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ECHL coach learned toughness in Toledo

06/17/2016, 1:47am EDT
By By MARK MONROE BLADE SPORTS WRITER

Former Goaldigger won 2 titles with Allen

Successful ECHL coach learned toughness in Toledo

Veteran hockey coach Steve Martinson needs every digit on both of his hands to count the number of championships his teams have captured.

Holding up his index finger, the No. 1 team has become routine for Martinson, who led the Allen Americans to a second straight ECHL championship last week.

Martinson, who played for the Toledo Goaldiggers in the early 1980s, also did plenty of damage with those hands as a tough guy during a 14-year playing career. Martinson hoisted the Kelly Cup once again after Allen repeated as champs on June 9.

It was actually the fourth straight league title for Allen under Martinson, who also led the Americans to back-to-back championships in the Central Hockey League before the franchise joined the ECHL in 2014-15. In a 21-year coaching career Martinson has led three teams, including the San Diego Gulls and Rockford IceHogs, to 10 Cups.

“There are a lot of factors,” Martinson said. “My teams that have had success have had good balance with skill, size, speed, and toughness. Wherever I've been I've been really consistent with that.”

Martinson, a tough winger who wasn't afraid to drop the gloves, started his playing career with the Goaldiggers in 1981-82. He helped lead Toledo to a Turner Cup title as a rookie that season. The Goaldiggers then repeated as champs in the International Hockey League in Martinson's second season in Toledo in 1982-83.

“I met a lot of friends there, guys I'm still in contact with,” Martinson said. “We had a lot of toughness and I fit into that role. I led the league in fighting majors as a rookie. I got in 18 fights in 28 games. But I broke my knee cap and then I broke my shoulder blade. Our physical play was entertaining.”

Now 58, the native of Minnetonka, Minn., still favors a physical brand of hockey. His Allen team ranked fifth in the ECHL in most penalty minutes and tied for second in major penalties.

“Everyone still wants guys that can hit. We want toughness,” Martinson said. “But we don't have guys that can only fight. Those days are done. If all I wanted to do was fight, I would have been a boxer. But I was a hockey player first that liked to fight. I want guys that can play and hit.”

Martinson said there still is a place for fighting in the sport.

“If we get into a fight, something has warranted that,” he said. “If you do something to one of our good players, it settles things and keeps things in check. That will never change. But I don't believe in fighting to change the tempo of the game.

“You have to hit hard and legal. But we've been at top of the league in offense [3.08 goals per game] as well.”

Martinson, who played briefly for the Detroit Red Wings in 1987-88 and in 49 NHL games overall, had 432 penalty minutes in one season with the Hershey Bears. He said playing with Goaldiggers tough guys like Paul Tantardini, Mike Greeder, and Dave Falkenberg gave him his first taste of the physical side of the game.

“A lot of teams didn't want to go to that rink [Sports Arena],” Martinson said. “That [small ice surface] was perfect for us. We had a big, tough team. If you wanted to hit someone, you didn't have to skate very far to do it.”

Nine years into his coaching career, Martinson nearly came back to coach the Toledo Storm. In May, 2002, he turned down the offer and remained with the San Diego Gulls. He then led San Diego to a fifth West Coast Hockey League title that season.

“I was real close to signing with Toledo,” Martinson said. “But San Diego made me an offer I could not refuse.”

Martinson has returned to Toledo on the opposing bench a couple of times. He coached the Elmira Jackals for three seasons and the Chicago Express for one. Martinson said he is impressed every time he comes to the Huntington Center.

“It has changed a lot,” Martinson said. “It's a beautiful setup. They do a great job and always have a big crowd. I'm happy for Toledo.”

Allen was the first team to win back-to-back ECHL titles since the Storm claimed Riley Cup championships in 1993 and 1994. Martinson became just the third coach to win two Kelly Cup titles.

Walleye coach Derek Lalonde said he is impressed how Martinson has designed his roster.

“It's unbelievably impressive for him to win back-to-back in this league because there are so many things you can't control,” Lalonde said. “He's done it for years.”

Lalonde said Martinson demands that his players be tough.

“He's teams play a certain style, but he is good tactically too,” Lalonde said. “He's a brilliant coach.”

Martinson said he views his roster compilation as a type of pyramid. He said successful ECHL teams need high skill level veterans along with quality players from their American Hockey League affiliates and a good group of rookies with high-end potential.

“You need a good mix,” he said.

He said he recruits players that work hard and are team guys.

“They have to be in really good shape and follow the system,” he said. “You have to have guys that will finish checks. You want the guys with higher skill level that also have those attributes.”

“When your best players compete like that everyone else has to fall into line. We have leaders that have led by example.”

He also said depth also is critical.

“You typically have to pick up a couple guys at the end [of the regular season]. You have to add some rookies,” Martinson said.

He said two key roster adds he made were rookie defensemen Thomas Carr and Jordan Rowley. He said the first-year pros were paired against the oppositions top line in the postseason. He said Allen also got help from its AHL affiliate in San Jose when center Nikita Jevpalovs was added after San Jose was eliminated during its playoff run.

Martinson said a core group of eight players returned to win back-to-back titles. The biggest pieces were ECHL MVP Chad Costello, a high-scoring forward, and veteran goalie Riley Gill.

Costello led all players in the postseason with 36 points (7 G, 29 A), the second most points in ECHL playoff history while his 29 assists set an ECHL postseason record.

“He's been the leader on the ice, scoring and making plays,” Martinson said. “Your best players have to be your best players in the playoffs.”

Gill won his third Kelly Cup title. He also led Reading to the championship in 2013. Only former Storm goalie and former Walleye coach Nick Vitucci, a 2008 ECHL hall of fame inductee, has won more ECHL titles with four.

Martinson said he has been impressed with the job  Lalonde has done in his two seasons in Toledo. The Walleye have won back-to-back North Division and Eastern Conference titles. Toledo posted a 47-20-5 record last season but lost to Reading in the first round of the playoffs.

“He's done a great job,” Martinson said. “I'm always impressed when I come back to Toledo.”

While it would seem Martinson is a hot commodity to move up to the higher level AHL, he said he does not dwell on it.

“I tend not to think too much about that stuff,” Martinson said. “It's not one of those things I can control. It's worked out pretty good. It beats working for a living.”

Contact Mark Monroe at: mmonroe@theblade.com, 419-724-6354 or on Twitter @MonroeBlade.

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Steve Martinson, coach of the ECHL’s Allen Americans, has led his team to back-to-back Kelly Cup titles.

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