Gladiators on hunt for new affiliate

Photo by Brandon Brigman

Photo by Brandon Brigman

DULUTH — The Gwinnett Gladiators are working on landing a new NHL affiliate and two teams in the mix are playing for the Stanley Cup.

Gladiators president Steve Chapman said Boston and Vancouver may be options as Gwinnett seeks to replace the eight-year relationship it had with the Atlanta Thrashers.

The team had already opted not to renew its deal with Atlanta before the rumors of its departure truly heated up.

“In many, many respects it was a great affiliation,” Chapman said. “They were good people to work with. But the system wasn’t working for us.

“We felt like we were kind of getting caught in a tug-of-war between (AHL) Chicago and Atlanta. Just a philosophical tug-of-war about development and everything else. We just hadn’t been receiving the playing prospects.”

Not only that, but last year in particular, the Gladiators’ roster was ravaged by call-ups. Players head coach Jeff Pyle signed during the offseason — like Tim Miller, Ryan Garbutt and Derek Nesbitt — rightly moved up the next level and left serious holes in Gwinnett’s lineup.

“They’re taking our players ahead of their players,” Chapman said. “On top of that, you’ve got issues where players were sitting around in Chicago.”

In pursuing a new NHL affiliate, the Gladiators have been searching for a team that understands a symbiotic relationship benefits all levels of the system.

“We know what our place in the world is,” said Chapman, who is also chairman of the ECHL’s board of governors. “We know we’re supposed to develop players and to move them up and we think we’ve always done that.”

Chapman would like to see the league, which has improved drastically in the last decade, become even younger with rosters consisting primarily of first- and second-year pros.

“Unfortunately, not every team in our league buys into that philosophy,” Chapman said. “I think we can win with that philosophy, but you can’t get pillaged by your affiliates, your character guys really have to be your character guys and then the prospects that you get have to be good. They can’t be the throw-aways or the mistakes or whatever.

“That’s what we’re trying to do with our affiliation. We’ve told people, we understand what we do, but if you sign a kid and it ends up being a huge mistake and the kid has a bad attitude, send him to the Central Hockey League. Don’t send him to us. Because we don’t need him. We need good players whose goal is to do their best.”

Chapman thinks that is a viable relationship and there are some teams out there that fit the bill. He mentioned Anaheim in addition to the two Stanley Cup finalists.

“A big key is consistently getting solid players and the mentality of those players is they like being here because they want to move up and they want to be here for the right reasons,” Pyle said. “It’s a really, really good league now.

“When I recruit guys now that 10 years ago, I’d tell you the Coast was more of a death wish for a lot of guys coming out of college. I think it’s a great developmental league right now.”

In the wake of the Thrashers impending departure, there is an opportunity to be had in the market.

“From a business standpoint, this is great for the Gladiators,” Chapman said. “We’re selling season tickets to people who were only coming to a few games.

“But from a hockey standpoint, you hate to see it happen. The other thing you hate to see happen is people are losing jobs here. That doesn’t make anybody feel good about anything.”

The team isn’t going to let the opportunity pass it by, despite the disappointment of losing an NHL club just 30 miles away.

“It’s happened,” said Chapman, who just signed a new three-year lease with the Arena at Gwinnett Center. “We’re not very wise to just sit back and not take advantage of it and not reach out to those people. That’s the situation we’re in and we’re going to take advantage of it to the fullest extent.”

He is aware that some former Thrashers fans aren’t going to want to watch AA-level hockey. But he thinks if they give it a chance, come to a game, it’ll sell itself.

“They want to see the best players in the world and they view the Gladiators as an inferior hockey product,” Chapman said. “I guess what we’re going to try to do is say, ‘We know we’re not the National Hockey League. But this isn’t a beer league, either. It’s put more than 400 players in the NHL and God knows how many players into the American Hockey League.’

“We’re going to reach out to these folks. We’re not the NHL and never claimed to be, but I’ll tell you this, I guarantee you come to our games and you’ll enjoy it. You’ll have fun. And isn’t that the whole point in the first place?

“It’s the game. The game is what we’re all in love with — if you really are a fan.”