By Christine Troyke
Gwinnett Daily Post
DULUTH, Ga. – From being drafted into the professional hockey ranks, to playing in Germany and coaching in the ECHL, Jeff Pyle has always appreciated his luck.
It’s not about never having made it to the NHL. It’s not about millions of dollars. Of course that would have been nice. But Pyle’s philosophy is, why complain. He’s made a career out of the game he loves.
Pyle, the 45-year-old coach of the Gwinnett Gladiators, first laced up skates after his family moved to hockey-mad Minnesota. His dad was in the service and Pyle was an Army brat for the first three years of his life.
“We ended up going to Germany when I was real small,” Pyle said. “We came back when I was about 3 and went to Minneapolis. Then my mom and dad split up.”
Pyle still isn’t sure how his mom, a native of Austria, made it work. She bought a house and, “we stayed there. My dad left and we just stayed there,” Pyle said.
“I don’t know how she did it. She was a waitress and didn’t make a lot of money, but I got to play hockey. I got everything I really needed. We weren’t rich by any means, but I don’t think we were poor.”
Pyle didn’t have to leave home to play competitive hockey through his teenage years. Minnesota has a wealth of youth programs and Pyle eventually earned a spot on the Northern Michigan University squad.
“We had a good team, but I never expected to play pro,” Pyle said. “I thought, I’m going to college, great. The next thing I know, I was having some good seasons and scouts were talking to me.
“I started going, ‘You know, this might pan out.’”
Pyle signed with Hartford, but spent the majority of his North American playing career racking up points in the International Hockey League for Flint and Saginaw.
In 498 pro games from 1981-88, the left winger accumulated 677 points, including a staggering 136 during 82 games playing for Saginaw in 1986-87.
“I never made it to the NHL. I guess a lot of people look at my stats and go, well you should have,” Pyle said.
“But,” he says with a shrug of his shoulders, “it didn’t matter. I didn’t really care. Yeah, you want to, but I’ve had a good life.”
When it appeared the NHL wasn’t going to come calling, Pyle accepted an offer to play overseas.
“I put all the numbers I could possibly put up here in the states and really didn’t get a chance at the NHL,” said Pyle, who at the time was in his late 20s.
The money was better and there were fewer games on the schedule in the German leagues. But the first year was not so good. It wasn’t even a full season. The situation with the team was bad enough that Pyle left and went back to Saginaw.
“I tell everybody that if you go over there, you have to have the mindset that it’s going to be tough the first year,” Pyle said. “It’s a culture shock, but the hockey’s good.”
The next year a different German team, located in the heart of the country near Nuremberg, wanted to sign him. Pyle was reluctant, but they convinced him to give it a shot.
That team won the league championship the next two years with Pyle’s help. He and his wife Cathy ended up staying for six years.
“It was a great setup,” Pyle said. “The money was good. I have no regrets.”
The European game with its focus on puck control and on smart play, suited Pyle and once he got used to some of the inconveniences and got a satellite dish, life was were pretty good.
“We’re so spoiled here in the states,” he said. “Being able to go out and get a burger late at night. Things like that. And the television, being able to watch what you want when you want. Over there we couldn’t do it.”
A decade in Germany, six years playing and then four coaching after a back injury forced him off the ice, are bound to affect a person’s outlook.
“It just made me realize how fortunate we were,” Pyle said. “We made pretty good money, we had four months off in the summer. We were visiting my mom for two months and then Cathy’s family for two months. Not a lot of people can do that.
“I feel the same way now. I’m a head coach. I don’t feel any more important that these (players). I think there’s a lot of guys that get into this game that really have an ego. I just think we’re fortunate to have the jobs we do.”
That attitude combined with a forthright, easy-going personality and an ability to scout potential has gained Pyle plenty of respect. It’s also produced a 145-115-35 head coaching record in just over four seasons, first with Mobile and now in Gwinnett.
“He’s got proven ways,” Gladiators’ captain Cam Brown said. “They’ve been put on the board since the first day we got there. That’s another big contributing factor to our success. Everybody’s on the same page and that’s a testament to our coaching and our communication lines.
“He’s a great guy to play for. I think everyone, to a man, would say that.”
The Gladiators, though not technically a first-year franchise since they are the former Mobile Mysticks, have jumped out to a 11-2-1 record and lead the Central Division after a month of playing. Still, as a dormant franchise in 2002-03, Pyle lost all contracted players to free agency and had to start from scratch with Gwinnett.
By comparison, the expansion Texas Wildcatters began in a similar position as the Gladiators and are dwelling in the Central Division’s basement at 3-8-1. The Gladiators not only lead their division, but are tied with two other teams for the most points (21) in the ECHL. Johnstown, who has NHLer Arturs Irbe in net, and Las Vegas have the same point total with one more game played each.
Kevin Doell, a rookie for Gwinnett and an Atlanta Thrashers prospect, said he’s not surprised by the Gladiators’ start.
“I was expecting it to be a pretty good team,” said Doell, who was familiar with many players on the roster before the season began. “Maybe that’s because I haven’t been in the league and I didn’t know what to expect, but the guys that I saw were on this team, I knew could play.”
Which is a credit to Pyle’s decision making in the offseason.
“My whole life has been built around hockey,” Pyle said. “So I couldn’t feel any better about the situation we have right now, the group of kids was have, the organization we have.
“I’m telling these guys, you really don’t realize how lucky you are. There’s 14 rookies here that this will be the best situation they’ve probably ever been in.”