DULUTH - The Gwinnett Gladiators opened training camp today and did it without a number of players, most notably last year's captain and longtime forward Mike Vigilante.
The rest of the missing roster is due to players at camp with American Hockey League teams. Nine of Gwinnett's 18 signed players are here and Gladiators head coach Jeff Pyle filled out the camp with some local invitees.
But Vigilante remains at home in Michigan and won't be joining the ECHL team he played the better part of the last five seasons for.
Pyle, who first coached Vigilante as a rookie in Mobile, Ala. seven years ago, said the decision revolved around health and money issues.
Vigilante, 29, suffered two concussions last year that kept him from playing more than a handful of games after Dec. 13.
"I love him as a player, I love him as a person, but if he takes another shot in the head, you know," Pyle said, "I mean, that can happen to anybody, but now he's more susceptible to it, I guess. So now you've got to make that decision.
"You can just throw caution to the wind and say, hey, forget it, let's take him and it's Vig. But I think you've really got to, when it comes to a concussion and price to performance and everything ... ."
Vigilante understands the business aspect of Pyle's decision. He doesn't, however, like the way it was handled.
"At the end of last year, I had an exit meeting with the organization and I made it clear to them that when my head is better and I can resume high-intensity physical activity I'm going to do that," Vigilante said, "and if my head responds, I want to play at least one more year.
"I told them I would not know until late August because I didn't want to make a premature decision."
As promised, in August, Vigilante contacted Pyle to let him know he wanted to play for Gwinnett.
"After two months of skating and intense workouts, I had no symptoms," Vigilante said.
It was not what Pyle expected to hear.
"When the summer went along, I kind of figured with the injury and the way he was at the end of last year, when he sat down, when push came to shove, I thought he would retire," Pyle said.
"So when he talked to me late in the summer there and said he wanted to come back, I was a little shocked."
Pyle told Vigilante he needed some time to think.
"Because I wasn't sure what we had or didn't have," Pyle said. "I had some offers out to other guys."
"I understand their side of it, I understand the business side of it," Vigilante said. "Concussions are a frequent injury in high-contact sports and most players rebound from that and come back just fine.
"I just feel like they didn't give it a chance."
Vigilante also wanted to make it clear he and Pyle never got around to discussing his potential salary.
"It's never, ever, ever from Day 1 of professional hockey been about money," Vigilante said. "I never went to any organization and said, 'Here's what I'm worth, take it or leave it.' When Jeff and I talked, we never talked about money.
"You don't get rich in the ECHL. You play because you love the game, you love your teammates and you love the city you play for."
Vigilante is a free agent and could have signed with another team.
"Yeah, I talked to other teams and a couple times almost signed," Vigilante said. "I feel Gwinnett has been such a huge part of my life and I just wanted to end it in Gwinnett."
Vigilante has always been a fan favorite. He made regular appearances for the team at schools and businesses throughout the community. His jersey was always one of the top money-getters at the Gladiators' annual fundraiser auction - one year it went for just under $4,000, a staggering sum nearly four times the average. He played 184 games and collected 155 points for Gwinnett over the course of four seasons. He took the 2005-06 season off to go back to college, but until last December had never missed a game for the Gladiators because of an injury.
"If I played my last game in Charlotte on Dec. 13, I can walk away from the game with my head up high because I know what I gave Gwinnett," Vigilante said. "I've always worked hard, on the ice and off the ice.
"I gave Gwinnett everything I had and that's something to be proud of. You can't look back and have regrets."
But he does have one.
"I honestly believe that if I didn't get a concussion this wouldn't even be an issue," Vigilante said of Gwinnett not offering him a contract. "I know it in my heart. I'd be down there playing.
"It's a rugged game and concussions happen. I don't regret the concussion, but I do regret the second one, possibly coming back too early to rejoin the team."
Even after all that, Vigilante's final comments were in praise of Pyle, the fans and the area.
"Playing hockey for the Gwinnett Gladiators was an honor and a privilege," Vigilante said. "I want to thank Jeff Pyle for instilling faith in me for so many years.
"He is more than a coach, he is a friend. I cherish the teammates and friends I have met along the way. The people of Gwinnett are first class and have made my time down there memorable. I want to thank everyone for their support and encouragement.
"My heart and soul is in Gwinnett, and my heart and soul will always be in Gwinnett. Thanks for the memories."
Vigilante said he doesn't consider himself officially retired.
Vigilante, who already has a bachelor's degree in exercise science from Lake Superior State, is finishing up the last few classes he needs for his physical education and health degree at Eastern Michigan University.
"I'm just trying something else right now," he said.