By Christine Troyke
Gwinnett Daily Post
DULUTH, Ga. – Andy Brandt makes a good point: No matter how the season ends, whether it’s in the first round of the playoffs or with a championship, there’s still sadness.
Brandt won a national title with the University of Wisconsin and he watched as the Gwinnett Gladiators were eliminated on a last-second shot by Florida in the first round of the ECHL playoffs. So he knows whereof he speaks.
“Even when you do go out on top, I’ve been there, it sucks because it’s a group of guys that will never be together again,” Brandt said.
The players took advantage of their last days together this week.
On Monday, they spent all day at the Gwinnett Braves’ ballpark, tailgating and then going to the game.
On Tuesday, they came in for exit interviews with head coach Jeff Pyle and collected their gear from the dressing room. For several hours, they were in and out of Pyle’s office. But in between, they joked and laughed and gave each other a hard time.
Matt Siddall, a rookie assigned to the team by the Atlanta Thrashers, pretended to make off with armloads of medical supplies and then put the giant Gladiators’ rug that sits in the middle of the dressing room over his shoulder and asked if anyone had an extra bag.
Some guys headed to the golf course in the afternoon and they all made plans to hit the town later that night. There was another get together on Wednesday night. By Thursday, many were on their way back home to Michigan and Ontario, to Massachusetts and Manitoba.
But on Tuesday, they were just enjoying each other’s company. Perhaps they were all thinking what Brandt voiced.
“You create relationships,” Brandt said. “So at the end of the year, not only does the loss suck, but it does suck to leave friends behind.
“But I guess that’s why they make phones these days and Facebook and stuff like that to keep in touch. I wish nothing but the best for all of these guys.”
Some of them will be back next year.
Others will not.
Pyle spent all morning Tuesday having individual discussions with the players, evaluating their performance this season and talking about the options for next year.
After all those meetings, Pyle was in an optimistic mood. He felt like he was looking at a good returning nucleus of players, which he didn’t have at the start of this season.
Contracts will have to be worked out over the summer, so there’s certainly no definitive lists at this point. But a number of players are likely candidates to be back in black, garnet and gold. Among those are forwards Brandt, Brandon Kaleniecki, Tom Zanoski, Pat Bateman and Travis Fuller, and defensemen Scott Marchesi, Phil Youngclaus and Mike Looby.
Another big piece of the puzzle is goaltender Josh Johnson, who posted a fantastic .944 save percentage in the playoffs against Florida.
“You’ve already got a goalie you can build around there,” Pyle said. “He was so good against us with South Carolina that when I had a chance to get him (I grabbed it).
“And I didn’t realize he was going to be that good. But he was that good. He was sharp in the playoffs and I think he’s only going to build off that this summer.”
Johnson came to the team in the middle of November when South Carolina had a glut of goalies.
“I was really excited for the opportunity to come here,” Johnson said. “Gwinnett’s a great place and every year they’re always a tough competitor.
“I’d always heard great things about Coach Pyle and the organization. And everything’s true. It’s a great place to play.”
In just his second pro season, Johnson played 25 games for the Gladiators and did everything he could to hold the top-ranked Everblades at bay in the playoffs. As did Joe Fallon, who was outstanding when pressed for overtime relief of an ill Johnson in Game 3 of the series. But Fallon is a Blackhawks’ prospect, so his return to Gwinnett is not up to Pyle.
“Both goalies, they played their butts off really,” said defenseman Brennan Turner, also an assignment from AHL Rockford. “It’s unfortunate that we couldn’t really get something done at the other end of the ice for them. I wish we could have. They kept us in the series.”
“Plus you have a handful of guys that you know are going to come down, or hopefully come down, from (NHL affiliates) Atlanta and Chicago,” Pyle said. “Then me regrouping and doing a better effort of recruiting.
“In the end, I think it was a good learning experience. And now next year coming in, all the guys will know upfront what we’re doing. We won’t be starting from scratch like we did this year. So I feel pretty positive about it.”
Which is a change from Sunday when the only thing Pyle saw was the same mistakes that cost the team all season – too few shots, system breakdowns and, most importantly, bad penalties.
“In the end, it wasn’t as bad of a season as it looked,” Pyle said. “Because we played short-handed in a lot of games. We could have easily not made the playoffs.
“Against Florida, they’re a good team and we played pretty good. Other than those penalties we took. If we were a little more disciplined … even some of their guys said we could have won that series.”
The Gladiators had leads in all but one of the five playoff games against the Everblades, who won the Brabham Cup for best regular-season record.
“It was a grueling series,” Brandt said. “We worked hard. We were in every game. There wasn’t any game, any point, where we thought we were out of it. We laid everything on the line and they’re a good team.
“It makes it, not easier, but just a little bit easier to leave when we can all look at each other at the end of the year and say that we did leave it all on the ice.”
Of all the criticisms Pyle levied at his team this season, a lack of effort wasn’t once mentioned.
“This team, I will say, never ever quit,” Pyle said.
Sometimes that just isn’t enough.
“We worked hard as a team and we hung our hats on that,” Brandt said. “But sometimes you have to work smarter rather than harder.”
Pyle is hoping everyone, himself included, will learn from this season.
“I’m fired up about (next season),” Pyle said. “I made some mistakes this year. I’m the first guy to say I made mistakes on players. But you take chances because my ego’s big enough that I think I can change guys. A lot of times you can’t, but sometimes you can change guys. If I would have gotten these guys to understand and our leadership would have been better …”
An incomplete sentence that says it all.