DULUTH - As the Gwinnett Gladiators began their quest for the Kelly Cup, the namesake of the ECHL's ultimate trophy paid a visit to the Arena at Gwinnett Center.
ECHL Commissioner Emeritus Patrick J. Kelly began his annual playoff tour of the league with Tuesday night's Game 1 of the first-round series between the Gladiators and the Charlotte Checkers.
It wasn't a difficult choice.
"I live in Charlotte, and the only other game (Tuesday night) was in Johnstown (Pa.)," Kelly said with a laugh. "This is a lot closer. I don't go (very far) North or South (on the league's map), but I've gotten around quite a bit this year."
The 77-year-old Kelly, who served as the ECHL's commissioner in the league's first eight seasons before retiring in 1996, still stays plenty busy, aiding the league's current officers and visiting arenas throughout the league, especially those in towns near his home, like Charlotte, Columbia, S.C., Charleston, S.C. and Gwinnett.
"My wife (June) thinks I'm crazy," said Kelly, who is celebrating both his 55th wedding anniversary and his 55th season in hockey this year. "I'm 77 years old because I'll still drive 400 miles here and back. But I love the game. I never get tired of it."
What strikes Kelly most about the ECHL these days is how far it has come since debuting as a five-team, one-division league made up of clubs solely on the Atlantic seaboard in 1988 into the 25-team group with teams spread from Florida to Alaska today.
He also marveled about the more than 350 players who have played in the ECHL advanced to play at least a game in the NHL.
"The growth and skill level have been phenomenal," Kelly said.
Defenseman Chad Denny was a popular figure around the Gladiators' locker room before the game, and not just because he just returned to the club from the AHL affiliate Chicago Wolves on Monday.
The 6-foot-2, 210-pound blueliner will be the one of four subjects of a documentary filmed by the Nova Scotia Office of Aboriginal Affairs on successful members of first nation tribes of the Canadian maritime province.
"We were looking for all-around people who were different and leaders in their areas," said Terry Fulmer, an independent filmmaker working with the NSOAA on the documentary. "His success has led a lot of younger hockey players (in the first nation tribes) to say to themselves, 'I can dream this dream (of playing professional hockey).'"
Fulmer has followed Denny - a member of the Mi'kmaq tribe and a native of Eskasoni, First Nation, N.S. - around since last summer and will be at Thursday's Game 2 of the series with Charlotte.
The documentary is scheduled to be ready by summer or fall of this year, and it will likely be shown in schools in Nova Scotia and it is possible it may be shown by local cable outlets in Nova Scotia, as well as become available on DVD.
Just over three weeks ago, Scott Marchesi was a member of the hockey team at Sacred Heart University.
Tuesday, the 6-1, 200-pound defenseman tallied his first professional point with an assist - along with right winger Jeff Campbell - on Brad Schell's goal that exended the Gladiators' lead to 3-0 at 11:35 of the second period.
The fact that it came in his first-ever playoff game made it that much more special.
"I just have to help the team any way I can and bring some energy," said the 24-year-old native of South Portland, Maine. "It was a good win by (Schell) on the faceoff in the offensive zone, and I just stepped in and had an opening (to shoot). It's nice (Schell and Campbell) went to the net for me, and my job was just to get (the puck) on net."
Special teams are always a big key in the playoffs for any hockey team, and the Gladiators are no exception.
While their power-play struggled a bit in Game 1 - with Gwinnett scoring only once on six chances, inlcuding a pair of 5-on-3 opportunities totalling 1:21 - the penalty-killing unit was its usual solid self.
The Gladiators, who led the ECHL with an 87-percent success rate in the regular season, killed off all six of Charlotte's power-play chances Tuesday, including a 4-minute double minor to Guillaume Desbiens midway through the second period.
"The 4-minute (kill) was huge," Gladiators head coach Jeff Pyle said.
"The difference is we've got depth. When you've got that, you can be aggressive with (the PK unit). When you don't, you have to sit back a little bit. We try to utilize our speed with it. If we can do that, we can be solid."
ECHL teams usually go back to wearing their white sweaters at home once the playoffs begin after wearing their dark jerseys the second half of the regular season.
However, the Gladiators will be wearing their alternate gold-colored sweaters, which commemorate the team's fifth anniversary season, for the duration of the playoffs.
Perhaps that decision was born out of superstition as the team is 5-1-0 while wearing the sweaters this season, with the only loss coming in a 3-2 setback to the Pensacola Ice Pilots on Jan. 12 at the Arena at Gwinnett Center.
In addition to being able to hear the Gladiators playoff games as usual on webcasts via Jacobs Media, fans will be able to listen to some of the team's Kelly Cup Playoff games on regular radio.
Games 2 and 3 - and Game 4, if necessary - will be broadcast on WDUN News Talk (550-AM), with Dustin Bixby calling the play-by-play action.
Team officials also said that with every round the Gladiators are able to advance to, more games may be available on WDUN.