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Walleye fans bid farewell to team at 'thank you' event

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    Fans wait for autographs from Walleye players during a 'thank you' event at the Huntington Center.

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    Christian Hilbrich of the Toledo Walleye signs an autograph for a fan during Thursday's event at the Huntington Center in downtown Toledo.

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    Walleye coach Dan Watson addresses fans during a 'thank you' event at the Huntington Center.

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    Kyle Bonis of the Walleye speaks to fans during a 'thank you' event at the Huntington Center.

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    Kyle Bonis during a 'thank you' event at the Huntington Center.

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    Walleye fans line up for autographs.

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With a mix of mutual appreciation and sadness, the Toledo Walleye organization offered the team's fans a chance to say a final farewell to this season’s players and coaching staff on Thursday night.

A crowd of about 400 fans gathered at the Huntington Center to give one last salute to the team. The group offered standing ovations during player introductions as highlights played on the video board at the downtown arena.

The “Thank You” event was held two days after the Walleye were eliminated from the Kelly Cup playoffs.

“It was obviously a disappointing end to the season,” Walleye coach Dan Watson told the crowd. “I think everyone feels the same way. It was another special group.”

VIDEO: Walleye pay tribute to fans

The team set 28 records during the regular season, including most home wins (28) and fewest goals allowed (170). But Toledo was knocked out off the playoffs in the Central Division finals by rival Fort Wayne.

“We played our hearts out,” veteran forward Kyle Bonis said. “A championship is very close for this city. No fan base deserves it more.”

Toledo finished with the best regular-season record in the conference for the fourth straight season, and reached 50 wins for the second straight season. The Walleye earned the top seed in the first three rounds, but were bounced in the second round.

“It was not the end result we were looking for,” said Neil Neukam, the Walleye's executive vice president and general manager as he addressed the crowd. “But these guys were champions all season on and off the ice. They brought pride to the Glass City.”

VIDEO: Fans applaud coach Dan Watson during Thursday’s ‘thank you’ event

Neukam also called the passion of the fans an inspiration to the team.

The Walleye finished the year with a record attendance of 273,613, with the highest per game average in team history (7,600). There also were a record 28 sellouts.

“We do not take you guys lightly,” Watson said. “We love having you guys here in the building every single night supporting our team. A lot of guys come here for the atmosphere in this building, which is from you guys. So I say thank you.”

The team set a Huntington Center record with a standing-room-only crowd of 8,388 in the regular-season finale on Friday, April 6, against Fort Wayne. A total of 13 games at the Huntington Center drew crowds of more than 8,000. A record for attendance percentage to capacity (102 percent) also was established.

The fans greeted goaltender Pat Nagle with some of the loudest cheers. Nagle, who earned All-ECHL second team honors, set a Toledo ECHL record for goaltender wins in a single season, and finished the year one win shy of tying the ECHL record for single-season wins by a goaltender.

Watson thanked the team's staff, which also was recognized during the event.

The team tied the franchise record for longest home winning streak (13 games).

Watson, the second-year coach, said it was important to hold the event to recognize the team's veterans.

The Walleye were led by a core group of players that have been with the team for several years. The fans offered loud cheers for Bonis, Alden Hirschfeld, Shane Berschbach, A.J. Jenks, Tyler Barnes, and Beau Schmitz.

“There are a lot of guys who have been here since the 14-15 season that may not be returning,” Watson said. “They've really turned the culture around here when we were just hoping to get a winning season. Now it's become, 'We're going to make the playoffs. Let's see how many rounds we can win.'

“We're hoping for bigger and better things next year.”

Contact Mark Monroe at mmonroe@theblade.com419-724-6354, or on Twitter @MonroeBlade.

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