By Buddy Pinkston
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
DULUTH, Ga. – The Gwinnett Gladiators went up against a lot more than the Florida Everblades last weekend.
The minor-league hockey franchise also took on the NHL, the GHSA and the SEC. And more than held its own.
Not only did the Gladiators beat Florida twice, they drew record crowds that chose them over the Atlanta Thrashers and high school playoffs Friday and the Auburn-Georgia football game Saturday.
The Gladiators drew a sellout of 11,355 to Gwinnett Arena on Friday, just 2,662 fewer than their big-league affiliate had at Philips Arena. The next night, 8,606 more showed up for AA hockey.
“Sure, if I had my druthers, I wouldn’t choose to go head-to-head against the Thrashers,” Gladiators general manager Steve Chapman said. “But we cultivate a different market. We consider ourselves the local entertainment option. It just says a lot about the popularity of our sport when 26,000 people are going out to pro hockey games on the same night.”
Gwinnett attendance was bolstered by the annual Hat Trick for Reading promotion that provides free tickets for students who complete three approved books. It was expanded to two games this year.
Chapman has no illusions about maintaining such a torrid attendance pace, but he hopes the early season exposure for the team and the arena will pay off.
“If we can get people to come once, they pick up on the fun of watching this team, even if they don’t know much about hockey,” he said. “A lot of them have never been to this building before, and they’re always amazed when they come in for the first time.”