Fans thrilled with return of Walleye hockey despite loss in preseason game

Oct. 17—The preseason game did not count in the standings on Saturday night, but it clearly mattered a ton to the 6,503 fans who finally got the chance to see the Toledo Walleye on the ice once again at the Huntington Center.

For the first time in 594 days, fans flocked downtown for ECHL hockey. The last time the Walleye played here was in an empty arena on March 11, 2020, during the early stages of the coronavirus pandemic.

With a roster full of new faces, the revamped Walleye lost 4-1 to the Kalamazoo Wings in an exhibition game that felt more like a homecoming celebration.

Kalamazoo forwards Matheson Iacopelli and Max Humitz and goaltender Jet Greaves did their best to ruin the reunion. Iacopelli scored two second-period goals, Humitz also scored twice, and Greaves made 38 saves.

But the goal horn blared and the first fish was thrown onto the ice when Brett Boeing scored a power-play goal in the late stages of the second period. Boeing, who has played in 40 games for the Walleye, is one of the few players who have suited up for the team in the past.

"It's pretty crazy," Boeing said. "You hear the hype around town. Tonight there were 6,000 people here and you don't get that anywhere else, especially for preseason games. It creates a lot of momentum. The home-ice advantage is huge here with how loud it gets. I'm just thankful they all came out."

Goaltender Billy Christopoulos was back between the pipes just as he was in March, 2020, and had 19 saves on 22 shots. Christopoulos earned a spot on the All-ECHL rookie team in 2019-20 when he had a 23-3-3 record with a 2.29 goals-against average for a Walleye team that looked primed for a long playoff run before the season was canceled.

The Walleye then opted out of the 2020-21 season.

The hockey-starved spectators gave the traditional "Boo!" chant to public address announcer Bobb Vergiels, who made his return, during player introductions. The cowbells were ringing and beers were flowing as the team's theme song "Suit Up (T-Town Hockey)" got the arena rocking.

Walleye coach Dan Watson, who is in his fifth season as head coach and 12th with the franchise, said the atmosphere still gives him chills.

"It was awesome. There were some nerves before the game, I'm not going to lie to you just because of the feeling of getting behind the bench again in front of our great fans," Watson said. "Knowing how many people were here just for an exhibition game brought back a lot of great emotions I've had over a long period of time here."

Despite a two-goal deficit, the celebration continued when goaltender Austyn Roudebush, a 2011 Whitmer High School graduate, came into the game to start the third period. Roudebush, who played in the ECHL last season, is currently the team's No. 3 goalie. He gave up a goal early in the third to Humitz but then settled in nicely, making eight saves.

"It's was exciting," Roudebush said. "I had a lot of friends and family up in the suite watching. There were some guys here that I grew up playing hockey with. It was cool to be on the main stage in Toledo and give them a show and prove myself."

Now those fans will have to wait another 21 days to see the Walleye again. Toledo won't be back on the ice until the home opener on Nov. 6 against the K-Wings.

Toledo, which defeated Kalamazoo 4-2 on Friday night in Michigan, opens the season with five straight road games. The season opener is next Saturday at Kalamazoo.

Kalamazoo scored on a solo breakaway to take a 1-0 lead 41 seconds into the second period. Iacopelli scored on a nice backhanded shot up over the shoulder of Christopoulos. Minutes later, Christopoulos made a solid save on another solo breakaway.

Iacopelli scored again with 13:13 left in the second period to put the K-Wings up 2-0 with an unassisted goal. Iacopelli had a golden chance at the hat trick with yet another solo rush, but Christopoulos made the stop to keep it a two-goal deficit.

Boeing answered with a power-play goal on assists from John Albert and Blake Hillman.

Just 24 seconds later, Kalamazoo re-established the two-goal lead when Humitz scored. Humitz scored again 2:33 into the third period for a three-goal cushion.

While the attendance was not quite a sellout (7,431 is the seating capacity), the large crowd spoke volumes of the city's eagerness to see hockey return. In comparison, just 916 spectators attended Friday night's game in Kalamazoo where the Walleye won 4-2.

The Walleye showed good puck movement, at times, and looked disjointed during other stretches. A few defensive lapses led to quality chances for the K-Wings.

"We did have some good looks. We hit some posts," Watson said. "Their goaltender was very good, but we didn't get enough traffic in front of him. Overall, our energy declined a bit in the second period. The first and third were good. We have some things to work on. It's all about evaluating our players and our play. It's about the work ethic and getting them to do the things we preach."

Toledo finished with a 39-31 edge in shots on goal.

Boeing said the players are still finding their footing after a long layout.

"It's still a little sloppy. We were trying to make too many [fancy] plays. It's a tight-knit group already. It's coming together quickly," Boeing said.

FISH TALES: Veteran forward T.J. Hensick was not in the lineup. Hensick, who played on Friday night, was a healthy scratch. G Kaden Fulcher also was a scratch. He won in K-Zoo on Friday night, stopping 24 of the 26 shots. ... The Walleye earned a power play just 1:12 into the game after a two-on-one rush by Matt Berry and Brett McKenzie. The team got two shots on goal and hit two posts but did not score. Toledo had another man-advantage moments later but did not cash in. The Walleye led 8-1 in shots on goal at the midpoint of the first period. ... The two ECHL Central Division foes meet three times over Toledo's first six games.

First Published October 16, 2021, 10:23pm

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