By Christine Troyke
Gwinnett Daily Post
DULUTH, Ga. – The Florida Everblades are used to playing in front of big crowds. They’ve led the league in attendance for the last five years and have never been lower than fourth since joining the ECHL in 1998.
But the noise this weekend in a doubleheader with the Gwinnett Gladiators won’t be in their favor. Florida enters hostile territory Friday and Saturday at the Arena at Gwinnett Center and the place should be rocking.
The Gladiators made both 7:35 p.m. games their “Hat Trick for Reading” ticket redemption nights. Last year, the promotion, which rewards kids for reading three books with tickets to a game, helped Gwinnett sell out for the first time in team history, bringing in 11,355 for a rout of rival Mississippi on Nov. 5, 2004.
So many vouchers were redeemed, the Gladiators had to designate an overflow night later in the season for those unable to get a seat that Friday night.
Based on that, and a 27 percent increase in program participation this year, they opened up both of this week’s games with Florida for kids to use up their tickets.
“Even in the first couple games we’ve had here, with 5 or 6,000 people, it’s really loud,” rookie forward Scott Mifsud said. “If you get 8 or 9,000 or even a sellout, I can’t even imagine the noise level.”
The Hat Trick for Reading program, sponsored by Suwanee Dental Care, includes 85 elementary schools in six metro Atlanta counties. Kids from kindergarten to fifth grade are rewarded for reading three books with two tickets to a Gladiators’ game. For those unfamiliar with hockey lingo, a hat trick is when one player has a three-goal night.
In addition, families of children who complete the program are offered a discount ticket offer for the game. Presale for today’s game as of Wednesday night was 7,200.
“It’d be nice to have two sellouts,” Gladiators general manager Steve Chapman said. “Twenty-two thousand in two days is asking a lot, but I think it’ll be two good nights.”
Most ECHL teams have similar programs to promote reading in their community’s schools and Chapman said the results so far have been very encouraging. The benefits are two-fold — kids are reading more and the Gladiators are earning new fans.
“It’s a win-win for everybody,” Chapman said. “It breaks down the barrier for that first-time hockeygoer.”
Jim Hall, the team’s director of community relations, said he’s been in the lobby after games and hears kids asking their parents when they can come back.
“That’s just awesome,” Hall said. “There are a lot of incentive programs, but we’re part of it. This is a process that started on July 15 so we’ve been after this now for almost four months.
“It’s going to be a special weekend and if the boys play well, it can be a really good thing.”
The Gladiators (3-1-1) return home after splitting a pair of road games last weekend. The Everblades, who have made the league finals each of the past two seasons, are making their first road trip of the year after opening 4-1-0 at home.
“I like where we’re at,” Gwinnett head coach Jeff Pyle said. “We’ve been in position to win every game. We need to be a little more disciplined in all phases. But Florida’s going to be a good team. They’re going to come in here and play hard.
“Next four at home, we need to take advantage of them. We can put ourselves in great position.”