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Gladiators kick off 10th season of hockey in Gwinnett

Staff Photo: Brendan Sullivan Gwinnett Gladiator fans Paul Pessolano, Nicole Aquilino, right, Shawna Alsheimer, back center, Ron Alsheimer and Matt Tykac, celebrate the goal of forward Doug Jones during a hockey game against the Ontario Reign at the Arena at Gwinnett Center in Duluth on Friday. Pessolano has been a season ticket holder for all 10 of the Gladiators seasons.

Staff Photo: Brendan Sullivan Gwinnett Gladiator fans Paul Pessolano, Nicole Aquilino, right, Shawna Alsheimer, back center, Ron Alsheimer and Matt Tykac, celebrate the goal of forward Doug Jones during a hockey game against the Ontario Reign at the Arena at Gwinnett Center in Duluth on Friday. Pessolano has been a season ticket holder for all 10 of the Gladiators seasons.

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Gwinnett Gladiators fan Ted Tzavaras, 9, of Atlanta poses for a photograph with mascot Maximus during the regular season home opener game against Ontario Reign at the Arena at Gwinnett Center in Duluth on Friday.

DULUTH -- The Gladiators had to start from scratch.

"It was everything from building the offices out to the locker rooms," Steve Chapman, the general manager of Gwinnett's minor league hockey team, said Friday, a few hours before the first home puck was dropped in the squad's 10th season.

That said...

"We were coming from Mobile, Alabama, and we were in an old, old building," Chapman added with a laugh.

A lot has happened in the 10 years since the Gladiators came to Gwinnett. The Atlanta Thrashers have left. The NHL has gone into lockout mode (twice). The country has entered two wars, gone through two presidents and a recession.

The Georgia Force -- an Arena Football League team -- has come to Gwinnett, left it for Atlanta, come back to Gwinnett, been canceled, come back again and been canceled again.

The Gladiators, though, have been a constant.

"It kind of feels like home, like it's all family," Sharon Blalock, a fan since the beginning, said before Friday's home opener against Ontario. "It's just gotten better."

Said Tracy Hayes, a Buford resident and secretary of the Gladiators booster club: "People think there's no hockey left. Yes there is. Go to Gwinnett."

Over nine seasons, the Gladiators have had plenty of success on the ice: In various seasons, they've made it to the conference finals, the Kelly Cup finals and a pair of division titles.

Fans still talk about Paul Flache's double-overtime, division-clinching goal in Year 1. Last season ended with a pair of overtime thrillers.

"Honestly I think the product's gotten better and better," Chapman said. "Our goal over the last few years has really been (to be) a development league and really get these players in here that want to move up the ladder."

Mike Ramer, the Gladiators booster club "member at-large," has been with the team since its start. For the first time in 10 years Friday, he forgot to wear his lucky tie to a Glads home opener.

Despite that (he blamed his wife for rushing him out of the house), he was as passionate as ever.

"Every night we're here is a good memory," Ramer said. "No matter if they win or lose, the guys are playing their hearts out because they want to make it up to the show."

"I can't imagine Gwinnett without the Gladiators," he added.

Perhaps more important than on-the-ice accomplishments, the Gwinnett Gladiators have become increasingly involved in the Gwinnett and metro Atlanta communities over the years.

Annual "pink in the rink" games to raise money for breast cancer awareness, player visits to Children's Healthcare of Atlanta and countless other sponsorships are just a few examples of the hockey team's involvement. "I hope people look at it as a strong community asset," Chapman said. "It's an organization that gives back more than it takes in, I can tell you that ... I hope people are proud. I think we've represented the community well."