Gladiators built to win

DULUTH - Jeff Pyle has talked many times about how he built this Gwinnett Gladiators team to succeed in the new world order of hockey, one that prizes offense above all else.

It has served him well so far. The Gladiators earned a spot in the Kelly Cup finals with a four-games-to-one win over big, bruising Toledo in the American Conference finals.

Before the playoffs began, Pyle worried that his team of fleet-footed, highly skilled players wouldn't get the calls.

"Under the pressure these guys are under to call the rules the way they're supposed to be called, I think they've done a commendable job," Pyle said. "I realize after seeing every game it would be extremely hard for them to call all the stuff that needs to be called because it would be one-sided."

When the NHL came back from a year long strike last fall, rules meant to severely limit obstruction of play makers and puck carriers were put in place. The American Hockey League adopted similar standards, and at the top two levels it's been difficult to even put a stick on the opposition without drawing a penalty.

The ECHL asked its officials to crack down on interference, but it wasn't able to hold the same strict line as its top-tier counterparts.

Part of that is because the NHL uses a two-referee system and that isn't feasible right now for the ECHL, league commissioner Brian McKenna said during a visit last week to the Arena at Gwinnett Center.

"There is still a difference in the standard in the ECHL and the NHL," McKenna said. "They implemented their standards very late last year before the beginning of the season so there wasn't time to implement that across the board at all levels.

"In order to do that, you've not only got to train your officials and show them video, have workshops and camps, you've got to train your players, your coaches, your GMs, your owners, your fans to a certain degree as well in terms of what's going to be called and what the new standard is to be expected.

"We didn't have the time to do that."

The ECHL will be addressing that issue during the offseason, speaking with the NHL and AHL in an effort to bring the standards closer together.

"I'm not sure if we can get as tight as the NHL is right now with a one-referee system and at this point we don't have a plan to go to a two-referee system," McKenna said. "But I still think we can get closer to that NHL standard as we move forward into the '06-'07 season."

With two referees, infractions behind the play are more likely to be caught and called. With one referee, McKenna said, that just isn't possible.

"Having said that, around the puck, the skill players, the interference, the hooking, the holding, the grabbing, I think next year we intend to have an even tighter standard with the end result being much like the NHL's experience this year - more open style of play, more flow, more speed and allow the skill players to do their thing," McKenna said.

"That isn't going to take away from the physical aspect of the game. That isn't going to take away from players being able to hit and play certain kinds defense like zone or trap. We just don't want them to impede the progress of either the puck carrier or the player ... who has a chance to get a scoring opportunity."

With players - and officials - moving up and down between the three leagues, McKenna said it was important to make the rules and their application as consistent as possible.

Five years ago, before McKenna took over as commissioner and when the ECHL was still the East Coast Hockey League, this wouldn't have been a big deal. The number of players being called up by the AHL and NHL wasn't nearly as significant as it is these days.

McKenna has devoted much time and effort to making the ECHL the premier AA hockey league in North America. Twenty of the 25 teams that played in the 2005-06 season had affiliates in one or both of the top two levels.

In the course of the league's 18-year history, 303 players have appeared in the NHL after stepping on the ice in the ECHL. More than half of those (158) have made their NHL debut since 2000-01, including a record 47 this season.

"With the new NHL collective bargaining agreement and more of an emphasis on signing and developing players, I think you're going to see more of that (matriculation) in the upcoming years just almost by osmosis with the NHL," McKenna said. "However, at our level, we think it's a good thing that teams have the choice in terms of how they want to structure their lineups and whether or not they want to be independent or affiliated."

The Gladiators, part of the Atlanta Thrashers-Chicago Wolves system, had 18 rostered players called up in 2005-06. Goaltender Adam Berkhoel was the only one to see action in the NHL, however, playing nine games for the Thrashers.

Most, but not all, of those transactions were with affiliated teams.

Unlike baseball where each man in the system is property of a major league club, the vast majority of ECHL players aren't under NHL or AHL contract and are free to be signed by any franchise from those levels. Of the 833 players rostered by ECHL teams this season, 133 were on NHL contract and 89 belonged to AHL franchises.

It's a more structured system than it was before the new millennium, but it's not as rigid as, for example, professional baseball. And that's how McKenna likes it.

"Even the affiliated teams and the teams that have a strong affiliations, like Gwinnett, still have the opportunity to go out and sign eight, 10, 12 of their own players," McKenna said. "After you know what you're getting from your affiliate, it gives you the ability to sign specific players - whether you want to bring in some veterans, whether you want to bring in some speedsters - I think it allows you to do that.

"Also, during the season if you need to make changes or trades, if we had total affiliation, it would be very difficult to do that. Whereas by still having most of our rosters being ECHL contracted players, teams still have the ability to react to their needs, react to fan interest.

"That gives us the best of both worlds."

And with all 25 teams coming back for next season, the league is establishing a level of stability not seen in much of its past. Two more teams, Texas and Cincinnati, are rejoining the league after suspending operation. Hurricanes kept Texas from fielding a team this year and Cincinnati missed two seasons while ironing out issues regarding arena availability.

"We're finally starting to get to a level of stability which is good," McKenna said. "That isn't to say that we don't have our three or four markets that we'd like to see do better. We're going to continue to work with them to try to make that happen. But I think it does speak very well of our league and the hard work that our ownership groups are putting in that we do have all 25 teams returning."