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Hometown Hockey

It’s been almost a decade since the Atlanta Gladiators sat at the top of the South Division. After opting out of the 2020-21 Season due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Gladiators came back this year at full-force, making their return to the Kelly Cup Playoffs for the first time since the 2017-18 season. For two Gladiators rookies, this is the first time their families and friends have the opportunity to watch them play without extensive travel. 

Defensemen Malcolm Hayes and Zach Yoder both grew up in the Atlanta area. With rinks few and far between in the south, the pair actually played together for the Atlanta Fire out of Alpharetta. 

“We [Yoder and Hayes] actually played together in Alpharetta,” Yoder recalled, “I vividly remember Malcolm scoring a goal in a game, I don’t know if he knew that, but he went top shelf and we were like 10-years-old and I was so pumped.”

Yoder started playing roller hockey at a local rink and in his neighborhood cul-de-sac with friends. “The Atlanta Thrashers were here at the time and I went to one or two games, and I was just hooked,” he recalled. After that, Yoder began playing at the local rink in Alpharetta. 

Hayes got his start in hockey while living in Detroit until he was 6-years-old. 

“Once we moved to Alpharetta, luckily all of the rinks in Georgia were only 30 to 45 minutes the most away from me, so we kind of lucked out on that location,” Hayes explained. “Hockey’s pretty small around here so if you play hockey, you know everybody. I can really thank my parents for just talking to people around us and hooking us up with skating coaches and things like that and I ended up running with it.” 

Hayes even attended a few Gladiators games growing up himself. “I actually remember a paint the rink game where I saw Derek Nesbitt play, and now he’s my teammate,” he laughed. “So it’s actually hilarious and I laugh about that once a week.” 

Hayes went on to mention that playing with Nesbitt, who played his 1,000th professional game in December, and playing for a team he grew up watching is full-circle. “It shows you how long Derek’s been around, and that’s why I look up to him and have so much respect for him,” Hayes said. “It’s inspiring because he’s been putting in the work for so long since I was a little kid and chasing after that dream and that just makes me want to go harder and get better every day.”

Because of the minimal programs in the area, both Hayes and Yoder left Georgia for prep school and juniors respectively. The transition was tough for both of them leaving their friends and family behind, but both knew and acknowledged that these steps and experiences would bring them closer to their future goals of playing in college and beyond. 

“It wasn’t really my first choice to leave down here, I love it here,” Yoder recalled. “But at the same time I got an opportunity to go to the (United States Hockey League). I knew it was one of the top leagues and if I wanted to play college, I knew it was a good opportunity and I needed to take it.” 

Hayes knew going to prep school in the Northeast is a pretty big thing to do. 

“There’s a lot of recruits out there that play out of Hockey East and the Big 10 and those big conferences, so I kind of looked at it like this is how you get closer to the goal, playing college hockey, and hopefully trying to get to the NHL.”

After college, both had professional stints with the Southern Professional Hockey League and ECHL during the 2019-20 season before the COVID-19 pandemic halted play. Two years later, both defensemen get to play close to home for the first time in over a decade during their rookie season and are playoff bound, which isn’t a common thing to say. 

“It’s a good feeling,” Hayes expressed. “I haven’t been this close to home and playing hockey where my friends and family can just drive 20 minutes and see me play since I was like… I don’t know; when me and Yoder played together,” he said. “I don’t take it for granted. It’s a great thing to have and being close to them right now is just a cool experience, and I’m definitely thankful for it every day.” 

“I was always that kid that played hockey, but no one knew anything about hockey or got to watch games or anything.” Yoder recalled. “So now that I’m back, it’s kind of cool to actually have all of my friends come to the game so they can see, ‘okay, this is what Yoder’s been working so long and so hard for, this is why he missed all the middle and high school events, like, this is really cool,’ so that’s super special, and the same for my family. 

“It’s super, super special that we get to play at home, all these friends and family get to come, especially since we’re all as good, and hoping to make a push for the Kelly Cup.”