By Christine Troyke
Gwinnett Daily Post
DULUTH, Ga. – Dapper in a dark gray suit, Myles Stoesz stood watching his Gwinnett Gladiators teammates’ pregame skate last April.
In a corner of the Arena at Gwinnett Center, looking through the glass as players zipped by, Stoesz talked about having some of his penalty minutes taken away. With genuine disappointment.
Stoesz was serving the second of a three-game suspension levied by the league for his part in a donnybrook in Florida a few nights earlier. Initially Stoesz was credited with an ECHL-record 63 penalty minutes in the game. Which also put him over 300 for the season.
But it was discovered a day later that Stoesz had been assessed an extra game misconduct. The correction dropped him to 53 minutes for that game – only good enough for top five or so in ECHL history. The record still stands at 62, set by Greg Capson in 1993.
Stoesz, a rookie last season, was honestly bummed out about it.
But that was then.
Now Stoesz, recently assigned to Gwinnett from its AHL affiliate in Chicago, just shrugs it off.
It’s a measure of his development during the offseason. Yes, Stoesz will still be fighting. It’s part of his game and something he’s just good at. But it shouldn’t have to be the biggest part. The 21-year-old from Manitoba worked hard to improve his skating and his other skills this summer.
“This year, I’m not out there to break (penalty-minute) records or have the most fights,” Stoesz said. “I want to work on my game. I want to become a better player.
“I don’t want to be that guy everybody looks at and says, ‘Oh, he’s just a donkey, he can’t play, he just fights.’ I want people to say, ‘He’s tough and he can play the game.'”
The fruits of those labors are clear to Gladiators head coach Jeff Pyle. He saw Stoesz, an Atlanta Thrashers signee, play in the NHL Traverse City Prospect Evaluation Tournament in September.
Stoesz hired a skating coach this summer and looked markedly better at the Thrashers’ July prospect camp in Duluth. Pyle said that was also true at Traverse City.
“He’s much better (than he was last year),” Pyle said. “He’s more confident. Your second year, when you know what you’re doing and you put the time in over the summer, you can only get better. And he’s obviously put the time in.
“He’s going to be able to start doing more things, he’s going to get to more places. Defensively, he’s gotten much better. He’s just developed as he should from a first-year to second-year guy. And, again, that comes from putting the time in.”
Pyle had Stoesz working on the power play in practice Monday, a role the big winger isn’t accustomed to playing.
“Maybe it’s not the position he’ll always be in, but there’s maybe a chance somewhere down the road that he may be in that position and they need to understand every side of the game,” Pyle said. “Every little thing that he does right now will make a difference for him. He’s at that spot in his career right now where he wants to learn it and wants to do it.”
Stoesz spent the last month with AHL Chicago, but hadn’t played in a regular-season game. He had a goal and two fights in a pair of exhibition games, but was assigned to the Gladiators last week. He arrived Saturday – just in time for tonight’s home game against Charlotte.
“He went there to prove that, ‘Hey, I can compete for a job,'” Pyle said. “In the end, when it’s a numbers game, it’s a numbers game. But I think that’s the key – you have to believe in yourself. And he worked so hard this summer, which puts him in a positive situation in the prospects camp, which sets him up for Traverse City.
“You could feel that he wanted to take a load on, that he wanted to be a leader. From that aspect, he’s done everything he’s had to do. Now, he’s got to come here and really round his game, really be focused on driving the net and shooting the puck and making good, smart decisions. Because that’ll be the difference up there (in the AHL).”
Stoesz said he was told by Chicago that he didn’t fit in right now and they wanted him to get in some game-time in Gwinnett.
“(They said) we don’t see you playing in our lineup in the foreseeable future,” Stoesz said.
“(They said) you’re a great kid, you’re a hard worker. And I’m just going, ‘Well, why didn’t I get a chance?’
“They always have such a good team there. I knew it was going to be tough to crack (the lineup). But I thought I had a good chance and I worked my (butt) off.”
So he’s back in Gwinnett and ready to play.
“He’s smart enough to understand the game and how it works,” Pyle said. “And he’s going to work hard until he gets that opportunity. That much I can guarantee you.”
Stoesz has had to fight, literally and figuratively, for a chance before.
At 16, Stoesz wasn’t expected to make the roster that year for the major junior team that drafted him.
“The coach didn’t even know who I was,” Stoesz said.
He was in training camp with the Spokane Chiefs of the Western Hockey League and was moved from his lifelong defensive position to forward for an exhibition game. One of his teammates got jumped by a bunch of players from rival Tri-City.
“I just flew in, gloves off and started fighting like three guys,” Stoesz said.
Stoesz stayed with the Chiefs for the next three seasons. Only later did he find out how close he was to going home.
“I made it through main (training) camp and then the next weekend was the Tri-City exhibition and I had a flight for the following Monday,” Stoesz said. “The team told my billets, not my parents or me.
“I never made that flight and like two days later my billets told me, ‘Yeah, you weren’t even supposed to make the team.’ But I ended up sticking.”
The way Stoesz played – he estimates he had 18 to 20 fights in 43 games that first year – made him wildly popular with the fans in Spokane. His jersey can still be spotted regularly on the concourse at the arena there.
His efforts didn’t sit well with some of his teammates at first. Gladiators’ all-star center Brad Schell was a 19-year-old and the team’s leading scorer when Stoesz joined the Chiefs.
“I just remember him coming in and working hard as a young kid,” Schell said. “Some of the vets got mad at him for working hard and finishing checks in practice. But that’s what he had to do to stay there.
“I just remember him being a good kid and coming in wanting to learn. I think he’s like that here, too.”
Though Gwinnett County has about double the population of Spokane, Stoesz still enjoys an obvious popularity. After one season Stoesz endeared himself to the faithful. For his fights, sure, and for a hard-hitting style. But also, for anyone who gets the chance to meet him, a charisma and genuine likability.
This is, after all, a guy who proudly pairs his dark gray suit with white snakeskin loafers. It’s not an easy look to pull off, but Stoesz manages it.
He’s talkative without being a loudmouth. He’s relaxed and well-spoken in interviews, showing a confidence that Pyle said is now also reflected in his game.
“He was fairly limited last year at times because we did have depth,” Pyle said. “But he was, to me, the ultimate professional. I know he wanted more opportunity, but he never complained about it. This year, now he has the opportunity to get more ice time and play a bigger role.”
The Stoesz File
• Who: Myles Stoesz
• Team: ECHL Gwinnett Gladiators
• Position: Left wing
• Size: 6-foot-2, 205 pounds
• Age: 21
• Born: Steinbach, Manitoba
• Had four goals, two assists and 291 penalty minutes in 64 games as a rookie last season with Gwinnett
• First shift in the ECHL, took a stick across the chin from now teammate Dan Sullivan
• First fight in ECHL was in second game against Pensacola’s Sullivan
• Had 24 points and 855 penalty minutes in four years of major juniors in the Western Hockey League
• Selected by the Atlanta Thrashers in the seventh round of the 2005 NHL draft and now in the second of a three-year contract with the team
• Assigned to Gwinnett from AHL Chicago last Wednesday
• Last name is Mennonite and pronounced “Stays”