By Tom Hanson
Copyright © 2005 Naples Daily News
ESTERO, Fla. – Gerry Fleming wasn’t the coach of the year in the ECHL.
The Florida Everblades head coach wasn’t even considered the best coach on the ice during the first two games of the Kelly Cup Finals.
Maybe he was the best dressed, but after disgracefully losing both games at home, Fleming actually didn’t look qualified to be coaching a bantam team.
But with back-to-back road victories against the Trenton Titans to regain home-ice advantage and except for a third-period collapse in Game 5, Fleming has redeemed himself.
Every move he’s made since the Game 1 debacle has been golden.
To his credit, and unlike last year when Idaho took the Cup in five games, Fleming didn’t wait until the Blades were down and out to shake things up.
After Game 1, when he sat Ernie Hartlieb, who had spent most of the season in AHL, and Keith Anderson, who has been a solid contributor all year, some people called it a move of sheer desperation.
But it was just the opposite.
Fleming never panicked — unlike the majority of the fans.
And now the Everblades return for Game 6 on Wednesday night at Germain Arena — a place some people said they would never be again this season.
“Sometimes players need to see the game from a different perspective,” Fleming said about his reasoning for sitting Anderson and Hartlieb.
What he really means is sometimes players need to have a fire lit under their butts.
Either way, it worked.
After sitting out a game, both Hartlieb and Anderson responded. Anderson batted a puck out the air to start the Everblades’ comeback late in the second period of Game 3. And then Hartlieb scores the overtime goal to give Florida its first win of the series.
Hartlieb said he went five days without talking to Fleming. He didn’t know if it was by design or on purpose. But who cares now? It worked.
“I kind of knew it was coming but it still hurts to be sat out,” Hartlieb said. “But Coach made me really think about just how bad I wanted this championship. He talked to me before Game 3 and gave me a motivational-type talk but he didn’t have to say a word, I knew what I had to do.”
The move worked again in Game 4 when Fleming sat Paul Cabana, who was the odd man out when Hartlieb and Anderson returned to the lineup. Cabana scored a crucial goal in the Blades’ 6-3 win to even the series.
And Fleming didn’t just adjust the roster. He flip-flopped every line as if he were Ty Pennington and the team needed an extreme makeover. After scoring just one goal in the first two games, the Everblades made Fleming look like a genius by posting 13 goals in the next eight periods.
Jason Nobili, the Everblades associate coach, says he’s been fortunate to have a backstage look at Fleming’s mastery.
Nobili said the key has been Fleming’s ability to remain calm despite the Everblades’ early failures in the Finals.
“He’s remained even-keel throughout it all,” Nobili said. “He’s been amazing. You think he’d go through the roof after the first game and then after being down 2-0 also, but he remained calm and he never lost confidence in the team.”
They say the coach is the face of any team. And after this series, Fleming’s will be hard to forget.