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Gladiators' Brandt finds 'best of both worlds' playing and coaching

DULUTH -- No one has played more games in a Gwinnett Gladiators jersey than Andy Brandt.

The well-liked, versatile forward is coming back for another season.

Brandt's signing was announced by the team Wednesday. But it wasn't an easy decision for the durable 28-year-old.

Brandt has played five full season as a pro, all but one in Gwinnett, and saw a number of his longtime teammates opt to retire or play in Europe this summer.

He did considered retirement, but not testing the international waters.

"For me, overseas was a pretty easy decision actually, just because my wife, Ashley, has a great job here," Brandt said. "Income-wise, it didn't make sense. Don't get me wrong, it would have been a blast and I've heard a lot of good things about played over there. It was an option at one point with us, but Ashley got a great job here last year.

"It wouldn't be fair to her and, realistically, we would have been making about the same money. So it was a pretty easy decision. The retirement one wasn't."

Gwinnett, after spending much of the 2011-12 season at or near the top of the conference standings, was eliminated by South Carolina in the first round. After splitting the first two games in North Charleston, the Gladiators lost Game 3 at home in quadruple overtime and, then the clincher, in double OT.

Even four months later, defeat and disappointment lingers in Brandt's normally upbeat voice.

"After the game was over, I wasn't sure," Brandt said about coming back. "It was hard for me to even get off the ice.

"But I got home that night and Ashley looked at me and said, 'You're not done.' She could see it in my face."

His wife, who Brandt has known since seventh grade and married last summer, was sure long before he was.

"I battled with that for a while," Brandt said.

Defenseman Cody Brookwell stayed with the Brandts for about a month after the season and was a sounding board for Andy. They hung out and played golf almost every day.

"We talked about some things," Brandt said.

Then an opportunity to become the director of hockey at The Cooler in Alpharetta came up. In May, Brandt's former college and Gwinnett teammate Aaron Bendickson told him about the job. Bendickson works for MedAssets, a company founded by John Bardis, who also owns The Cooler.

Bendickson introduced Brandt to The Cooler's general manager Chris Powers and assistant GM Steve Jacobs.

"Down the road, I want to get into coaching; that's my passion," Brandt said. "I wasn't ready to be done playing, but there was an opportunity for me to start a career in something I wish to do after hockey."

The same day Brandt interviewed with Powers and Jacobs, he played golf with Gladiators' head coach John Wroblewski.

"I wasn't really sure what was going to happen with my playing career with Gwinnett," said Brandt, who has 158 points (including 63 goals) in a franchise-leading 285 regular-season games for the Gladiators. "I wanted him to know what I was doing."

Brandt also met Gladiators president Steve Chapman for breakfast and told him about the opportunity at The Cooler.

"Both of them, their first question was, 'Are you done playing?'" Brandt said. "I told them, 'I don't know.' I had a good season personally and the group of guys was unbelievable. I said, 'If I had to tell you right now, I'd have to say it would be hard to leave.'

"As things progressed, I proposed that I could do both."

Chapman and Wroblewski were on board with the idea. The powers that be at The Cooler said it was a possibility. They discussed it and decided it was a good, and workable, fit.

"Everybody has been unbelievable about the process," Brandt said. "It's the best of both worlds."

Brandt has been the director of hockey at The Cooler since late May. He oversees all the youth programs and helps out with the double- and triple-A Fire travel teams. But his main focus is the learn-to-play program for 4- to 8-year-olds and the house leagues for mite, squirt, peewee and bantam.

"It's been a lot of organization to get everything revamped to my standard and The Cooler's standard," Brandt said.

He'll continue to work full time there until training camp in October. Once the season starts, he'll still spend afternoons at The Cooler after practice and be available by phone or email on the road.

"I'm pretty lucky to have the staff at The Cooler support that fact that I want to play another season," Brandt said. "Steve Jacobs, the assistant GM, really was in my corner. He said he will cover for me when I'm gone. I'm very thankful for Steve -- and for Chris and John. But Steve was a big advocate."

It'll mean a lot less time playing video games with the boys, but Brandt isn't going to miss out on all the off-ice stuff. That was important to Chapman and Wroblewski when they talked about Brandt having two jobs. He'll still go golfing and out to dinner with the guys.

"That's important," Brandt said. "That isn't going to change.

"But instead of playing video games for five hours in the afternoon, I'll be working."Last season was one of Bradt's most productive, second only to his rookie effort. Brandt had 43 points (he had 44 in 2007-08) on 16 goals and 27 assists in 68 games during the regular season. He was also called up to the American Hockey League and scored his first AHL goal during four games with Abbotsford.

He still wondered if he should play another season.

"For me, the biggest thing was making sure the timing was right," said Brandt, who first came to the Gladiators fresh from his senior season at the University of Wisconsin in the spring of 2007. "I didn't want to come back to Gwinnett and hang on for another year. I wanted to make sure my body could take another 72 games, plus playoffs, and be OK.

"Mentally I was ready, but I wanted to get back in the gym and see how I felt."

Eventually he came to the same conclusion his wife had the day the season ended.

"She's more supportive than ... she ever should be," Brandt said with pause and a laugh. "She's great. She pushed me to keep doing what I loved to do. She pushed me to be better.

"She sometimes knows what I want before I do."