary backup last year after Chris Osgood was hurt, Pearce sat on the bench during a game and McCollum played a period last season against St Louis. As some of you may remember, the performance was anything but stellar (3 goals on 8 shots). As Walleye fan, however, it was exciting. Here was a player who once wore my hometown’s name on his jersey now donning the Winged Wheel. It gave some validity to Toledo and proved that my community played a part in a player’s development.
Toledo fans don’t flock to Huntington Center to see talent or potentials, however. They go to see professional hockey at a reasonable price. The ECHL provides an opportunity to inject the passion of hockey into low-market cities. As much as I’d love to see an NHL team in Toledo (or even AHL) any organization that tried would fail financially. The average Toledoan doesn’t have thousands of dollars to spend on season tickets or even $50 for a single. At $15 a ticket (and around $300-$400 for an entire season), the Walleye is a cheap alternative.
Watching the Toledo Walleye and ECHL hockey in general humanizes the sport. The players will likely never end up on the front page of The Hockey News or ESPN. Their jersey numbers will never be retired and hang from the rafters of some drafty arena. They are simply underpaid athletes who get the living hell beat out of them for a modicum of glory, a fleeting wish and $20,000 to $30,000 a year. This may seem like a reasonable salary to play a kid’s game and it is for single 20-something athletes. If you’re trying to raise a family it’s a pitiful sum, and since most of the players neither have a college degree or any type of job skills, this may be the most amount of money they’ll ever make.
And that’s where watching the ECHL can be tragically melancholy. We the spectators are essentially watching 20 and 30 year olds come to a bitter realization and wake up from a childhood dream. I always saw it as individual auditions, in which everyone on the ice is trying to prove to all their critics that they are better than perceived. It’s a struggling, daring fight in which the contender ends up bloodied and limp. It’s the true definition of bravery.
It is why my wife and I have been season ticket holders to the Toledo Walleye since their inaugural season. We love the game, the competition, and every individual who suits up for our hometown. Evan Rankin, Maxim Tanguay and Adam Keefe are synonymous with Henrik Zetterberg, Pavel Datsyuk and Darren McCarty. They’re our stars, our heroes.
Lets Go Walleye.
Follow Derek Hansen on Twitter @Hockey_Mouth