Dirk Southern, who played 74 games for the Gladiators from 2007-09, is returning to Gwinnett. Southern was signed by the team Wednesday. (Photo: Gwinnett Gladiators/Dale Zanine)
DULUTH — After three seasons playing in Europe, Dirk Southern is coming back to the Gwinnett Gladiators.
The team announced his return Wednesday, along with the signing of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute captain C.J. Lee.
Southern racked up 19 goals and 39 assists in 74 games as a Gladiator from 2007-09. A seventh-round pick in the 2003 draft by Anaheim, Southern has since played in Denmark and Italy.
“It was a fantastic experience,” Southern said. “I had always wanted to see Europe. My first year I was in Copenhagen. Then I played in a small town in Italy, which was also great, and then back to Denmark.”
Southern had 21 points in 30 games for the Danish team EfB Ishockey last season.
But the 30-year-old was ready to be back in North America — in large part so his dad could see him play again.
“It’s a pleasure to come back (to Gwinnett),” Southern said. “Spending three years there was a real treat.
“I’ve been fortunate to have always played in good situations.”
The Winnipeg, Manitoba, native came out of Northern Michigan University, where he finished his four-year career with 122 points (43 goals, 79 assists) in 149 games. Playing on Northern Michigan’s Olympic-sized rink well prepared him for the years overseas.
“I took it in stride,” Southern said. “It was definitely an adjustment. The coaches initially spoke nothing but foreign languages. But I never had a problem (being away from home). It was a treat.”
Southern, in his return, will now be looked to for leadership in addition to his offensive acumen.
“I’ve become comfortable with it,” Southern said. “I was always one of the younger guys. Now it’s weird how that transition has come.”
He’s not planning on changing his personality and telling other players what to do. He’s a lead-by-example kind of guy. One with a lifetime of experience to draw on. His grandfather and father, still a scout for the Jets, are members of the Manitoba Hockey Hall of Fame.
“I’ve been lucky to have had a good insight into how to act like a professional,” Southern said. “You definitely have to voice your opinion, but I hope that if you’re a good player, you can lead by example.”
Southern joins a roster that includes forwards Lee and Evan Bloodoff, and defensemen Devon Krogh and Jonathan Narbonne
“He’s certainly someone that can be a point-per-game guy, quarterback our power play up front and be responsible in all three zones,” Gladiators head coach Rick Emmett said. “Dirk is a facilitator of offense.”
Lee, 24, wrapped up his collegiate career with R.P.I. as team captain last season, posting 14 points (eight goals, six assists) in 36 games. The Staten Island, N.Y., native played in 133 games over his four-year stint with the Engineers with 52 points and 196 penalty minutes.
He was also a teammate for two years at R.P.I. with former Gladiator forward Bryan Brutlag.
“Guys from that program have good work ethic and detail to their game,” Emmett said. “C.J. is a player along the lines of a Bryan Brutlag, but more polished with his puck skills. He is a hard worker that gets around the ice really well.”
Lee received R.P.I.’s Ben Mayo Most Inspirational Player award last season, and was also a finalist for the 2013 Hockey Commissioners Association Derek Hines Unsung Hero Award.
“(Bryan) said it was a great setup; he really loved it here,” said Lee. “I think I’m a similar player to what he brought to the table and he had a lot of success, so I’m hoping I can have just as much.”