|Gwinnett Gladiators' forward Derek Nesbitt returned
to the team after being dealt to Idaho last season to
help the Steelheads win the 2006-07 Kelly Cup.
But on Oct. 9, 2006, everything changed. Nesbitt was called into coach Jeff Pyle’s office and was given some devastating news. Because of the number of prospects the Gladiators had received from the Chicago Wolves of the American Hockey League, coupled with some salary cap issues, Pyle was forced to deal the promising second-year player to the Idaho Steelheads.
“I had a great time here my first year,” Nesbitt said. “I have a really good relationship with Jeff Pyle. Obviously, he traded me, but maybe it opened my eyes about the business a bit. When I went to Idaho, he sent me a hand-written letter two weeks later. It kind of came down to numbers and salary cap money. He just really didn’t want to see me have to start the year on the third line.”
Pyle confirmed that he did reach out to Nesbitt shortly after the deal to the Steelheads, which, in the end, really benefited the 25-year-old. Nesbitt went 6-12-18 in 22 playoff games, helping Idaho win its second Kelly Cup in four seasons.
“I just wished him the best for Christmas and stuff,” said Pyle, who has been Gwinnett’s coach since the franchise’s inception into the ECHL in 2003. “I knew they had a good team. I always keep in touch with my guys and wish them the best. I felt terrible having to give him up. If I would have been smarter, I would have cut guys’ salaries and waited. But I didn’t have the heart to do that to him. It was one of those things where you get to a certain point and you have to make that decision.
“I told him last year when I let him go that he would probably end up thanking me for this, and then he ends up winning the Cup,” Pyle added. “I knew he had a girl(friend) in Gwinnett, and right away he said he wanted to come back. As soon as he got back into town, we talked and pretty much got it done.”
Any bitterness that remained in Nesbitt’s bones went away basically as soon as he crossed the Georgia state line. He has picked up right where he left off in Gwinnett, as he leads the Gladiators in scoring with 29 points (nine goals, 20 assists) in 21 games.
“When he traded me, I really didn’t speak with him much,” Nesbitt admitted. “I didn’t talk to him until after I got back here after we won it. It was like I never left. We kind of have that relationship with each other. He’s the best coach I’ve ever had. He’s so smart. I think he played the game so smart that he expects that much more out of you, which is good. He does everything for a reason. I had no problem coming back.”
Nesbitt also didn’t experience much of a problem in leaving the Steelheads despite their dramatic run to the championship. While he gained friendships that will likely last a lifetime, Nesbitt’s desire to once again play for Pyle and to be near his significant other were his top priorities.
“Obviously, it’s difficult leaving a winning team,” Nesbitt said. “I had a lot of good relationships with guys there. I left for my own reasons, so I can’t really say it was too hard. But at the same time, of course, it was. I feel like I’m still defending a championship, but it’s still not with the team you went with, so that’s kind of hard.”
In the end, Nesbitt left one winner to play for another. The Gladiators currently sit in second place in the South Division at 18-5-0-1.
“The ability we have, the simpler we play as a team, the more we get out of it,” Nesbitt said. “As easy as we make the games, our ability just takes over and that’s where we can beat teams. We are smart, and we do have that ability and skill. We’re such a hard-working team. Everyone likes being at the rink and works for each other.”
Pyle is pleased with the character of his club, but would like to see the Gladiators cut down the mistakes made on any given night. As the coach points out, the more energy exerted in November and December, the less they’ll have come March and April.
“Bless their hearts, they find ways to win,” Pyle said. “But there’s just some nights where you’re pulling your hair out, because it’s done in such a hard way. We need to learn, because it costs so much strength on any given night.”
One thing is certain, the more points Nesbitt puts up, the more wins the Gladiators accumulate, the greater the chance that Nesbitt will receive the call from an AHL club that has mysteriously eluded him thus far in his career. Nesbitt didn’t even receive a tryout from an AHL club despite his tremendous work in the 2007 Kelly Cup Playoffs – on top of the 30 goals and 51 assists he posted during the regular season for Idaho.
“Right time, right place … I guess it will happen,” Nesbitt said of what will be a well-deserved promotion. “If it doesn’t, I can’t really be upset with where I’m at. Everyone’s working to where they want to go, but you can’t sit and dwell over it. It gets you nowhere. I’m looked upon to be a leader here, so I can’t be frustrated over stuff that could affect the team.”
Pyle firmly believes Nesbitt’s time is coming, and quickly. He believes the firepower Gwinnett had up front in previous years – i.e. Brad Schell, Guilliaume Desbiens and Milan Gajic – was a main reason why AHL clubs didn’t come calling for Nesbitt’s services.
“It’s tough, because we’ve had good teams and always had guys who shined a little bit ahead of him,” Pyle said. “I think this year is kind of his time. I think at some point this year, if he just keeps it going … I just tell him to do the little things well. At the next level, if he gets called up, he’s going to be more of a role player. Sometimes you adjust your game. On any given night, your role changes.”
Brian Compton can be e-mailed at: firstname.lastname@example.org.