Gwinnett Gladiators Alex Belzile celebrates a goal last season. Belzile and the Gladiators open the 2013-14 season tonight against the Greenville Road Warriors at the Arena at Gwinnett Center. (Photo: Amanda Hertel)
DULUTH — Opening night is a tricky balancing act between being excited and letting emotion run wild.
The Gwinnett Gladiators have a young roster and face division rival Greenville with no love loss after a salty exhibition game less than a week ago. So control will be crucial when the season starts at 7:30 p.m. tonight at the Arena at Gwinnett Center.
“We certainly don’t want to be chasing our tails with a young group,” head coach Rick Emmett said. “It’s opening night. It’s one of 72 games.
“But surely we want to establish home ice right off and it’s going to be exciting for everybody involved.”
The average age of this team is less than 23 years old and the vast majority haven’t played here before. But the Gladiators looked good in their home preseason game Sunday, a 4-1 win over the Road Warriors, and Emmett is pleased with the progress being made.
“They’ve picked it up pretty quickly,” Emmett said. “All in all, with how young we are, they’ve done a fantastic job of getting through our systems. They think things through pretty well — and to be able to do that at a pretty good rate of speed without slowing yourself down is great. We have good hockey players that know the game.”
The Gladiators did get some unexpected news early this week with the sudden retirement of Stefan Schneider, a player Emmett was enthused about having this season.
“It was kind of abrupt and very surprising,” Emmett said. “Thank goodness we have some depth and we should be able to recover well. A 6-5 centerman, you don’t come by those every day, but it gives an opportunity for a young player to step in at center, which our affiliate would like to see, too.”
Gwinnett also signed Maxime Legault in preparation for the season opener. Legault, a 2009 draft pick of the Buffalo Sabres, has played the last three years in the AHL for Portland and Rochester after a junior career in the QMJHL.
“Max is a pro,” Emmett said. “He might be one of those guys that gets out of here quick, but I think while he is here, he’ll be great, teaching the young guys how to be good pros.”
Despite having played Greenville less than a week ago, ECHL rosters are always in flux. So what the Gladiators saw Sunday might not be the same thing they see today.
“This time of year you want to focus on what you’re doing and do it as well as you can until you see what you’re up against,” Emmett said. “With a young group, that’s going to be the message all year — try not to do too much, try not to overdo it.
“I think we kept it simple in the exhibition game here and we were still able to get plenty of offense. Hopefully that was a good learning experience. But it’s going to be constant coaching, constant monitoring.”
Gwinnett remains at home Saturday for another tilt with Greenville and then hit the road for Orlando next weekend.