Getting tough
Gladiators sign gritty forward Sullivan

Dan Sullivan is most looking forward to two things when he dons a Gwinnett Gladiators' jersey in October.

First, winning. Second, coming onto the ice while the Gladiators' always-impressive pregame video and music montage plays.

Gladiators' fans can look forward to watching Sullivan get under the skin of the rest of the ECHL ... instead of their own.

"I've always been a fan favorite for whatever team I play for," the 6-foot-2, 225-pound forward said. "But I also like the challenge of being the guy people hate to play against."

Gritty and skilled, the renowned agitator signed with Gwinnett when he became a free agent this summer. The contract was announced Friday.

"I always liked him," Gladiators head coach Jeff Pyle said. "He's such a force. Guys are always looking over their shoulder for him."

Sullivan has played the last two seasons for South Division rival Pensacola. Which would be why he's looking forward to a winning streak.

"For me, I believe it's going to be awesome," Sullivan said. "I can't wait to listen to that (intro) movie. It's definitely one of the most exciting environments I've been in.

"They had promotion nights every night we played - that's huge. If you get the people in the door, it's our job to keep them there."

Pensacola's membership was terminated by the league in June when the Ice Pilots' ownership said it wouldn't be putting a team on the ice in 2008-09. All Pensacola players were immediately free agents.

Sullivan, entering his seventh pro season though still not technically a veteran, was well courted by teams on both coasts.

After suffering a knee injury nine games into the 2007-08 season and facing eventual surgery, Sullivan put on a brace to play in 33 games. He had 13 points and 101 penalty minutes. He had surgery once the season was over and is nearly fully recovered.

"I have a test on Friday, every Friday, to determine how strong my leg is," said Sullivan, who remained in Pensacola to rehab at the highly reputable Andrews Institute. "I was 80 percent last Friday. It's significant enough (progress) to start skating again."

In 2006-07, the 27-year-old had 35 points and 245 penalty minutes in 57 games for the Ice Pilots. He had a career-best 41 points in 60 games with Augusta in 2005-06.

The combination of points and penalties - offense and offenses - makes Sullivan an attractive commodity in the new world order of pro hockey. It's no longer enough to make a living using your fists, you need to have the hands to contribute on the score sheet as well.

"Once I was a free agent, I had a number of different teams in terms of the division and other places out west interested," Sullivan said. "My game is pretty simple. I'm in on the forecheck first, banging bodies. When I get to play with some skilled guys, it just opens up room for them. And then they're not afraid to mix it up and get in the corners themselves.

"I'm (all) out. I'll go through the boards. I'll probably end up breaking some glass. That's how I was raised to play. I want to set the tone every game, especially at home."

Gwinnett has been a highly skilled team over the last five years and is considered among the best places to play in the ECHL. Sullivan has gotten a good look at the organization after playing in the same division for the last four years.

"I had always played against Gwinnett and always lost," Sullivan said. "I'm stepping into an organization that has proved to be winner."

Added to that was Sullivan's experience with Cam Brown, who became the Gladiators' assistant coach and former captain.

"When I first came into the league, when I was 20 years old, I was traded to Baton Rouge and Cam Brown was my coach," Sullivan said. "And Jeff Pyle had tried to recruit me my first year pro."

Pyle, then the coach of the Mobile Mysticks, started talking to the Toronto-area native as soon as he became available this summer.

"He's tough and he can score," Pyle said.

Pyle wants to refine Sullivan's game a bit. Bringing him into a winning situation where he's surrounded by skill should go a long way to that end.

"He'll be a better player when he does damage on his own terms," Pyle said. "I just feel good about Dan."

Sullivan comes to the Gladiators with already clearly defined goals.

He wants another shot at the American Hockey League, where he played six games at the start of his career.

"The role that I've played the last couple years has been tough," Sullivan said. "I don't want to be the guy running around and fighting (all the time). But when you're losing, you don't have a choice.

"I came in wanting to be more of a go-to guy last year. But when you're down 2-0, 3-0 in the first period, it's tough."

He also wants to help develop some of the young talent Gwinnett is sure to get from its affiliates in AHL Chicago and the Atlanta Thrashers, including - and maybe especially - fellow tough guy Myles Stoesz. Sullivan and Stoesz fought each other last season, but Sullivan is hoping to take some of the burden off Stoesz' shoulders (and fists).

Stoesz, under contract with the Thrashers, came close to 300 penalty minutes as a rookie last season. He spent the offseason working on his skating and it showed in Atlanta's prospect camp. But there's a good chance Stoesz will play for the Gladiators this year.

"I want to be the best leader that I can," Sullivan said. "Playing with Myles Stoesz, I'd like to help him get where he wants to go.

"We can split the duties and help each other. It keeps us healthier and it helps the team. For us it's a win-win situation."

Sullivan, Pensacola's captain last year, has the grit Pyle wanted for the roster.

After laboring through two trying seasons in Pensacola - including 18 one-goal losses last year - Sullivan's enthusiasm bubbles up when he talks about coming to Gwinnett.

"I believe I'm a great guy in the room," Sullivan said. "I know when to have fun, but when it's game time, guys don't realize how seriously I take it. In Pensacola, we struggled to get 20 wins both seasons."

"So I do have a lot to offer when we're losing," Sullivan said with a laugh. "But I don't know what it's like to be on a winning streak."

He also embraces his role as an enforcer.

His cell phone's ring-back tone is the theme from "Rocky." He has a German sheppard puppy named, not coincidentally, Rocky.

There's little doubt the fans in Gwinnett will also embrace Sullivan's style.

There is, though, one person not wild about his penchant for fisticuffs.

"My mom hates to see me fight," Sullivan chuckled.