By Chris Umpierre
ESTERO, Fla. – Southwest Florida hockey fans cheered his saves and chanted his nickname for three years at Germain Arena.
Those cheers might turn into hisses on Wednesday.
Goalie Craig “K-Wall” Kowalski, who played for the ECHL’s Florida Everblades from 2004-07, hopes he’ll get a warm reception tonight when he makes his return as a member of the Gwinnett (Ga.) Gladiators.
Kowalski said it will feel weird when he’s announced, but he declined to hide his intentions.
“Anytime you play your old team you want to beat them,” said Kowalski, who is 3-0 against Florida this season. “It felt good this year to beat them at home but (the Blades) are a different team when they are at home, so this is going to be a good test.”
Despite their team being in a tight divisional battle with Gwinnett, Blades fans have reason to cheer for Kowalski.
The 27-year-old ranks in the top 10 of nine Florida franchise goalie records. Kowalski, for instance, is ranked second in team wins (54) and fifth in goals-against average (2.72).
He was a prospect of the Carolina Hurricanes during his Blades’ tenure. When the NHL club declined to renew his contract after the 2006-07 season, Kowalski was left to look for another team because the Blades get their goalies from their NHL affiliates – Carolina and Florida.
“Things just didn’t work out,” Kowalski said. “I have no ill will. I loved every minute I was here. I can’t say anything bad.
“(The organization) treated me with the utmost respect.”
A 2008 ECHL All-Star, Kowalski is having a career season. He is 27-10-2 with a 2.33 goals-against average, which ranks third in the 25-team ECHL.
He has been especially tough against the Blades. Kowalski has stopped 111 of 115 shots in three games against Florida. He made 46 saves when the squads last met, March 20.
“He made saves that you don’t think a goalie can make,” Blades captain Ernie Hartlieb said. “But I’m sure he’d like nothing better than to beat the Everblades in front of our fans because he still has a lot of fans here.”
Kowalski’s return only adds to what promises to be a contentious three-game series. The Blades (35-23-8) are in fourth place in the ECHL South, nine points behind second-place Gwinnett (41-20-5).
Florida hopes to move into second place in the South in order to get the home-ice edge for two playoff rounds but is running out of time. The club has just six regular-season games left, all at home.