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'Devoted and loyal'
Gwinnett diehards pumped for Gladiators' home opener

DULUTH - Eric Harris' son had his first concussion at a Gwinnett Gladiators' hockey match.

Harris reminisces about the incident - a family friend dropped the kid, Bayne Harris, now 11, in the Gwinnett Center lobby, necessitating an overnight hospital worry-fest - as if it were the boy's grandest right of passage. The concussion now lives famously in Harris family lore.

Why?

"Hockey love, man," said Harris, 49, of Lawrenceville. "Hockey luuuve. I love the Gladiators."

Harris and family joined thousands Saturday night who got their hockey on in the raucous, opponent-bashing style Gladiators' faithful are known for. The Gladiators kicked off their fifth season in Gwinnett with a trouncing of the rival Pensacola Ice Pilots. Fan support was thunderous.

Prior to the game, tailgater Scott Arnold, of Lawrenceville, drew comparisons between the Gladiators and Atlanta's lackluster professional teams.

"Falcons 1-5. Thrashers 1-6. Who cares?" said Arnold, 42, who adores both hockey and Budweiser. "Thank God we got minor-league hockey."

Even his son, budding pugilist Austin Arnold, 11, prefers scrappy hockey types over those in the NFL.

"It's more fun to watch football," the younger Arnold observed, "but it's more fun to be here because you get to watch the fights."

The Arnolds and their tailgating brethren did much Saturday to bolster the Gwinnett Center's image as a rowdy place. Gladiators GM Steve Chapman described the team's home ice as "intimidating" this week and the local fanatics as "some of the best in the league."

"Devoted and loyal," said Gladiators' marketing director Christi Johnson, classifying the team's fandom. "They're great fans - we can't complain."

Gladiators' goalie Craig Kowalski, a recent pick-up who played most of the last three seasons for Gwinnett's division rival, Florida, was routinely razzed by rabid Gladiators fans.

"It'll be nice to be cheered for ... instead of being booed," Kowalski said recently.

Since the Gladiators moved to Gwinnett from Mobile, Ala., prior to the 2003-04 season, the team has perennially ranked in the top 10 in yearly attendance. Consistent playoff appearances - they've made it each year, nabbing a spot in the ECHL finals in 2005-06 - have done little to mute the team's appeal.

"There's a core group of 2,000 or 3,000 that are at every game - every game," said Cam Brown, a former Gladiators' team captain turned part-time assistant coach. "That building is just electric. There's nothing in our league that I've seen that compares to it.

"Ft. Myers is the closest one. But people down there aren't nearly as passionate."

And the rowdy support appears to propel the team. The Gladiators' regular season home record in their first four seasons is an impressive 101-28.

Brown again: "I've spoke with people born and raised in the South who'd never seen a hockey game before. They heard there's a local team in town and they can go for $12 or $15. Those people are now season ticket holders. I think it's great for the sport."

To the novice observer, a Gladiators home opener is like a faster version of the Ice Capades injected with an AC/DC concert.

There's the mildly profane chanting traditions. The fresh, cool scent of the ice. The goose bump inducing intro featuring Russell Crowe in full "Gladiator" garb doing his best "father to a murdered son" bit.

Not to mention a JumboTron celebrity Zamboni race in which Scooby Doo smokes Michael Vick.

In Saturday's match, the Gladiators scored with 14:38 left in the first period. The crowd went bonkers.

Twenty eight seconds later, they scored again. Bonkers times two.

With 13:15 in the same period, another score - 3-0. Full-blown pandemonium.

"I can't tell you how many times we get an e-mail from people who tell us they've been meaning to come for years," said Chapman, the GM. "They can't believe what they've been missing."

SideBar: Gladiators GM: Gwinnett fans some of the best in the league

The Gladiators' general manager Steve Chapman talks with staff writer Josh Green about the fans and the team's fifth anniversary season.

JG: It's the fifth anniversary season. How pumped are you to be on home ice this weekend?

SC: We're really excited. It's been a long summer, a lot of work we put into it. We're looking forward to it.

JG: In terms of rowdy team support, where does Gwinnett fall in comparison with other markets?

SC: As far as fans, I think we have some of the best in the league. Opposing teams and players often tell us it's one of the most intimidating places to play. I think our home record backs that up.

JG: The Gladiators have remained in the top 10 in average attendance in the ECHL each year. How do you explain that in the warmer climate of Georgia?

SC: Well, I think part of it is the marketplace itself. The north metro Atlanta area is fun people looking for fun things to do. At the end of the day, I think we put on a good show.

JG: What is it about attending a hockey game that separates it from football or other sports?

SC: I think hockey is an exciting game to watch. I've got two young kids, and hockey's one of the only sports that captivates them.

JG: Lastly, are you hoping for another Mohawk phenomenon this year?

SC: (laughs) If there's a Mohawk phenomenon, it means we've gone deep into the playoffs. We can do Mohawks, we can shave our heads. Absolutely.