Originally created 10/10/01

Size disguises Willis' grittiness



The phone never stopped ringing at Tyler Willis' house this summer.

Augusta Lynx coach Jim Burton was running up one hefty long-distance bill.

"He probably called me about 30, 40 times," Willis said. "At one point, my mom was like 'Who is this guy who keeps calling?"'

Burton was determined to land the gritty free-agent winger, who played the past two seasons for the East Coast Hockey League's Peoria Rivermen and AHL's Worcester IceCats.

His persistence and telemarketing skills paid off.

"I knew he was a guy I wanted on my team," said Burton, whose Lynx open the season Friday at home against the Greensboro Generals. "He's a great character guy and tough as nails. Everyone loved him in Peoria."

After one week with the Lynx, the diminutive 24-year-old dynamo is fast endearing himself to his new teammates and fans alike.

"He comes to play every night and gives 100 percent, and hopefully the guys can feed off of him," Lynx captain Scott Morrow said. "He's working hard every night and, hopefully, it's contagious. He's hard to play against. And he's willing to fight anybody."

Willis is one of the smallest players in the ECHL at 5-feet-9, 175 pounds. That never has stopped him from going toe-to-toe with opposing heavyweights.

"I knew him back from junior six years ago, and he hasn't changed one bit," said Lynx winger Jessie Rezansoff, who played with Willis last year in Peoria and was his linemate with Swift Current in the Western Hockey League.

"He's still non-stop energy. There's just no back down in him."

Willis, though, is more than just an undersized enforcer.

With Peoria and Worcester last season, Willis combined for 16 goals and 35 points along with 301 penalty minutes in 74 games. He scored the game-winning goal in Saturday's 4-2 preseason win at home over Macon, and also challenged Macon's biggest player - 6-4, 225-pounder Kenzie Homer - to a fight.

Homer took a Willis right jab to the head. He quickly backed down and skated away.

"People look at my size and say they're surprised by the way I play," Willis said. "But I've always played that way. I think I have surprised a lot of people in my career.

His personality is as infectious as his tenacity.

"He's just this hyper guy when he's on the ice and he's the same off the ice," Morrow said. "It's a lot of fun to be around him. He's so happy-go-lucky. He walks in the room with a smile on his face and he always makes funny comments. It makes for a fun atmosphere."

Reach Rob Mueller at (706) 823-3425 or robm99@hotmail.com