Former captain returns to Glads

Former captain Paul Flache is returning to the Gwinnett Gladiators.

The big defenseman has been playing in Germany since 2007, the season after he wore the ‘C’ for Gwinnett.

Now 28, Flache was looking to play in the U.S. again, specifically for the Gladiators.

“He wanted to come back,” Gwinnett head coach Jeff Pyle said. “He had offers for way more money. He called me and just said basically, ‘I’m coming back to the States and I want to play for you.’”

Pyle was certainly interested in having Flache, who played parts of three seasons for Gwinnett, come back.

“I like him as a kid,” Pyle said. “He’s 6-foot-5, 230 pounds, can play forward, can play ‘D’ and he battles every night. I like guys like that. We didn’t have enough of that last year where guys were clearing the net. Granted, we were young, but now some of those guys are second-year guys. I think I’ve upgraded in every position.”

Flache played much of his last two seasons at forward, a position he’d never tried until Pyle put him there during the playoffs in Gwinnett’s inaugural

season. To say that experiment worked out well would be a huge understatement. Flache’s double-overtime goal against Louisiana propelled the Gladiators into the conference finals and is an indelible moment in team history.

He was also very productive on the big European rinks. Flache ranked third for Hern EV with 41 points 37 games last season. In three seasons in Germany, he had 76 points (28 goals, 48 assists) in 141 games.

Pyle isn’t sure he’ll be playing Flache at forward — he wants him primarily because he can be a shut-down defenseman — but having the option at this level is always a big plus.

Whether he continues to play forward or not, the experience in Germany served Flache well.

“I’ve just been trying to get in really good shape after the injuries I had,” said Flache, who fractured three vertebrae in an open-ice collision during his last season with Gwinnett. “Over there, it’s a lot less games, a lot more training and a lot less hitting.

“But so much skating helps wherever I play.”

Flache said he’s healthier than he’s ever been and excited about the coming season.

Even before breaking his back 15 games into the 2006-07 season, Flache had dealt with his share of injuries. He had a series of concussions while playing in the American Hockey League, and then fractured his neck in a mountain biking accident in the summer of 2006.

“I felt bad about it,” Flache said. “Before I even came there, I’d just hurt my neck, had a stupid accident on the bike.

“I’ve been spending the last few years getting into good shape.”

Flache has been skating several times a week at home in Ontario and is planning on arriving early for training camp. Flache, who just got engaged two weeks ago, also returns to Gwinnett older and more experienced.

Pyle said he and Flache talked extensively about avoiding the issues — finger-pointing and complaining — that have plagued the team over the last three seasons.

“The most successful season I was there was the first year and a lot of that because it wasn’t a group of stars,” Flache said. “We just cared about winning games.”

He acknowledged there were problems in the locker room during his last season with the Gladiators and is certain that won’t be a concern with the group Pyle is putting together.

“My last year, we probably had the best team in the league on paper, but it doesn’t matter if you can’t make it work on the ice,” Flache said. “It was a tough season. It was hard for me because I wasn’t around, for 21⁄2 months I was out.

“Jeff is looking for character guys. We just need to get off to a good start, buy in, and I’m sure we’ll be the hardest working team.”