By Christine Troyke
Gwinnett Daily Post
DULUTH, Ga. – Two days after the season was over, the Gwinnett Gladiators looked years younger.
Thick beards shorn off, their visage matched what a roster will tell you – that this was primarily a group of first- and second-year professionals. Some were barely legal to drink, more were fresh out of college when the season began in October.
Eight months later, features obscured by eight weeks of growing facial hair, the Gladiators were grizzled veterans standing stoically while the Alaska Aces lifted the Kelly Cup on Gwinnett ice. But another 48 hours later, the Gladiators appeared more like the resilient 20-somethings they are, smiling and laughing with each other again.
Youth was a double-edged sword for the Gladiators in this record-setting season.
There was a supreme confidence that they were never out of a game and it was repeatedly reinforced during the course of the season.The Gladiators resurrected themselves so many times that a rally was never out of the realm of possibility. Even 10 seconds was enough of a window for the top-scoring team in the ECHL to send a game to overtime.
But when it came to the finals, when it came to the experienced Aces, that mentality caught up to a Gwinnett team with nine rookies.
“That was my only disappointment – we let an opportunity go, whether it was because we were too young or I couldn’t get through to some of the guys, defensively we just didn’t commit,” head coach Jeff Pyle said.
Gwinnett had a lead in every one of the five finals games, but gave Alaska opportunities to come back and the Aces capitalized, winning by one goal four times.
“When you’re up 2-0, you should be happy being up 2-0 and that’s what we never learned,” Pyle said. “There were two games (in the finals) where we had control of a game and we lost it. Within a matter of two minutes, it’s tied. That’s just not smart.
“That’s the most frustrating part because I jammed it down their throats all year that that exact same thing was going to kill us and I just couldn’t get through to them. They were just too confident. They thought no matter what happened they were invincible.”
Pyle preached that defensive irresponsibility and stupid penalties would be the death of this season. He said it to the team. He said it to the media. Over and over. He didn’t want to be right. But he was.
“I told them at the end of the year, nobody wanted to be more wrong than me, but I know that team and I knew those guys,” Pyle said. “I don’t think they understood. They didn’t think past their nose. They didn’t look at what they had.
“They saw this (putting his hands up like blinders), we’re in the finals. They didn’t look at what if we win, what if we lose. There were no ramifications to anything they did. It’s just one of those things where I think these guys thought they were invincible, they could beat anybody.”
Well, almost anybody.
The old saw about defense winning championships proved all too true in the 2006 Kelly Cup finals.
“Our discipline killed us,” Pyle said. “Alaska just waited for us to mess up. I tip my hat to them, but we just weren’t smart enough to understand. That’s the only way I can put it. And people can look at that anyway they want. But I tried everything I could possibly do to try and make them understand and I could not get it done.
“I kind of blame myself. Because my job is to make them understand and it’s usually what I’ve been fairly good at. When we actually played our systems and stuck with what we had to do, there were games – I mean you saw the 6-1 Game (4 win) – when we were dominant.”
That said, Pyle isn’t going to change his recruiting process, which got off to a little later start this summer but is in full swing already.
Pyle is still going young and hopes the 2005-06 season serves as a cautionary tale for both new and returning players.
“I’ll just jam it down their throat again, say this is why we lost last year,” Pyle said. “We did everything we had to do, we were the best team and we would not hold a lead, we would not play with a lead.
“The first year (in Gwinnett) we had the team that was like 30-0 leading after two periods. That’s the team I needed this year in the finals, that team that could get a lead and play with it.”
That 2003-04 team lost to eventual league champion Idaho in the conference finals and had its own issues, struggling to get a lead against the Steelheads.
Next season could well be a mix of the two rosters.
Pyle said Kris Goodjohn and Mike Vigilante, both of whom took this past season off, will likely return to Gwinnett. He’s also spoken with defensemen Jim Jackson and Joe Bourne about their plans after playing a season together in Germany.
Pyle talked about re-signing Derek Nesbitt, Scott Mifsud and Matt York – all rookies on this year’s conference championship team. Which is not to say some other familiar names won’t be back in the black and maroon next October, but a lot depends on what various AHL teams decide to do.
Even with the retirement of captain Cam Brown after an impressive 15-year pro career, Pyle isn’t necessarily targeting another veteran (although Vigilante does qualify for that status).
“I’ll pick and chose as we go and see what’s out there,” Pyle said. “But I’m not really worried about that. If I had no vets, it wouldn’t bother me.”
Bold words considering how the championship round played out.“I liked what we had. I was fine with it,” Pyle said. “I was just disappointed I couldn’t get through their thick skulls at times.
“I said all year, no matter what, you’re the best team. You’re the best team if you want to be. My fear was those guys in that locker room, nobody else. And it turned out to be true.”
Despite the sting of losing in the finals, despite Pyle’s lingering frustration, this was a tremendously successful team and season for Gwinnett.
The Gladiators set club records for points (107) and wins (50). They had numerous individual awards bestowed upon them, including ECHL MVP Jeff Campbell, and the organization will get to hang two new banners in the Arena at Gwinnett Center rafters next fall for its division and conference titles.
“I think it was kind of meant to be,” Pyle said reflectively. “I hate to say it this way, but winning (the cup) doesn’t help us any more than losing it does. I think losing helps us more.
“The thing that makes me proud is we know now we’re really, really close.”
Less than a week after the season ended, Pyle was energized about next year. He, too, looked years younger and it had little to do with his shaving habits.