By Christine Troyke
The Gwinnett Gladiators landed a proven big-game goaltender, one who is used to having his name echo to the rafters.
This year, however, fans at the Arena at Gwinnett Center won't be chanting his name tauntingly as they often have. This year, Craig Kowalski will be wearing the maroon and black instead of defending against it.
The Gladiators announced Thursday that Kowalski, formerly a division rival with the Florida Everblades, has signed for the 2007-08 season.
Kowalski has been under contract the last three years with the Carolina Hurricanes and assigned to their ECHL affiliate in Florida for much of that time. In 2006-07, Kowalski was a career-best 29-13-3 with a 2.61 goals-against average and a .918 save percentage in the regular season.
He then helped the Everblades to the American Conference finals, playing all but one period and going 10-6 with a .921 save percentage and a 2.61 GAA.
A free agent after Carolina didn't re-sign him, Kowalski picked Gwinnett from among many choices. The 26-year-old is well acquainted with the team and the facilities here after 21⁄2 seasons with the Everblades. Kowalski was also able to tap a couple of other reliable sources for information about the franchise - he played with Gladiator defensemen Jim Jackson and Jamie Milam at Northern Michigan University.
"I'm familiar with a few guys on the team and just the success they've had over the last couple years," said Kowalski. "It's a good opportunity.
"They've always had good fans and a good atmosphere."
The Michigan native, who as a rookie in 2004-05 played 20 games in the American Hockey League and made it to the Kelly Cup finals with Florida, did say it'll be a nice change hearing the Gwinnett fans cheer him instead of jeer him.
Gladiator head coach Jeff Pyle, himself a Northern Michigan alum, was enthusiastic about the signing.
"I just think he's a good leader - in the locker room, too," Pyle said. "We were young there (in goal) last season. Maybe he can bring a little more stability.
"I'm excited about it. His stats have been consistent every year. You know what you're going to get with him."
Jackson, who has played three of his four professional seasons with Gwinnett, seconded that opinion. Jackson was a sophomore at Northern when Kowalski joined the team - fresh off being drafted by the Hurricanes in 2000.
"He jumped right in with Danny Ragusett, who was a record holder at Northern before Craig got there," Jackson said. "When Craig walked in his freshman year, he proved to the coaches and the team that he was worth splitting games with."
Kowalski played 19 games as a freshman and was the No. 1 guy between the pipes for the next three seasons. His stats in college and then in the pros are the epitome of consistency - and plenty impressive.
His goal-against average in the last seven seasons has fluctuated only slightly, hovering in the 2.75 range every year. His save percentage during the same period has never been under .900.
"Playing in front of him, you feel really secure," Jackson said. "You don't have to worry about making that one mistake. You know Craig is going to be ready for a game. He's going to have to stand on his head every once in a while, but that's why we're bringing him in.
"I think it's going to be really good for the team. Craig has been in the league for a few years and he's an outstanding goaltender. He's going to be a good fit with the chemistry of the team."
Jackson and Kowalski have been hanging out together in Michigan all summer, getting ready for the upcoming season.
"We're going into this year focused on winning a championship," Jackson said. "It's cool. It's nice having Craig on the team this year. We've been talking about it all summer."
Kowalski said he'll be staying in Michigan for the next three weeks before heading to training camp with the Gladiators' American Hockey League affiliate in Chicago.
Pyle expects that Dan Turple, who shared time between the pipes with fellow rookie Dave Caruso in Gwinnett last season, will be the Gladiators' other netminder. Turple, a 6-foot-6 22-year-old under contract with NHL Atlanta, was 18-13-3 with a 3.77 goals-against average and .879 save percentage on 2006-07.
"(Pyle) basically told me whatever goalie is playing better will start," Kowalski said. "I want to play every game if I could."
Kowalski knows that's unlikely to be the case, but it's just the kind of attitude Pyle wanted when he went looking a goalie this summer.
SideBar: Season opener
Who: Gwinnett at Pensacola
When: Oct. 19, 8:05 p.m.
Where: Pensacola, Fla.