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NHL calls on former Gladiator
Nesbitt signs big-league deal with Phoenix Coyotes

Derek Nesbitt continues a steady climb up the ladder of professional hockey.

Nesbitt began the 2007-08 season with the ECHL Gwinnett Gladiators and had a stupendous 39 points in 26 games when he was called up to the American Hockey League.

Nesbitt played the rest of the season in Rockford before the IceHogs were ousted by eventual champion Chicago.

Then on the first day of free agency, Nesbitt signed an NHL contract.

The 26-year-old from Ontario agreed to terms with the Phoenix Coyotes on July 1, making him one of a select few players to ink an NHL deal after beginning his career on a Gladiators' contract.

Nesbitt said the Coyotes contacted his agent after the season was over and expressed interest.

"Once we realized I fell into the unrestricted free agent rule with the rest - which I didn't know if I did because I hadn't played in the NHL - it kind of delayed some of it," Nesbitt said of the talks. "So we didn't really know what was going to happen.

"About noon on July 1, my agent called me and said Phoenix had called that morning and they wanted to go forward, get it done if we wanted to."

They did, and Nesbitt celebrated the signing with his family on Canada Day. So, probably a couple of beers were raised that day.

"Other teams showed interest," Nesbitt said. "But I just thought that was the best fit for me, team-wise, money-wise and just my best chance either way."

The first player to start as a Gwinnett signee and earn an NHL contract was goaltender Adam Munro. Munro was signed by the team that drafted him, the Chicago Blackhawks, after he proved himself a bit in the pro ranks.

Kevin Doell was inked by the Gladiators coming out of Denver University and later that year called up to AHL Chicago. The Atlanta Thrashers subsequently signed Doell and he played eight games for them this year.

Also taking the final step during the 2007-08 season was Pascal Pelletier, who played for the Boston Bruins. Pelletier was acquired by the Gladiators in a trade with Louisiana during the 2004-05 season and the following year moved up to the AHL.

Brett Engelhardt was leading the ECHL in rookie scoring late in 2004 when he was called up and signed by St. John's of the AHL. He was under contract to Detroit and Montreal last year.

And on July 4, former Gwinnett forward Chris Durno joined with the Colorado Avalanche organization.

There have been other Gladiators with NHL contracts, but all those were assignments from the Thrashers, Gwinnett's top-level affiliate.

Which puts Nesbitt in select company. Now, of course, remains the task of getting to play in an NHL game.

He signed with Gwinnett out of Ferris State University and was good for nearly a point per game as a rookie. The Gladiators traded Nesbitt to Idaho the following year. Nesbitt won the ECHL Kelly Cup with The Steelheads and didn't harbor any ill will, re-signing with Gwinnett last July. A terrific start got him a call-up to Rockford in December.

"They guaranteed me I was going to play at least one game that weekend," Nesbitt said.

"They were just really short bodies. So they told me to pack for the weekend. I went with the mindset of that - I was going to be there for the weekend and if I get sent back, it's not a big deal, I'm going to show them for maybe later in the season if they need a call-up again that I can do it.

"Three games and four days later, they signed me to a one-way and I was there all year. I came back here to pack up for good."

Nesbitt has spent the majority of the summer in Gwinnett and in the last couple weeks began to really ramp up his training.

"I've taken a long time off before and done absolutely nothing and it's tough to get back into it," the right wing said.

So he didn't really stop working out after Rockford lost to Chicago in Game 7 of their second-round series.

Nesbitt used the word "great" to describe that series, his experience in Rockford and the opportunity he got.

He was more effusive yet in talking about the IceHogs' coach.

"Mike Haviland was unbelievable," Nesbitt said. "The way he coaches players, the way he gets guys to work for him and the way he commits to the team. He gets everything out of everybody and you don't see that very often.

"That was the toughest part for me, going elsewhere, was not getting a chance to play for Havi again. But in my opinion, I don't think he's going to be around too long before he gets to the NHL."

Perhaps they'll see each other there.