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Ozubko flouts convention to play with Gladiators

Photo: Amanda Hertel     Gwinnett Gladiators goaltender Greg Ozubko waits to walk out for pregame introductions earlier this season at the Arena at Gwinnett Center. The Duluth native has served as the Gladiators backup goalie intermitently for the last two seasons.

Photo: Amanda Hertel Gwinnett Gladiators goaltender Greg Ozubko waits to walk out for pregame introductions earlier this season at the Arena at Gwinnett Center. The Duluth native has served as the Gladiators backup goalie intermitently for the last two seasons.

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Photo: Amanda Hertel Gwinnett Gladiators goaltender Greg Ozubko snags a puck during warmups for a game this season at the Arena at Gwinnett Center. The Duluth native has served as the Gladiators backup goalie intermitently for the last two seasons.

He is a gray-haired emergency backup goalie on an ECHL team full of players about the same age as his kids.

But go beyond the surface -- even if there are a few wrinkles in it -- and you'll find Greg Ozubko has earned the respect of all his teammates. For good reason.

No one works harder, has more passion for the game than Ozubko. And, to be fair, he can stop a puck.

"First, he's a great person," Gwinnett Gladiators captain Andy Brandt said. "I think last year, the impact he had on our team, he brought a lot of love for the game and I think guys saw that. You have an older guy that's, quote-unquote, past his prime, but you see him come to the rink and work hard and love the game of hockey.

"Sometimes guys lose sight of that. They pout or make excuses as to why they're in the ECHL, in AA. A lot of guys feel like they should get a chance in AAA or the NHL. I'm not saying they shouldn't, but watching Gregger and how much fun he has and the passion he brings, is an eye-opener for some of the guys. He loves the game of hockey and he's happy to be here. You lose sight of that sometimes, that we're lucky to play a game."

If nothing else, Ozubko, who has been a regular fixture for the Gladiators for the last two years, hopes that is what shines through.

He knows it's an unheard of chance for a 49-year-old who only made it as high as midget AA growing up in Edmonton, who only dragged his pads out of the attic about 12 years ago.

"The opportunity that exists here, at such a late age in life, this is something I've always wanted to do and never could when I was younger," Ozubko said. "Teams throughout the ECHL use emergency backup goalies, but to a lot of them, it's two sticks and $75.

"I thought, there's so much more to this experience. So early on, I decided that I would put everything I could into it. Dedicate myself in whatever way I could. Because I knew the more I put in, the more I would get out."

Ozubko, a private business owner who can set his own hours, started playing hockey at a late age. At least by Canadian standards. He was eight.

"I did play with some guys that made it to the NHL, but that certainly wasn't me, by any stretch of the imagination," Ozubko said. "I'm 100 times better at age 49 than I was at 17.

"I wasn't even that good two years ago, but being able to skate over here and making the commitment to work on it, made all the difference."

He made a slide board, a plastic-coated sheet that simulates ice, and spends hours, in full gear, going back and forth.

"Things I needed to learn because when I learned, it was all about being a standup goalie," Ozubko said. "The only coaching I ever had, I was always told two things by coaches -- go stand down there and don't go down. That was the only thing we ever were taught. A goaltending coach was nonexistent."

He quit playing in his early 20s, devoted to his job designing graphics for drag racing cars, and didn't put on the pads again until several years after he moved to Atlanta in 1997.

"Not long after I moved here, I started having a lot of problems with my hands and feet," Ozubko said. "I was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis. So it totally defies all logic that I'm even able to do this.

"In its onset, I would have had a hard time walking in here from the parking lot. I couldn't have turned a doorknob. The thought of putting my feet in a pair of skates? Beyond pain."

But he's been able to control it with a chemotherapy drug, which he's taken once a week for the last 12 years. He got his old, brown Cooper pads out of the attic in 2001 and went to a stick time at The Cooler in Alpharetta the next day.

"I played that day with all my heart," Ozubko said. "Then I had to walk down the stairs backward for the next three days."

But he got into an invite-only game Tuesday and Thursday mornings at The Cooler, coordinated by former NHLer Scott Pearson and has been there faithfully for more than a decade.

"I shouldn't be able to do what I do," he said, "but I've been blessed."

He never used to tell anyone about the RA.

"Because I didn't want any sympathy, I didn't want any excuse," Ozubko said. "But now through being here and what I've accomplished, I'm actually kind of proud that I've been able to go beyond that. Just like I'm proud to have been able to transcend age. I used to be embarrassed by that, but now I'm actually kind of proud."

Gladiators head coach John Wroblewski has been calling on Ozubko off and on for the last two seasons when an emergency backup goalie is needed. That's been fairly often in the topsy-turvy world of minor-league hockey.

Ozubko was on the bench for about a dozen games last season, including for a couple of road trips to South Carolina, and a handful more this season.

That's nothing compared to the number of practices Ozubko has skated for the team.

"There's a lot of transition in our league, guys getting called up on short notice," Brandt said. "It's hard to run a practice with one goalie. So having Gregger here and knowing he's going to come, compete hard and bring a fun attitude to the rink is nice to know.

"The guys appreciate it. They see the passion and the love he brings to the game. He wants to be one of the boys and that's great to see. He brings the contagious love for the game and the contagious energy."

It started with some summer workouts at the IceForum. Wroblewski was new in town, just hired as the Gladiators coach in 2011, and came out to work with the pros that were training on the ice in Duluth. Ozubko was out there, along with guys like former Gwinnett captain Paul Flache and Winnipeg's Chris Thorburn.

"He's a phone call away and in the South, in the summer, that's tough to find," Thorburn said. "And he gave us a challenge. It wasn't just a guy standing in the net."

For pro-level players, having a goalie that can't keep up at training sessions isn't worthwhile.

"In the summer, we had a couple other goalies come in, but Gregger stands alone," Thorburn said. "He's just got it. And he's a just a great person."It's smart on (the Gladiators) part to have him around. His work ethic is awesome and he can be a mentor to the younger guys."

Gwinnett needed a goalie on the second day of training camp and called Ozbuko.

Since then, he's been on-call for the team. He always has his gear with him.

"(Goalie) Louis (Domingue) just absolutely hates my roller bag," Ozubko said with a laugh. "But as many times as I'm lugging that around, I'm not carrying the thing. It weights 60 pounds. So it's on wheels."

He eats right and works out, even when he isn't on the active roster. He also comes to the rink to practice with players who are on injured reserve or left behind on road trips.

Some days he's driven from the regular game at The Cooler, which ends at 10 a.m., to Gladiators practice still wearing some of his equipment.

"It's a tough thing," Brandt said. "I think people undercredit our league. This is a good league. I don't think they realize how hard it is for a guy like Gregger, who plays on Tuesdays and Thursdays to come and sub in. Not only is it physically demanding, but mentally.

"Wrobo runs a high-pace, up-tempo practice and you've got to be into it. He's out there and he's making big saves. Everyone is cheering for him and right behind him."

Ozubko has dressed for one other team, the Chicago Express, for one game last season. He felt like a traitor, but he did it because Chicago couldn't find another suitable backup.

"The Chicago guy gets here and goes 'Johnson?' I said no, Ozubko. He goes, 'OK. Boys this is our emergency backup,'" Ozubko said. "And you can just see all of them go, 'Grandpa?' You know they're thinking, this old guy?'"

The Express went through warmups and one of the Gwinnett equipment guys, who helps with the visiting team, heard some of the Chicago players talking.

"They said, 'Man, this guy is actually pretty good,'" Ozubko said.

There was a moment, near the end of the game, when he thought he might actually have to play. Someone landed on Chicago's regular goalie.

"I could see as he fell, the expression on his face, he was hurt," Ozubko said. "And I went, 'Oh god.'"

He shook it off and finished the game, but Ozubko did play at the end of an exhibition game in Greenville this season.

The Gladiators were up 4-1 with less than a minute left.

"Louis is grinning from ear to ear and I had only met him that morning," Ozubko said.

The players were instructed to lose the draw so Ozubko could see some shots. Then Chris Clackson took a penalty. Greenville got a shot off from the point and Ozubko made a pad save. But it was deflected to the end boards and as he went to play it, someone missed their assignment. Greenville's Chad Ziegler was wide open for a point-blank shot and he scored with one second left.

He was distraught for three or four days, despite everyone's assurances that it wasn't a bad goal.

"But it motivated me to relearn the position and made a huge difference in my game," Ozubko said.

The players aren't the only ones who appreciate what Ozubko does for the team.

He realized that at this year's specialty jersey auction. Afraid no one would bid, and, OK, wanting it for his office, Ozubko asked teammate Jon Awe to go in the crowd and buy the jersey if no one else did.

Awe didn't need to. One fan, who Ozubko talks to regularly, bought it for $1,350.

"One of the other really gratifying things was they told me their son last year took up hockey because of my encouraging him," Ozubko said. "What more could you ask for?"

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