Gladiators release fan favorite

Photo by Brandon Brigman

Photo by Brandon Brigman

DULUTH -- With another addition from AHL affiliate in Chicago, Gwinnett Gladiators head coach Jeff Pyle had to release fan favorite Dan Sullivan the day before the home opener.

Pyle said it was a difficult decision, but one that had to be made after Ian McKenzie was assigned to the team by the Atlanta Thrashers.

"We have five right wings and we might get another one next week," Pyle said. "I have to keep eight 'D'. I love Sully, but we've got a good young team and I just couldn't see cutting one of the young guys that performed so well in camp and in the first couple games."

Sullivan was also waived at the beginning of last year after getting suspended by the league for a preseason altercation, but came back to the team and played 50 games for Gwinnett.

Pyle didn't seem to think that was as likely a scenario this time.

"I'm not sure because he mentioned he may retire," Pyle said. "Bottom line, it's a tough situation to be in but in the end, it goes back to performance. We struggled the last two years and I'm under pressure to put the best team on the ice I possibly can.

"It's not a popularity contest. It's not about friendship. It's about putting the best team on the ice."

McKenzie, 23, was acquired by the Thrashers in a trade with the Nashville Predators in early September. The Saskatchewan native split each of the last two seasons between AHL Milwaukee and Cincinnati.

"He's a 6-foot-5 right wing that adds a little bit of grit and size and experience," Pyle said. "He's been in the American League, up and down, they won a cup last year in Cincinnati. And I can't have six right wings sitting here."

The Gladiators also have one more new face since opening the season with a doubleheader in Florida last weekend.

ECHL all-star defenseman Drew Paris as a rookie with Gwinnett last season was sent down from AHL Toronto on Monday after beginning the season with the Marlies.

"Drew's a great kid," Pyle said. "I don't know how long he'll be here but it's always good to have him back. He can jump right into the lineup.

"Obviously with eight 'D' you don't want to sit anybody out. But the thing about having a good team, you have depth. It could be a great year if everybody buys in."

They got off to an excellent start, taking three of a possible four points from the Everblades. Gwinnett fell in a shootout in the season opener and then rolled to a convincing win the next night.

"I thought they were great games," Pyle said. "For us not having any (exhibition) games to begin with, the energy was there. You could just tell they wanted to play. The third period of the first game I really thought we took control.

"Then we carried that right into the first period of the second game. We were up 5-1, but it could have been 8-1. (Goalie Bobby) Goepfert played really well. He made some huge saves."

Rookie center Aaron Bendickson, who scored the first goal of the season 1:15 into the opener and already has three points, was similarly enthused about the first two games.

"That was our first real test," the University of Wisconsin product said. "We got on the ice and we slowly got better each period. By the end of the weekend we were playing some pretty good hockey. To come out with three points in the road is always a good thing."

Now there's the home opener -- expected to be a large crowd -- tonight against division rival South Carolina. That will be followed by a rematch with Florida at 7 p.m. Saturday.

"All the guys are excited," Bendickson said. "We've had a good week of practice and we're just ready to get out there in front of the home crowd."