By Christine Troyke
Gwinnett Daily Post
DULUTH, Ga. – Not from casual conversation would you know that Jon Awe is a Southern boy from Memphis, Tenn.
The Gwinnett Gladiators rookie defenseman doesn’t have a discernible accent, certainly not like you’d expect from someone who lived in the South until he was 18 and left to play junior hockey in Minnesota. There’s only an occasional “y’all” peppering his speech. But he’s open and genuinely cordial in a down home Southern way. And what did he miss most during his four years at Boston’s Northeastern University?
“Barbecue,” Awe says immediately and emphatically.
The accent can fade, but not a love of barbecue.
“Rendezvous barbecue in Memphis is the best,” Awe said. “I definitely miss that.”
“Memphis in May,” he added wistfully. “Best time of the year. Barbecue fest.”
If Awe is lucky, he’ll miss it again this year.
The Gladiators lead their conference with a 42-11-7 record and are primed for a serious run at the ECHL championship. The conference finals are set for May 5-20.
“I’ll miss it every year for that,” said Awe, one of the few true Southerners playing professional hockey.
But he’s not counting his chickens just yet.
“I think everyone’s excited, but the main point is not to get too high or too low,” the chiseled 6-foot-4 defenseman said. “There’s going to be ups and downs within a game or within a shift. You have to stay controlled and keep it simple.”
That kind of thinking has endeared Awe to Gladiators head coach Jeff Pyle.
“The thing that I love about him is he plays the same game every single night,” Pyle said. “You can take any tape from him in the year and it looks the same.
“He jumps into the play when he can. He’s pretty smart.”
Intelligence, an increased confidence level and some patience have made Awe a big part of the Gladiators’ current eight-game winning streak. The 25-year-old has 12 points in the last eight games — equaling his total for the previous 30 games with Gwinnett. Of those 12 points, eight have been goals (three in one game) and a lot of them came courtesy of a wicked outside shot used effectively on the power play.
“I think anytime you just get more power play time it gives you a chance to score,” Awe said. “And being out there with great players, like Brad Schell and some of those guys, makes it easy for me because they just put me in good position to put the shot on net. And right now they’ve been going in.”
Awe, who won the hardest shot competition as an All-Star in juniors, stepped up when injuries took a toll and has helped keep Gwinnett at the top of the ECHL power-play rankings.
Until fairly recently, Troy Milam and Danny Eberly were the ones Pyle had out near the blue line on the power play. But about a month ago both Milam and Eberly went on injured reserve and Pyle turned to Awe.
Pyle had expected to lose Milam and Eberly at some point during the season, but to AHL call-up, not injury.
“I told Jonny, just keep watching because eventually we’re going to lose Troy. You’ve got to listen when I’m telling Troy stuff because it’s going to be the same stuff I’m telling you when you’re up there,” Pyle said. “And when he stepped in on that power play, it was just as good.”
Awe, gracious as ever, gave credit to Milam, a two-time ECHL All-Star that played most of last season in the AHL.
“What greater guy to follow?” Awe said.
It’s not just having a good example to follow though. Pyle said Awe came back confident after a 17-game stint with AHL Portland from Nov. 18 to Dec. 28.
“I think the first trip to the American League was huge for him,” Pyle said. “I mean you can see he’s matured quite a bit over the season.”
Gwinnett was one of only two ECHL teams recruiting Awe over the summer. There should be some coaches and general managers kicking themselves now.
“He was talking to us and Augusta,” Pyle said. “I said, bottom line, from your stats, from your size, from everything I see, you can play at this level.
“And I said, if there’s any way I can help you move up, I’ll do it. But bottom line, you need to do your homework on us as an organization.”
Awe, who earned a marketing and finance degree while on scholarship at Northeastern, asked around.
“I didn’t have the greatest college career so not too many teams were knocking my door down,” he said frankly. “I was glad Gwinnett was talking to me. I talked to actually a few other players that I train with in the summer and they told me if you have a chance to go to Gwinnett, definitely go there because it’s one of the premier ECHL teams.”
Awe appreciates the advice more now that he’s been around the block a couple times. “I’d never been to an East Coast league game before,” Awe said. “Getting here you can see the rink online, but now everything really hits home.
“(It’s good) all around, not even just hockey. From the coaching staff to the players to the front office to everyone. I wake up and smile every morning.”
Gwinnett might not have a Rendezvous barbecue, but it does have T-shirt weather in December, lots of golf courses and a chance to win a championship.