GLENDALE -- Diehard Coyotes fans are well aware of the team’s affiliation with the Portland Pirates of the American Hockey League. They may or may not be as familiar with the role played by their “AA” affiliate in the ECHL.
That would be the Gwinnett Gladiators, who’ve been in existence since the start of the 2003-04 season, when the team relocated to Georgia from Mobile, Alabama. Once an affiliate of the Atlanta Thrashers, the “Glads”, as locals call them, began their hockey relationship with the Coyotes prior to the start of last season. As this relationship evolves, so too should the connection between both clubs.
“When we moved our AHL affiliate to Portland (Maine), we also wanted our ECHL affiliate to be out east and in close proximity to Portland for travel considerations,” Coyotes Assistant General Manager Brad Treliving said. “Gwinnett is a premier franchise in the ECHL with excellent ownership, management and first class facilities. It was an easy choice for us and fits in nicely with our development system.”
The "Glads" began training camp over the weekend.
Fans may do a double take on Treliving’s statement regarding travel considerations. But when you take a closer look, it all makes sense. Having an AHL affiliation in Portland has meant a greater amount of practices for that team due to shorter trips in the heavily traveled northeast corridor. With Gwinnett’s location, accessibility to a major air traffic hub like Atlanta makes shuttling players back and forth to Portland much easier than if their ECHL affiliate were to be located three time zones away.
Located in the northeast Atlanta suburb of Duluth, the Gladiators play their home games in state of the art Gwinnett Arena, which has hosted world-class entertainers such as Elton John, Bruce Springsteen, Cold Play and Tom Petty. Since their Georgia re-incarnation, the Gladiators have been at or near the top of annual league attendance. Their appeal to the hockey locals has only increased since the Thrashers relocated to Winnipeg in the summer of 2011. And their appeal to the Coyotes is obvious. Team management, coupled with facilities, provides Coyotes prospects with a big league environment.
“It’s been a very good relationship,” Treliving said. “I’ve known (Gladiators GM Steve Chapman) for many years and he runs a first class operation. Last season, we didn’t have lot of players assigned there. This season, with the number of young players now graduating to professional hockey in our system, we expect to have more players spend time in Gwinnett.”
The ECHL’s appeal to NHL teams has grown over its 25 years of existence. These days, as teams like the Coyotes stockpile talent, there is an increasing need for outlets of opportunity pursuant to their development. The ECHL has been ready and able on that front.
“Not all players are ready for the AHL immediately and we feel that players improve by playing,” Treliving said. “So having an opportunity for guys to spend time in Gwinnett playing meaningful minutes and in meaningful situations is far better than playing limited minutes at the AHL level.”
Which brings us to hockey’s version of the hierarchy chain. For example, should a Coyotes player suffer an injury, it’s often the case a player from the Portland roster will be recalled. Sometimes, a chain reaction takes place in which a player from Gwinnett is recalled to Portland to backfill the roster spot. Suddenly, the recalled Gladiators prospect is just one roster transaction away from the NHL. So even though Gwinnett might seem a million miles away from Glendale for a player, it’s a lot closer and more probable than you think.
“Gwinnett plays an important role with Portland,” Treliving explained. “The majority of upward movement from Gwinnett is to Portland. So when you have an injury or when a player’s performance dictates such, it is important and vital to have that ability to call a guy up.”
That importance might be greatest at the goaltending position, where the Coyotes have stockpiled a wealth of prospects. The Gladiators could be it’s greatest benefactor.
“Specifically, we have four goalies under contract outside of our NHL pair,” Treliving said. “Three of these goalies (Mark Visentin, Mike Lee, and Louis Domingue) are first-year pros and all come with excellent resumes and are very, very good prospects. They all need to play and there’s only one net in Portland. So Gwinnett is very important for us with the goaltending position.”
Hockey, like baseball, has developed a pipeline of sorts for players to reach the NHL. Typically, it’s a one to two step process. Rarely does a player make the major league roster coming directly out of the college or junior ranks. More often than not, they make stops in the AHL and/or ECHL before their ascent. The Coyotes currently have three players under contract that started their careers in the ECHL. In all, 23 Phoenix players have spent part of their careers in the circuit, including television analyst Tyson Nash, who briefly skated for the Raleigh Ice Caps back in the 1995-96 season. Over the years, 490 ECHL graduates have suited up in the NHL. Goaltender Scott Gordon was the league’s first graduate to the NHL when he saw action for the Quebec Nordiques during the 1989-90 season. New Jersey defenseman Kevin Dean, formerly of the Cincinnati Cyclones, was the first alum to win the Stanley Cup as a member of the Devils in 1995.
“There have been hundreds of players over the years who have played in the ECHL at some point in their careers that have gone on to play in the NHL,“ Treliving said. “We will have some players in Gwinnett this year who we hope to see in a Coyotes uniform in the future.”