2013 ECHL All-Star Game: Coetzee working his way back to AHL

By Justin Felisko

Willie Coetzee - Detroit Red Wings

Photo: Toledo Walleye forward Willie Coetzee, shown here playing in a preseason game for the Detroit Red Wings, is trying to climb back up the ladder in that NHL team's organization (courtesy of Abelimages/Getty Images)

Willie Coetzee refuses to use this year’s earlier NHL lockout as an excuse for currently playing for the ECHL’s Toledo Walleye. There is a reason why the Detroit Red Wings decided to keep the 5'10”, 180-pound forward in the ECHL instead of letting him build off of his 2010 campaign (11 goals, 11 assists) with the team's American Hockey League affiliate in Grand Rapids, MI.

Instead, Coetzee has embraced the challenge and is motivated to return to the AHL.

“It’s always a motivation,” Coetzee said. “The lockout is always an excuse for everybody, but I am here with everyone else. I am still here so I obviously need to work on things. It’s motivation to put up points and do what Detroit wants me to.”

Coetzee said the Red Wings have encouraged him to put more pucks on net and that is exactly what the 22-year-old has done by firing an ECHL-high 165 shots on goal. He also has 16 goals and 19 assists in 39 games for the Walleye.

“I have always been a shooter,” he said. “It’s just now I get the opportunity when I am down here. I got more room to play and more playing time.”

Coetzee started off last season on Grand Rapid’s second line before falling down the depth chart to the Griffins’ third and fourth lines. As a result of his drop down the depth chart, this year he has welcomed the opportunity to be Toledo’s top right winger to help continue with his development.

“I know the process with Detroit is they want me to get a lot of ice time, and it’s working out for me,” Coetzee said. “It’s really helpful getting your confidence back.”

The Red Wings signed Coetzee as an undrafted free agent in 2009 prior to his impressive final season for the Red Deer Rebels (WHL), where he put up 52 assists and 81 points.  But one thing Coetzee never did in junior hockey, or until this year for that matter, was play on the penalty kill.

“I feel I have been playing on it really well,” Coetzee said. “I try to model (my game) after well-defensive players. But it’s tough to be a really good defensive, offensive player like Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg. I look up to those players.”
Wednesday is Coetzee’s first professional all-star game appearance and he will be playing against an old, familiar face in Colorado’s Dylan Hood.

“I played with him in Under-16 in (British Columbia) and he was a little guy,” Hood said. “You look at him now and he is an unbelievable player and really grew into it and developed his game. Now I am trying to keep up with him.”

Coetzee moved to Vancouver when he was four years old after being born in Johannesburg, South Africa to a very gifted and athletic family. His father. Willem, was a professional track and field athlete as well as an ultra marathon runner. William’s mother, Thelma, played professional tennis.

So it comes as no surprise to listen to Coetzee talk about his motivation and desire to one day return to the AHL and maybe even make his debut for the Red Wings. It’s a hard working trait both his parents had and one they instilled in him at a young age.

“They really nailed that into me as a kid,” Coetzee said. “They said it doesn’t matter where you are. If you’re on the top of the list or the bottom of the list, you have to work the same.”

Coetzee understands that he and the rest of the ECHL players are in control of their own destiny. Yes, sometimes situations will come down to roster space or other scenarios, but when push comes to shove they still have to earn their way to the top. The greatest players will earn the best opportunities.

“We can’t be frustrated. It’s no one’s fault,” Coetzee said. “It all comes down to us. We have to be performing well.”

Follow Justin Felisko at Twitter via @jfelisko