Having a ‘whale’ of a Time: Ontario Hockey League’s Plymouth Whalers Know Where They’ve Been, Know Where They’re Going

Mike Vellucci has a firm grasp on his role as head coach of the Ontario Hockey League's Plymouth Whalers. And his players have an understanding of theirs, as well.

The Plymouth Whalers are one of the most competitive teams in the Ontario Hockey League
2011

For the last 13 years, Vellucci has coached one of the OHL's most competitive clubs, winning four Bumbacco Trophies (2001-02, 2002-03, 2005-06, 2006-07) as the West Division's top team and a J. Ross Roberston Cup (2007), the OHL's version of the NHL's Stanley Cup.

Sprinkle in a Wayne Gretzky Trophy for setting the bar in the Western Conference during the 2006-07 campaign, and a Hamilton Spectator Trophy for the league's best record in 2001-02, and one would see that Vellucci's club isn't the least bit short on hardware.

Right in the thick of things for another banner year, Vellucci's Whalers, 13-6-2-1 through 23 games, have a secret to success that isn't such a secret: Nurturing a stout feeder system through Compuware, which has funneled players to the franchise since 1990 and has produced some of the premier junior hockey talent in the Detroit area.

While other franchises make moves upon moves to bolster their talent, the Whalers benefit from keeping it in the family.

"That's what I pride our organization on; we're not always selling the farm, so to speak, to make a run for it every year," Vellucci said after a 2-0 road win in early November over the Saginaw Spirit. "We like to develop kids, we like taking young guys in - giving them ice time and playing them. We keep a good mix, because the older guys can teach the young guys how to play the game the right way, along with the coaches."

Although the Whalers boast their share of young, raw talent, their winning formula that has worked wonders in the past is the same recipe Vellucci, who is also the club's general manager, plans to utilize in 2011-12.

"As far as this year, we've got a really good team," said Vellucci. "It's just a matter of staying focused when you're so young. When you have younger guys, it's tough to stay focused. That's my job to make sure they're focused."

With five players born in, or after, 1994 - quite green, even for OHL standards - part of the Whalers' success will surely rest on the shoulders of experienced goaltenders Scott Wedgewood, a 2010 NHL draft pick of the New Jersey Devils, and Matt Mahalak of Monroe, a 2011 pick of the Carolina Hurricanes.

As of early November, Mahalak, 18, led the league with a 1.96 goals-against average and a .934 save percentage. Wedgewood's numbers weren't as impressive; a 3.23 GAA and .902 save percentage, but his leadership and willingness to sacrifice for the greater good of the organization make him an asset to the Whalers.

"I have a lot of experience being in the league," said Wedgewood, a 19-year-old veteran of two NHL camps and a fourth-year Whaler. "Me and Matt have been together for two years now, he's a great goaltender himself.

"We work well together, and we're both committed to winning. You can't have enough good goaltending, so, if he's playing well, Vellucci's not afraid to play him. If I'm playing well, we just want to keep the ball rolling. We just want to win. Both of us want to compete."

Riding the hot performer is common practice for coaches. And while Wedgewood's desire to be the No. 1 goalie was evident, so was his logic. If Mahalak is piggybacking a wave of momentum, Wedgewood takes notes or seeks guidance from his trainers on how to do the same.

"(Mahalak and I) bounce things off each other, get ideas for what works and what doesn't, and we have a great goalie coaching staff," Wedgewood said. "It's a good year for us, and we both want to get better and we both want to win."

If Vellucci's confidence is an indication of what's ahead, expect the Whalers to earn another postseason berth this season and make a healthy run for top honors in the OHL. And while strong goaltending is a plus for Plymouth, having center Alex Aleardi certainly helps, too. The Farmington Hills product was among team leaders with seven goals and six assists in early November.

Consistency, homegrown talent and appreciation of the Whalers' past drives Vellucci into the future.

"We're the only team to make the playoffs 20 straight years," Vellucci said. "To me, that's doing it the right way. Nobody else is even close to that record."

Adam Biggers can be reached by e-mailing him at Adam.Biggers@Yahoo.com, or on Twitter @AdamBiggers81.

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Updated Wednesday, Nov 16, 2011