By Christine Troyke
Gwinnett Daily Post
DULUTH, Ga. – The puck skitters into the corner and a defenseman rushes to control it, his back to the ice. He only has a few seconds to make a decision.
And the footsteps he hears belong to Jordan Fox.
The Gwinnett Gladiators’ forward is charging hard on the forecheck. His fleet feet and pedal-to-the-metal attitude have been on display all game and it has the defenseman looking over his shoulder.
It’s a scene replayed over and over at Gladiator games this season. Fox is always going hard to the puck and a ferocious forechecker. His efforts have created innumerable scoring chances for Gwinnett and made Fox the team’s top producer on offense.
The 24-year-old from Kirkwood, Mo., has 12 goals and 17 assists. His 29 points rank him 10th in the ECHL as the Gladiators return from their holiday break Friday to play South Carolina.
“He’s one of a kind,” sometimes linemate Andy Brandt said. “He’s a unique player. He can do everything at a high level, that’s what makes him so good. He moves his feet and his hands together, that’s what makes him so dynamic.
“Playing with him is a thrill. Sometimes you just kind of let him go and follow him up.”
Fox doesn’t just force the opposition to make a mistake in its own end. Often he’s the one carrying the puck into the zone and shifting around bodies like they’re nailed to the floor.
Brandt pointed to a recent game in Mississippi.
“He made an unbelievable move and the goalie saved it,” Brandt said. “I was there, happened to clean up after him. It was a great individual effort by him.”
But even when Fox makes an individual effort, it isn’t to show off.
“He wants to win every night,” Brandt said. “He’s out there giving 100 percent every night. He’ll do anything. He’ll hit, he’ll make a fancy move and he’ll get the puck in deep. He’s a prime example of a guy that does all the little things right. Guys piggyback off that and build off of him. He’s a dynamic player.”
One who isn’t even really concerned with his points.
Fox has been good for more than a point per game, numbers in line with his production last season as a second-year pro in Flint of the International Hockey League. But it’s a departure from the norm, as is his role on Gwinnett’s top line.
In 2006-07, as a rookie with Flint, Fox had 36 points in 74 games.
“I was more of a third-line checking role,” he said. “I really am not a big point guy. I see myself as more of a shut-down centerman.
“If I go to any higher levels I’m going to be a third-, fourth-line guy that’s just going to hit and stuff like that.”
The totals from two seasons at Merrimack College were lower still. Which is in part how he ended up playing for Flint, then of the United Hockey League.
“I left college two years early and I didn’t have great numbers coming out of college,” Fox said. “So I was just really looking for anywhere to go. I was looking for the best opportunity, where I knew I would play a lot.”
Flint turned out to be a great fit for him and he went back last season after considering a move to the ECHL.
“I couldn’t say more about the team and the ownership and the coach I had there, Kevin Kerr,” Fox said. “He really helped me out. He taught me a lot.
“I decided to go back to Flint because I knew that I’d get a lot of ice time. And I ended up getting called up to Albany for about a month, month and a half. So it ended up working out for the best.”
Fox had two goals and an assist in eight games with AHL Albany in January before returning to Flint.
The relationship he had with the Generals also ended up connecting him with Gladiators head coach Jeff Pyle.
Fox was one of the few non-contracted players invited to the Atlanta Thrashers’ prospect tournament in Traverse City. Gwinnett is the Thrashers’ ECHL affiliate and Pyle has been helping coach the Traverse City team for the last six years.
“One of the owners of our team in Flint is good friends with (Atlanta GM) Donnie Waddell,” Fox said. “So he kind of did me a favor. I was just kind of going in there, all these guys with contracts, I was just like, ‘Don’t screw up.’
“And I guess I played pretty good up there.”
Pyle liked what he saw, a good bit of the same stuff that’s been on display this season.
“He’s consistent,” Pyle said. “He’s going to make mistakes, we all do, but he’s so consistent and he knows the game. He’s good in all aspects, well-rounded.
“To me, he could be an American League guy. He does a lot of things well.”
A few weeks ago, the Gladiators were playing a home game against Charlotte. It was tied 2-2 in the third period and Charlotte went on the power play. It was Fox hustling and hassling the Checkers to kill off the final seconds.
Then Gwinnett got its own power play. Fox was on the doorstep and blocked out a Charlotte player – who in turn punched Fox in the back of the neck, sending the 5-foot-10, 195-pound forward to his knees. Fox wasn’t down for long and those key minutes in the third period were representative of what Fox brings to the Gladiators.
“I’ve always been a real physical player, an in-your-face style player,” Fox said. “Not being the biggest guy, you get noticed more if you play more physical. And I enjoy it.
“If I’m not hitting, I’m not having a good game. I build off the fans, I build off the sound of the boards.”
When the Gladiators ended up playing Mississippi six out of seven games earlier this month, Fox said he could see a cumulative effect.
“I’d dump the puck and go in there (to the offensive zone),” Fox said. “And they’d be just looking over their shoulder.”
The Gladiators have struggled this season, falling below .500 with a loss in their last outing, so it’s hard for Fox to be satisfied with the way he’s been playing.
“A lot of the games we’ve lost, close ones, and I haven’t had great games,” Fox said. “That’s frustrating. Because you never know if I had a good game where I got a goal or something, we might win the game. So it’s tough to really evaluate yourself. Especially now when we’re not winning.
“If we were in first place, I’d be, ‘Yep, no, I’m real happy.’ But individual stuff doesn’t really matter. If you’re winning, it looks better on you than whatever points you put up.”
Such a statement demonstrates why he’s liked and respected by teammates.
“He’s a very unselfish hockey player and that’s what makes him great,” Brandt said. “He’s willing to sacrifice and do the little things for teammates. Whether it be going in and forechecking to get the puck for another guy or making a fancy move to help the team get a goal. He’s very unselfish.
“He’s a player that, I think, is a little underrated. I think he deserves to get a shot at the next level. He has that kind of skill and talent. I think he’s the total player.”