Staff Photo: Brendan Sullivan Recently retired defenseman of the Gwinnett Gladiators Paul Flache chats with Jake Kamrass, 18, and Clint Garris, 18 after the conclusion of their "Next Level Performance Training" session in the gym at IceForum in Duluth on July 20. Flache assists young hockey players five days a week with training.
Gwinnett Gladiators captain and veteran defenseman Paul Flache has retired.
After a decade in the pro ranks and innumerable injuries, Flache hung up his skates. But he's not leaving the game. Or Gwinnett.
Flache, an Atlanta Thrashers draft pick 10 years ago, has started his own training company, run out of the rink he spent many hours practicing at as a player. He'll also be coaching the Duluth IceForum's U16 Thunder travel team.
Both will defray the sense of loss that comes with an October devoid of training camp or opening night for the first time in a long time.
"I think coaching is going to help because I'm still involved in the game," Flache said. "Then the training. I love it. Even as hard as it was, I loved doing it. I kind of miss it already."
Flache, who played 236 games over the course of five years in Gwinnett, took some time after the 2011-12 season ended to think about retirement.
"For me, I don't think I could have had a more fun year with a better group of guys and have a more successful season as far as the team," Flache said.
The Gladiators were the top team in the Eastern Conference for much of the season and the No. 2 seed heading into the playoffs.
"Even personally, I had a pretty good year, too," Flache said.
The 6-foot-6 Ontario native anchored the defense and had 26 points to go with an even plus/minus rating in 57 games.
"So to go out in the first round, and I felt like we still played better than South Carolina, but we just couldn't seem to find that overtime goal," Flache said. "The thought of going through another whole year like that and then having it end that way, I just said, 'I've played 10 years. I had another surgery last year. I had one the year before. I have a plate in my hand. I broke (an elbow spur) the first game of the year. It's like, I think enough is enough.'"
The number of injuries Flache has sustained are beyond counting. Narrowing it down to the more serious ones still leaves quite a list, including a handful of concussions early in his career.
"Shoulder separations mean nothing to me anymore," he said.
Flache played three seasons in the OHL for Brampton before turning pro in 2002. He was assigned to the Greenville Grrrowl as a Thrashers prospect. The next year, he joined Atlanta's new affiliate in Gwinnett for its inaugural campaign. He spent the next two seasons in the AHL with Chicago and Bridgeport before returning to the Gladiators in 2006-07.
"The summer before I came back here, I broke my neck on a mountain bike," Flache said. "Came back here, 10 games in, broke my back in three places. Missed three months of the season."
He chose to go to Germany in 2007-08, earning more money for a shorter, less physically demanding season. But even that didn't spare him.
"I ended up having pretty serious hip surgery," Flache said. "I think it was all just wear and tear. I had three tears in my labrum in my hip.
"Then the following year playing in Germany again, I broke my hand in a fight. I've got a steel plate and five screws."
He was planning on playing again in Germany when Gwinnett head coach Jeff Pyle asked him to come back for the 2010-11 season. He was able to play all but three games that year and re-signed with the Gladiators last July.
Flache missed 15 games -- not many in the grand scheme -- but wasn't 100 percent for all the others, including the last one. Gwinnett was eliminated by South Carolina in back-to-back overtime games. Game 3 went to a fourth overtime and Game 4 to double OT.
"We went to seven periods in one game and the next game I ended up doing something to my groin," Flache said. "We never actually diagnosed it because we got beat out.
"Three weeks later, I hadn't skated once and it was the same thing. It felt like a three-inch rip in my groin. That's part of the game, but right then I was like, 'Well, maybe I'm making the right decision if I still can't turn on it.'"
And he had the training program, Next Level, already set up.
Gladiators rookie head coach John Wroblewski asked all the players last season to have a project. Some worked on their golf handicap. Others went back to school. Flache looked into taking classes, but wasn't able to sort out the paperwork in time to register.
"I was just sitting there one night and I thought about doing a hockey school one day because I've run those my whole life," Flache said. "But there was too much going on during the season for that.
"Then this came up. My training was always a big part in the last five years. It's how I was able to keep playing with all the injuries I've had. I decided I was going to try that."
After the season ended, he worked out a deal with Al Blevins, the general manager of the IceForum, to use its new gym space. Flache said the IceForum, where the Gladiators often practice, has been a great help in establishing his training company.
"You don't need a big space," Flache said. "You don't need a lot of bells and whistles to have a good workout. You just need the right program."
His focuses almost exclusively on strengthening the legs and core.
Three days a week, Flache's students, who range in age from 15 to 22, are in the gym. The other two days they go to Collins Hill Park to run. He also adds some alternative training, like taekwondo sessions and trips to Lake Lanier to run in the sand. A couple of weeks ago, Flache sent them to work with a friend of his who almost made the Olympic taekwondo team in 2008.
Flache has unquestionable pugilistic talents and chuckled because they all came back with cuts on the wrong knuckles.
"You see that they actually don't know how to punch," he said with a grin.He's got about 20 regular clients right now and is looking to build as hockey season approaches.
"I've gotten really good feedback from some of the guys that have been training with me," Flache said. "They feel different, they notice a difference. It's been a lot of fun. It's tough, too. It's demanding. It's all group training.
"The reason I love it is you're against your peers every day. You're competing almost every single day."
Like earning a roster spot or more ice time.
"A couple of weeks ago, I had a guy come in -- he's one of my strongest guys -- and he said he couldn't lift the weight," Flache said. "One of his buddies does it two times and now he can do it.
"If it was just us, I'd be like, 'OK, yeah, you're probably not strong enough, we'll back it off.' Then you find out what they really can do. (Last Thursday) they did hill sprints and they hate me right now, but I make them race each other. At first it's conditioning, but now it's to get into great shape."
Flache, still in excellent condition himself, is employing a regimen that mixes things he's learned in 10 years as a pro. Especially the last five.
He thinks it will make a big difference in the durability of the kids he's training now.
"Most people look at the physical benefits -- my guys have six-packs and they're huge," Flache said. "But they're also really flexible, especially in the shoulders and hips. I really focus on things like that."
So much of it is mental rather than physical, too.
"They know none of their teammates are doing this," Flache said. "They'll go line up against somebody and they've got a confidence because they know that guy wasn't running a hill twice a week and working out five days a week.
"As far as I was concerned, if I had learned more about the training at a younger age, I would have been more prepared for some of the injuries, but also probably had a better chance to move up. The injuries early in my career, I was always a step behind, trying to build back up."
Five years ago, Flache started working with one of his good friends, Mike McCormick, back in Canada and it made all the difference.
"I was ready to retire, then I really strengthened my core and my neck and my back," he said. "It changed my career."
Flache is looking forward to the chance to help young players in Georgia continue to close the gap with the talent in tradition hockey hotbeds -- as a trainer and a coach.
"I've always done hockey schools since I was in junior and I always felt like my most important year was when I was 14, 15 years old," he said. "That's when guys start going to high school and they start going to parties and things start changing. It becomes girls and that -- or it becomes hockey.
"And I had a great coach that year who I owe most of what happened to me in the future. I started to really love the game a lot more and respect the rules and the traditions of the game. That's why I'm pretty excited to be coaching this team."
Flache, hired by the Thunder this summer to coach, brings a wealth of experience to the position. He's drawing on things from all the coaches he's had, good and bad.
Wroblewski put an emphasis on stick detail that Flache said made a big difference for him in his last season.
He's also has the diagrams for Pyle's staggeringly effective power play in a binder on his desk right now. He's also had Russian and Swedish coaches.
"I'm a sponge for knowledge," Flache said. "I keep reading books, trying out new things. I'm always trying to learn from other people. I think sometimes ego gets in the way of coaches. They think they know better than everyone else and they don't want to incorporate anybody else's things. But maybe that other coach knew something. Why not take the tapes from what he was doing, learn from it and go from there? That's how I want to be.
"I don't know what the future holds, I just know I've got an open mind about everything I've learned over the years."
To contact Flache about training, email email@example.com.