Toledo Walleye defender Landon Oslanski fights Kalamazoo Wings forward Kyle Blaney (18) during this year's ECHL playoffs. BLADE PHOTO
Angered. Bullied. Cheated.
These are the words of Joe Napoli in the wake of the Walleye’s latest close-but-no-cup playoff run.
And he’s just getting started.
“This feels a little liberating,” Napoli said.
The Mud Hens and Walleye president and CEO knows his concerns will come off as a loser’s lament, knows rival teams will read this and think, “Hey, quit crying.” But he is on what he termed a mission.
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He believes the ice this postseason was unfairly slanted against Toledo — and, more broadly, against clubs who have prioritized skill and speed and flair over fists in response to an evolving game.
While the NHL delivers a faster, more wide-open product than ever, some worry the ECHL is trending back toward its smashing, ruffian past.
Two-time reigning champion Allen has averaged a league-high 19.74 penalty minutes the past three seasons while Colorado — the favorite this year after a five-game series win over the Walleye in the conference finals — is second. The Eagles’ 225 major penalties during the last three years are as many as the Red Wings have committed since ... 2002.
During the same span, the Walleye led the league in almost every category but one. They were last in penalty minutes, averaging league-low 10.64 minutes in the box and 33 majors. (In the NHL, where enforcers have gone the way of wooly mammoth and fighting is down nearly 50 percent since 2009, the league average was nine penalty minutes per game last season.)
Lately, if offense sells tickets, brawn wins championships.
And that has Toledo puzzled.
After what Napoli described as a productive 90-minute phone call with ECHL commissioner Brian McKenna, he opened up this week on the state of the league.
“Every team has different philosophies and we accept that,” he said. “What was unsettling to us is that we really felt we had to run through the pugilistic gauntlet. Our locker room looked like a M.A.S.H. unit. The league has made tremendous strides, we get that, and there are teams that decide there is a [throwback] style of hockey that is going to win. But that style does not win at the NHL level any longer and it hasn’t for 20 years. What’s left us scratching our heads is we feel like the fans, the team, and our town deserve better.
“The purpose of the phone call with the league was to understand what will it take to win a Kelly Cup. Do we continue to do the things we do or do we have to resort to things that haven't been done in a decade? It just seems like this year teams decided they could not beat us playing hockey so they decided they were going to beat us up.”
Napoli added: “With the raw emotions, you feel, ‘Is this just a case of sour grapes?’ But then you look at the last two years. When we lost in the playoffs to South Carolina and Reading, that was great, hard-fought hockey. This year the first three rounds were hard to describe because they weren’t really hockey. The fans recognized that, and so did many others. That’s what makes this one so emotionally draining. Anything that you do in life where you feel you’ve been cheated and bullied, the raw emotions emerge. That’s the way we’re feeling right now.
“We’ll be on a mission.”
There is a lot to unpack here, and remember, we’re just the messenger.
As a general rule, I would never use the word “cheated.” That suggests blame misdirected at the officials, who have a thankless job and are in the minors to develop just like the players. No matter how many calls they made or missed, they are not the reason the Walleye lost. There are no excuses.
Napoli, though, said he does not blame the refs.
What consumes him is the bigger picture — including how officials are trained to manage games — and the question that will chart the future of his franchise.
Will the ECHL continue its pursuit to more closely resemble the higher levels of hockey and promote the high-speed, finesse style of teams such as the Walleye? Or do the Walleye need to adjust to the sometimes mucked-up grind of the ECHL?
An ECHL spokesman said McKenna was not available to comment. A Colorado official said the organization had no response.
For me, there needs to be a middle ground.
The Walleye can’t keep foraying down the same road and expect to win a championship.
Twice in the past three years, they have won the regular-season title, only to discover the postseason plays no favorites.
Which, in a way, is the beauty of the playoffs.
But after repeatedly compiling perhaps the league’s most talented teams, it is time to look inward. Especially with clubs out west like Colorado and Allen — recent league additions from the old CHL who endure as spirited throwbacks to a lost, black-and-blue era — looming in the spring.
“There’s been a little bit of a changing of guard from how hockey was trending in our league to going back to — I won’t say old school — but the physical, banging mentality,” Walleye coach Dan Watson said. “It’s something we’re going to look at in the recruiting process.”
Do the Walleye need, as Watson puts it, another guy or two “who is big and physical and maybe not the most talented but will get the job done when it's tough?”
Another guy who will make other teams rethink the way they rough up Toledo’s fleet of scorers?
Watson says yes, which would slightly diminish their league-best offense and sacrifice a few wins in the regular season but perhaps pay off in the swallow-the-whistle slog of the playoffs.
“Are we willing,” he asked, “to sacrifice finishing third in our division with a better chance to win the Kelly Cup?”
And yet nobody wants to see the Walleye abandon their identity.
It is not just a fun style to watch but, in a developmental league, the idea should be preparing players for the next levels. Toledo does a good job of this, leading the league in nonaffiliate player call-ups the last two seasons, according to the franchise.
In other words, organizations beyond the Red Wings — the Walleye’s parent club — have an eye on Toledo. Some prospects even make it to the NHL, including Detroit forward and former Walleye star Luke Glendening.
The ECHL needs to play its part too. While the league is a far shout from the bloody-knuckled era fans here adored at the old Sports Arena, these playoffs showed there is room to improve the product.
The near-felony assault of Walleye defenseman Simon Denis in Game 2 of Toledo’s first-round series against Kalamazoo was a fluke incident, yes, but also a symptom of inexperienced officials who allowed the game to devolve into a Slap Shot, anything-goes fiasco.
“We wanted to get a handle on if that type of play is acceptable,” Napoli said. “That second period against Kalamazoo was the worst example of hockey I’ve ever witnessed. We had several people from the NHL in the building, and they were speechless. It was the worst period of hockey they’ve ever watched.”
He said he felt similarly unsettled during the Walleye’s three-overtime loss to Colorado in Game 4 of the conference final.
“I was on the edge of my seat waiting for someone to be seriously injured,” Napoli said. “As I’ve mentioned to the [players] before, I have kids their age, and in the back of my mind, I was really thinking, ‘If my son was on this team, would I want him on the ice?’
“It was mayhem. I don’t know how else to describe it. There wasn’t a single penalty called in three overtimes. You’re the coach, you’re the player, you know they’re not going to call penalties, what would be the next natural behavior to occur? I think the league knows this. Everyone is embarrassed by it. We’re counting on there being a cure. We let the league know this is not going to be a couple of phone calls and we’re going to forget it.
“We’re on a mission.”
If that strikes rivals as the sourest of grapes, that’s fine by Napoli.