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Thrashers' departure doesn't bother Gwinnett hockey fans

Photo: Amanda Hertel Jonathon Emerins, left, and Trevor Velasco react after getting a puck from Gwinnett Gladiators' goalie Jeff Jakaitis prior to the start of Friday's game at the Arena at Gwinnett Center.
 Photos: Amanda Hertel 

Photo: Amanda Hertel Jonathon Emerins, left, and Trevor Velasco react after getting a puck from Gwinnett Gladiators' goalie Jeff Jakaitis prior to the start of Friday's game at the Arena at Gwinnett Center. Photos: Amanda Hertel 

DULUTH -- The Thrashers may have turned tail and left Atlanta for greener pastures in the Great White North, but in Gwinnett, professional hockey lives on.

The NHL's Atlanta Thrashers moved to Winnipeg, Ontario, and were re-christened the Jets after local ownership sold them over the summer, drawing the ire of a small but faithful fanbase.

Meanwhile, Gwinnett's minor league hockey team continued to work, hiring a new coach and rejuvenating its fans. After a season-starting road trip, the Gladiators returned to the Arena at Gwinnett Center for their home opener Friday night.

The team has flirted with the playoffs the last two seasons before ultimately faltering and bringing heartbreak to Gladiator faithful -- but hey, at least it's still in Georgia.

"If you're a true hockey fan it's not gonna matter, whether it's ECHL or NHL," Scott Hermel, a season ticket holder from Loganville, said before Friday's game. "I'm hoping that (the Atlanta Thrashers moving to Canada) will get people that are true hockey fans out here."

The Gladiators hired head coach John Wroblewski in August. Asked about the Notre Dame grad and former assistant for the ECHL's Wheeling Nailers, Hermel barely got a word out before compatriot Emily Blackwell interjected.

"He's young," she said.

Young he is. At the ripe old age of 30 years, Wroblewski is just the second coach in Gladiators history and brings a fast-paced brand of hockey to Duluth. He and a few new additions to the squad have fans jazzed up.

"He has them working hard, it's a lot different than what it was," said Paul Pessolano, a season ticket holder and Glads fan from Day 1. "They're really practicing hard, they're listening. There's really going to be a lot of excitement generated with him and the team this year."

Added Hermel: "The new coach that we have is full of energy, he's young, and really into the game. We've got a lot of good returning faces that I really enjoyed last year, but we have a lot of good players that we've picked up this year too."

Pessolano, donning his personalized No. 12 jersey and leading a section that enjoys harassing opposing goaltenders, guaranteed the Gladiators would make the playoffs this year. And that they weren't going anywhere.

"This team will be here," he said with a smile. "We are not moving to Canada."