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The big call
Former Gladiator Doell enjoying time in NHL

ATLANTA - Kevin Doell stowed his elbow pads and stripped off his Atlanta Thrashers practice jersey last Thursday.

His stall in the locker room at Philips Arena is at the far end of the horseshoe, with one empty one to the right.

"You look good in blue," he's told.

"It feels pretty good," Doell answers with a grin.

Doell, who was named the ECHL Rookie of the Year while playing with the Gwinnett Gladiators on 2003-04, finally got the call on Jan. 3. It's the call every hockey player waits for. Doell got it while he was sitting on his couch in Chicago, watching his roommates - Guillaume Desbiens and Joey Crabb - play a video game.

It was just two weeks ago, but Doell has a clear memory of the details that day. These are things a player doesn't forget because it means a lifetime dream has finally coalesced into reality.

At 4 p.m. on Jan. 3, Thrashers' assistant general manager Larry Simmons phoned Doell.

Desbiens and Crabb were engrossed in a college football game on the PlayStation.

"Larry called me and said they were calling me up and had a flight for me in a couple of hours, so pack up and get to the airport," he said.

Doell, who is under Atlanta contract and has played the last three seasons with the Thrashers' American Hockey League affiliate in Chicago, had little time to get out the door. The fleet-footed forward called his parents in Saskatchewan, threw some clothes together and headed for the airport.

"A couple of suits and couple of shirts, pair of jeans and that was about it," Doell said. "I don't have a whole lot with me. But that's all right."

A massive understatement for a guy who played his first NHL game at the age of 28.

Doell arrived in Atlanta around 10 p.m. on Jan. 3 and got checked into his Buckhead hotel. He called his parents again to let them know he had arrived.

"I just pretty much tried going to sleep," Doell said with a laugh. "But it was hard that night. We had a game the next day. I wasn't sure if I was playing or not, but it was still pretty exciting."

Doell did play. He won four of six faceoffs and had one shot on goal in 9 minutes and 37 seconds of action in his pro debut against Carolina on Jan. 4.

Those stats do not reflect the full experience.

"My first shift, my legs were going 100 miles an hour," Doell said. "It didn't last too long, maybe 30 seconds. But I was skating as hard as I could, going everywhere just following the puck. I was just going wherever.

"But I settled down a little bit. You do that (chase the puck) at this level, you're going to play yourself out position and play a lot of catch-up."

It got easier as the game wore on and he adjusted to the speed of the NHL.

"I was pretty nervous," Doell said. "But I got the jitters out and tried to play my game."

To get to the NHL, Doell had to change his game. A go-to goal scorer in college and with the Gladiators as a rookie, Doell did what few players would.

According to Gwinnett head coach Jeff Pyle, Doell did what no other player would.

"He's a goal scorer that has adapted to a role that will get him to the NHL," Pyle said. "I don't know one person, I do not know one person that would do that - other than Kevin Doell.

"He's given up offense to be in the NHL."

Pyle, who has long sung Doell's praises to those at the AHL and NHL levels, watched his former player in a game against Philadelphia last week.

"It was the first time I got to see him play, but he was finishing every check," Pyle said. "He was around the net giving guys shots to start (stuff). It was typical Doeller. And I'm proud for him because he's one of the kids that understands. He works so hard."

Doell scored 62 goals and had 74 assists in four years at the University of Denver. Signed by AHL Chicago as a rookie and sent to the Gladiators, Doell had 74 points in 63 regular season games and helped Gwinnett to the conference finals. He was named the ECHL's top rookie and on June 30, 2004, the Thrashers signed him to a contract.

The center spent the majority of the 2004-05 season in Chicago. In 45 games with the Wolves, Doell had 12 points and 69 penalty minutes. In the 11 games Doell played for the Gladiators, he had 15 points and 14 penalty minutes.

"In Chicago and coming to (Thrashers training) camp here, talking to the coaches and stuff, pretty much everybody at this level can score goals," Doell said. "It's not what every team needs, a goal scorer. Some teams need a fourth-line energy guy or a third-line checker. That's the way I fit in Chicago and pretty much up here it's the same role."

Doell is fine with that - whatever gets him to the NHL.

"I don't mind it at all, not one bit," he said.

Doell, who has still accumulated a fair number points in the AHL, said he's a better player for it.

"Being in Chicago the last three years, killing penalties, made my game that much better all around," he said.

Doell has played in five games with the Thrashers and is averaging about 10 minutes of ice time. He's primarily played on the fourth line with Brad Larsen and Chris Thorburn. But Doell has also seen some time centering a line with Ilya Kovalchuk and Mark Recchi.

Reality is most certainly living up to the dream.

"It's pretty cool seeing the guys around and the actual realization that you're here," said Doell, sitting in his stall at Philips Arena, just a few hours before playing the Florida Panthers last week.

"I don't think it's really going to hit me until my playing days are done. I'll look back and think, 'Yeah, that was pretty cool.' Right now I'm kind of just in player mode, trying to do what I can to help the team."

How much longer Doell remains in Atlanta isn't certain. He was called up after left wing Eric Boulton sustained a knee injury. Boulton is back, but due to a string of injuries to other forwards, Doell was still with the team and playing in Detroit on Tuesday night.

Whatever the situation, there's no question Doell will work as hard as he can to stay. He's a 28-year-old rookie and the waiting, the wondering about when or if he would get a chance wasn't easy.

"There are definitely those thoughts that creep in," Doell said. "But once you get up here and get a little taste, you just think I want to play again, I want to play every game. You give it your all so that hopefully you make it and it's not your last one. You do your job and hopefully they like it."

SideBar: The Doell File

Who: Atlanta Thrashers' Kevin Doell

Position: Center

Size: 5-foot-11, 190 pounds

Age: 28

Born: Saskatoon, Saskatchewan

College: University of Denver

Noteworthy:

· Made NHL debut with Thrashers on Jan. 4 against Carolina and has played in six games for Atlanta

· Has played the majority of the last three seasons with Atlanta's American Hockey League affiliate in Chicago

· Had 14 points and 41 penalty minutes in 33 games with the Wolves before being called up this year

· Scored his first professional hat trick in Chicago's Dec. 15 game against Iowa - one of the three goals was on a penalty shot

· Signed as a free agent by Atlanta on June 30, 2004, and has since remained under contract with the Thrashers

· Was voted ECHL Rookie of the Year in 2003-04 while helping the Gwinnett Gladiators to the conference finals in their inaugural season