DULUTH - The Gwinnett Gladiators' training camp begins today with a surprising face in the crowd. Actually faces.
Former ECHL MVP Jeff Campbell has returned to the team after spending the majority of last season in the American Hockey League. Campbell was named the ECHL's Most Valuable Player in 2005-06 when he helped the Gladiators to the Kelly Cup finals. The right winger collected 17 points in 11 games for Gwinnett last season before being called up to Grand Rapids of the AHL, where he remained for the rest of the year.
"When I got the call from him, it was kind of just like last year - I was like, 'You've got to be kidding me. How does this happen?,'" Gladiators head coach Jeff Pyle said of his contact with Campbell over the summer. "It's one of those things that, bottom line, I guess he's just fallen through the cracks. I think the NHL teams now are under pressure, if it's going to be a third- or fourth-line guy, then in the end, it's got to be one of their (drafted) guys.
"I was surprised and I feel bad for him. But it's not like he's going to a terrible place either. I can't say I understand. You learn to play the kid to his strengths and give him an opportunity and he's always going to show up and do a good job. "
Also unexpectedly assigned to the Gladiators is last season's ECHL Defenseman of the Year, Jon Awe. Awe is signed with the AHL's Houston Aeros, but was sent down to Gwinnett on Wednesday. Last year, his second as a professional, the 6-foot-4 defenseman racked up 65 points in 60 games with the Gladiators and was called up to the AHL twice with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton and Chicago.
"So there's another surprise," Pyle said.
Campbell had 31 points in 61 games with Grand Rapids last
season, but decided to come back to the Gladiators.
"I was hoping I would get my contract renewed in the AHL," Campbell said. "I didn't. Unfortunately. So I had to make a decision on where I wanted to play."
Campbell was considering going over to Europe, but he just got married this summer and had to apply for a green card - which he did not get in time to play overseas.
Pyle and general manager Steve Chapman told Campbell he would be welcome back with the Gladiators.
"And I loved playing here in Gwinnett," Campbell said.
So he and his wife, Abby, packed all their stuff - including a lot of wedding presents - into a U-Haul and drove down.
"The drive wasn't bad," Campbell said. "The packing and unpacking was."
The 26-year-old spent the summer skating with several fellow Gladiators, including Jamie Milam, up in Michigan.
"(But) it's always nice to get back on the ice and start a new season," Campbell said. "This summer was a little longer than usual. I'm excited to get back out there."
Campbell is one of 24 players in training camp for the Gladiators' fifth anniversary season. There are nine players that wore the maroon and black for Gwinnett at some time last season, including Mike Vigilante, who Pyle named captain.
"He's well-deserving," Pyle said of Vigilante. "He's such a good kid."
Returning after playing significant time with the Gladiators last season are defensemen Jim Jackson, Jamie Milam and Jon Sitko.
Goaltender Dan Turple and rookie forward Myles Stoesz were assigned by Gwinnett's NHL affiliate, the Atlanta Thrashers, as was forward Mike Hamilton by AHL Chicago. Hamilton, a Maine University product, is one of seven rookies on the roster.
Also starting their first full professional season are Bill LeClerc (Yale), Stuart MacRae (St. Francis Xavier), Ryan Mahrle (Western Michigan), Dinos Stamoulis (Providence) and Andy Brandt, who joined the Gladiators at the end of last season out of Wisconsin.
"I know what I've got, but I'm not sure what's coming down (from Chicago)," Pyle said. "We'll have to see how it sorts itself all out.
"I just want to get started. I'm anxious. It's not going to be a huge camp. There's going to be a couple spots where guys'll have to battle. I'm going to have some tough decisions."
The on-ice workouts start at 12:10 p.m. today at the Duluth IceForum and continue through Oct. 18. All sessions at the IceForum are free and open to the public.
The 2007-08 campaign gets under way on Oct. 19 with a road game in Pensacola.
SideBar: Training camp 2007
The Gwinnett Gladiators training camp begins today and runs through Oct. 18. On-ice sessions at the Duluth IceForum are open to the public. Here's the schedule:
Today: 12:10-2:30 p.m.
Saturday: 12:10-2:30 p.m.
Monday: 12:10-2:30 p.m.
Tuesday: 12:10-2:30 p.m.
Wednesday: 12:10-2:30 p.m.
Thursday: 9:10 -10 a.m.
Oct. 12th: 12:10-2:30 p.m.
Oct. 13th: 12:10-2:30 p.m.
Oct. 15th: 12:10-2:30 p.m.