DULUTH — Last season, Jeff Pyle enjoyed his Thanksgiving off. Despite no longer coaching for the Gwinnett Gladiators, who annually request a home game on the holiday, he’s back at work for it this year.
Pyle, who held the reins of the Gladiators for the franchise’s first eight seasons, returns to Gwinnett as the visitor.
His Evansville IceMen play the first of three straight games here tonight at 6 p.m.
Pyle isn’t putting any more emphasis on the game.
“I want to win every game,” he said.
Pyle left the Gladiators after the 2010-11 season to be the head coach of the AHL’s Texas Stars. He was let go at the end of the season and took 2012-13 off before being hired this summer by Evansville.
The IceMen finished last in the North division last year with a 25-40-3-4 record.
Under Pyle, Evansville won six of its first seven games and trail division leading Cincinnati by a single point.
“We got off to a good start, which was probably a surprise to everyone,” Pyle said. “It’s a hard-working group. We’re pretty young. I told them they were going to be held accountable. I want it to be fun, but I want it to be fun knowing I don’t have to motivate them.”
A good example was a recent optional practice when 17 of the 20 players skated and the three others got on stationary bikes.
“The guys all hang out together,” Pyle said. “So it’s actually been really, really fun.”
Mike Clemente has carried the load in net for Evansville, playing in all but three of its games. Clemente is third in the league, and second in the conference, with an 8-1-0-2 record, and has a 2.78 goals against average.
“We’ve been really good defensively and Clemente has been great,” Pyle said.
He said they’ve been helped out by an affiliation with the Columbus Blue Jackets, who sent four good players to the IceMen (8-3-0-3).
Matt Schepke has a team-high six goals and 14 points in 14 games. Josh Beaulieu has also been a leader for the IceMen with nine points in 13 games and Pyle just acquired a familiar name to augment the forward ranks. Evansville signed Tom Zanoski to a contract this week and the former Gladiator will make his debut here against a Gwinnett team that’s struggling.
The Gladiators (5-12-0-0) are in the basement of the South Division and trail their nearest opponent, Greenville, by six points. They play Evansville today, Friday and Sunday at the Arena at Gwinnett Center.