Thrashers new ECHL affiliation a very successful one

By Holly Gunning

In September 2003, the NHL Atlanta Thrashers and the ECHL Gwinnett Gladiators announced an affiliation agreement between the two organizations. The Gladiators were a franchise relocating from Mobile, Alabama, where they played as the Mobile Mysticks for seven seasons, to suburban Atlanta.

The Thrashers’ previous ECHL affiliate had been the Greenville Grrrowl, located two and a half hours away in South Carolina. It was a successful relationship, with three players who had played for the Greenville eventually making their NHL debuts. The Grrrowl won the league championship during the affiliation in 2002.

While they were not displeased with the relationship with Greenville, the Thrashers made the business decision to affiliate with the team who was going to play in their backyard. Another factor that helped the cause was that Thrashers GM Don Waddell felt comfortable with Gladiators Head Coach and Director of Hockey Operations Jeff Pyle, with whom he played in college at Northern Michigan University and in the IHL.

The Gladiators themselves have been a huge success, both at the box office and on the ice. They will meet the Idaho Steelheads in the ECHL Western Conference Finals beginning Tuesday, April 27. The affiliation has quietly been just as much of a success as the organizations work together to develop players.

Minor league team in a major league market

The Gladiators and the Thrashers are one of very few hockey affiliates that are in the same metro area. The Gladiators are located in and named after Gwinnett County, a suburban county to the northeast of Atlanta that is home to around 800,000 people. The Arena at Gwinnett Center and Philips Arena are about 45 minutes apart, on a good day. But Atlanta’s traffic congestion means that they are even further apart in a lot of minds.

Steve Chapman, VP and General Manager of the Gladiators, known to almost everyone as Chappy, explained the organization’s approach to the relationship.

“There are two ways you can do things when you’re a minor league team playing in a major league market. A good example is Chicago. The Chicago Wolves and the Chicago Blackhawks are not on the same page with each other by any stretch of the imagination. I personally didn’t want to have that type of relationship here in Atlanta. I’m very thankful, first of all, that Jeff had the relationship to get us in the door with Donny (Waddell) and those guys in the first place. Then after we got there, from Day 1 we tried to be professional about it. We have always tried to run our team as true a developmental franchise, to get kids to move up to the next level, and I think that’s paid off for us.”

One major question going into this season was whether or not the Gladiators would negatively affect the Thrashers’ attendance in the short run as fans might move to the generally lower-priced product closer to home. With Thrashers attendance up 12.4 percent this season, the largest increase in the Eastern Conference, it appears that this concern was unwarranted. In a metro area of almost 4 million people, there’s room for both, and room to grow. It’s interesting to note that both the Thrashers’ and the Gladiators’ lowest priced seat is $10, though the one in Gwinnett is considerably closer to the ice. Location and convenience are the selling points for the Gladiators, more than simply price.

Chapman currently has no measurement of the crossover in fans between the two organizations, but noted that the team is currently doing fan surveys in which they hope to find out. Chapman pointed to plenty of Thrashers jerseys in the stands at Gladiators games and a few Gladiators jerseys at Thrashers games as anecdotal evidence that there is a crossover effect.

“I know there’s some people that are big Thrasher fans who have kind of latched onto the Gladiators, but I know there’s some people who had never been to a Thrashers game before who are now going to some games because they’ve kind of gotten introduced to the sport.”

Not just Thrasher fans, but Thrashers themselves have been known to show up and check out the new kids in town. Thrashers goaltender Byron Dafoe, defenseman Garnet Exelby and forward Ben Simon, among others, attended games this season.

“In hockey there’s a saying that what’s good for the sport of hockey is good for everybody,“ Chapman said. “Thankfully the Thrashers have the same opinion. It starts at the youth hockey league level, through us. If we all put on a good product and get more people involved in the sport, then it’s good for everybody.”

Defenseman Paul Flache, who played his rookie year in Greenville last year, described playing with the new affiliate in its inaugural season.

“Because this is a first year team, we have a lot more PR stuff, a lot more team functions where we’re always together doing stuff. Which I like, it’s good for team-building. There are more fans here (than Greenville), we have a better community, and a better product I guess because we’re also winning a lot more than last year.”

The Gladiators’ attendance has been strong, averaging 5,034 in the regular season, ranking them sixth in the 31-team league.

Intersection of the teams

Most of the time the Gladiators practice at their own arena, but on days when the building is occupied, they use the Duluth IceForum, the official practice facility of the Thrashers, which is under a mile away from the Arena at Gwinnett Center.

According to Chapman, the Gladiators’ part-time use of that facility has worked out just fine.

“That’s their practice facility, so certainly we play second fiddle as far as ice times and things, but the IceForum has worked with us great and the Thrashers have been great to work with. Luckily we’ve got a great building here. We’re able to practice here 75 to 80 percent of the time. So there haven’t been that many conflicts.”

As opposed to out of each other’s way, Chapman thinks having an NHL team so close acts as a motivator to his players.

“That’s the carrot, that’s the thing that guys are chasing. These guys know they’ve got to work to get there.”

Flache agreed that having the big club so close is a motivational tool for him.

“I am fortunate enough to be in Atlanta near the team that drafted me, and I got to go see a few games this year. I remember sitting at the games, just looking around, and watching the guys play, and it made me want it more. I couldn’t wait to practice the next day to try to make myself better, to be able to play there one day. Yeah, I think it’s true, it does have an effect on you. They’re so close. There’s even times when we go to the rink over here for practice and they’re on at the same time or just before us. I went to camp with all these guys. So I see them, I talk to them once in a while. It’s kind of neat to have them that close. A lot of teams don’t have that.”

Benefits of affiliation

Twenty-one of the 31 ECHL teams were affiliated with NHL teams during the 2003-04 season. Chapman explained why it is a useful relationship for both sides.

“If it works right, what you get on the minor league side are some very talented players who can help your team on the ice, some players who you otherwise might not have been able to get into your organization. It helps your on-ice product. What the NHL team gets, if it’s done right, is development of their players. And to a certain extent, it’s also a weeding out process. There are some guys who are signed by NHL teams who start at our level and never go any higher because the NHL realizes, you know what, they’re not cut out to play at the National Hockey League level.”

The effect on an ECHL team’s on-ice product is being demonstrated this playoff season. All four of the teams remaining in the ECHL Kelly Cup playoffs have meaningful affiliations with NHL teams: the Gladiators with the Thrashers, the Reading Royals with the Los Angeles Kings, Florida Everblades with the Carolina Hurricanes, and the Idaho Steelheads with the Dallas Stars.

The ECHL as a league has been pushing becoming more of a developmental league than ever before. It is a means of attracting better, younger talent, and differentiating itself in a marketplace crowded with minor league hockey. A total of 253 players who played in the ECHL have gone on to play in the NHL in the league’s 16-year history. Forty of those graduations happened in 2003-04, the highest ever. There were 53 former ECHL players on NHL opening-day rosters this October, and 108 played over the entire season.

ECHL teams who aren’t affiliated can suffer in the quality of their personnel two ways according to Pyle, both because they aren’t getting sent contracted players, but also because having an affiliation helps in recruiting free agents.

“If you don’t have an affiliation, yeah, it’s tough from a recruiting standpoint because people ask you who your affiliates are because they want to know they’re getting looked at, which for us with Atlanta being here is a positive. Otherwise, you’re obviously down a couple better players. For us that would be five guys who have all contributed throughout the year.”

Putting it into practice

When it comes to the logistics of affiliations, Chapman explained that the NHL club pays the full salary of the players that it places with the team directly to the players, and then bills the affiliate for the time the players spent with the club at the end of each month. The bill is a flat fee based on a per week average, $500 per week for a contracted player. This makes the players relatively cheap compared to ECHL contracted players, a real advantage under the ECHL’s tight salary cap.

There’s no guarantee of the number of players, or length of time they will be there going into the season. The players can of course be called up to the AHL or NHL affiliate and any time. Five of the six players assigned to the team from the Gladiators’ affiliates were called up during the season.

“They watch out for you,” Chapman assured. “They try not to leave you shorthanded or put you in bad situations. But at the same time, what we know, and what our fans have to accept, is the fact that we’re here to move kids up. And sometimes, just the nature of the beast, that puts you in an awkward situation where you lose a guy when you really need him or something like that. But there’s no animosity about it, that’s what we’re here for.”

The Gladiators were put in the toughest spot of the season in January when both of its goaltenders, Michael Garnett and Adam Munro, were on call-ups. The uncertainty of how long players will be gone makes it tough to know if replacing them will require a mere band-aid, or more complex arrangements.

Coach Pyle has been very happy with the players assigned to him and the courtesy shown by the affiliates to the team’s needs.

“We’ve gotten great players. The relationship we have with Atlanta and Chicago has been phenomenal. They take our guys when they need them, which is what you want, and when they don’t need them, they make sure they’re back. They’ve been very thoughtful about how our situation is, so it’s been fantastic for us and along with it you get five quality players, who are probably the heart of our team right now.”

Chapman notes that this courtesy isn’t always the case in all affiliation relationships.

“There are affiliations I’m sure where the parent club doesn’t care about the minor league team’s success one way or the other. That’s a bad situation to be in. One that I wouldn’t want to be in. Luckily both Atlanta and Chicago have been great to work with.”

To Chapman, the most important key to a good affiliation is a strong philosophy of development.

“If the NHL club isn’t committed to long term development of players, then it’s not going to be a very meaningful relationship at this level. If the team at the ECHL level isn’t committed to developing players, they’re simply looking for cheap good labor, then it’s not going to work. I think philosophy is the most important thing. Philosophy to develop players and move them up the line.”

The Gladiators’ developmental philosophy is very evident looking at the roster. At the start of the season, it had 12 rookies, the highest number in the league. It now stands at 11 rookies.

Thrashers monitor players

With their headquarters so close, the Thrashers are able to have high level personnel checking up on their youngest pros on a regular basis.

“I think they’re pretty consistent in stopping in and seeing them,” Pyle said. “They’ve had enough guys at the games here to get different opinions on their guys. Sometimes twice a week if there are lots of transactions going on, maybe once every couple of weeks when things are slow. They always let me know when they’re coming. They pretty consistently ask about their guys.”

The players aren’t usually aware of when they’re being monitored, but Flache has recently gotten feedback from the organization on how they think he is progressing.

“When I was in Chicago, Larry Simmons (Thrashers Director of Hockey Administration) was there and he saw me play a couple games. I was talking to him there and got some feedback. When I talked to him he told me he thought I made great strides from last year compared to this year. Then I realized they are keeping tabs on me. Just because they’re not in your face all the time, they know what you’re doing.”

Feedback like this is rare, though. It generally comes only once a year when players leave training camp.

“I was told by (Director of Player Development) Dan Marr, and my coaches and everybody, ‘no news is good news.’ If you don’t hear anything, chances are you’re doing good. Last year I was sick and lost a lot of weight, and came back, but I wasn’t playing up to the level I could. My agent called me and said that Atlanta wasn’t really happy with me at that point, just because of the way I was playing. Which is fine, everyone needs a kick in the butt once in a while. I haven’t heard anything like that this year so I’m taking it as a good thing! (laughing) That’s how I look at it.”

Influence of NHL team?

The National Hockey League sometimes uses the minor leagues, both the AHL and the ECHL, as test cases for playing rules it is considering adopting. Beyond that, the Gladiators don’t experience interference from the NHL level.

“As far as the actual on-ice coaching or anything else, I’m sure there are teams where there is a heavy involvement, in ours there’s not,” Chapman said. “I think Donny (Waddell) is pretty confident in Jeff’s coaching ability. So I’d say from that level that there’s not a lot.”

“Certainly if we get a player from the NHL team, you kind of feel an obligation to play the kid, to give him a chance,” Chapman said. “But in most cases, there’s no reason to feel obligated.”

Pyle confirmed that there was no interference in on-ice decisions from the Thrashers.

“I think Atlanta pretty much trusts us with what we want to do. They never tell me you have to do this, you have to do that. If guys are playing hard and working hard for each other, they’ll play. This is the level where guys need to play. All my rookies got an opportunity, in situations where some wouldn’t. (Atlanta’s) been awesome, they trust my decisions. They know I’m going to try to work for the kid.”

Interference in coaching decisions has been known to happen between other NHL-ECHL affiliates, just not in this case.

“I’ve heard it in a lot of places,” Pyle admitted. “I’ve just never experienced it. They want their guys playing, but if the guy’s not getting it done and you need to win, then I think everybody understands that at any level. I know it does go on, but I’ve never been a part of it.”

Style of play and coaching

If there’s an effort to get the AHL affiliate to play the same system, it doesn’t extend to the ECHL level. Paul Flache played 62 games with the Gladiators and 10 with the Chicago Wolves this season. He compares the style of play of the Gladiators to the college game, and the Wolves to the way he remembers from junior.

This shouldn’t be surprising since Coach Pyle is a product of the college system and recruits heavily from the college ranks. He currently has 14 ex-college players on his roster, a full two-thirds of the team. Pyle’s first step in putting a team together every year is to rank the graduating seniors in Division I hockey. Once he gets his team together, he puts his coaching philosophy into practice.

“I try to teach them to be accountable for what they do, and to play with passion. We’ve got to be sound in the fundamentals. And then it’s a matter of commitment. My job is just to put out the fires when I can, make sure I’m watching the tape and teaching them by showing them the tape. I think my systems are solid, I think everyone’s systems are solid, it’s just a matter of how hard you work in practice to get the guys to understand those systems.”

ECHL teams don’t know for sure which players they will receive from their affiliates until NHL and AHL camps are over. While perhaps a bit frustrating when trying to plan for needs, it’s also an opportunity.

“You know you’re getting some raw talented kids,” Pyle noted. “I think the biggest part of my job is to instill confidence in them and make them believe they can do it. In coaching that’s what you’re supposed to do. Make them fundamentally sound and make them believe they can do it. Whatever kid you get, that’s your next challenge.”

The Thrashers sent a total of four players to Gwinnett over the course of the season, one goaltender, one defenseman, and two forwards. Gwinnett received two additional players from the AHL Chicago Wolves, a forward and a defenseman. These numbers put them around the average among ECHL teams with affiliations.

Gladiators are part of the process

Coach Pyle attended the annual Traverse City rookie camp with the Thrashers last September. He found it a great introduction to the organization and its young players.

“It makes you feel like you’re a part of it, to go there and watch the six different NHL teams and all their kids. For me the best part was to see all the kids. There were 150 kids and 20-25 of those kids are now in the ‘Coast.’ It’s the perfect place to be for seeing stuff like that. Plus you get kind of an inside feel for the organization and how they work and how professional it is.”

Pyle has an agreement with the Thrashers that he can check on players he’s interested in through their scouting system, and alternatively if he sees a player at this level who is a diamond in the rough, he’ll mention it to the staff. He is quick to point out though that there are not a lot of guys he’ll see that the organization isn’t already aware of.

When the Gladiators franchise was in Mobile, it was affiliated with the Ottawa Senators and the AHL Grand Rapids Griffins. Pyle compared their relationship with Ottawa to the one with Atlanta.

“Ottawa didn’t have many guys and they weren’t overly worried if we developed them or not. A couple of them were guys that were going to be done with the organization, but they worked out really good for us.

“(Ottawa and Grand Rapids) were good, but Atlanta and Chicago have made us feel so a part of it. It brings together a lot of cohesiveness in organizations when you know they’re happy that you’re there and they want you to be there, a part of it.”

Chapman echoed Pyle’s assessment and complimented the Thrashers for their forward-looking approach.

“We had a good relationship with Ottawa, it was productive, but at the time, they weren’t as deep into player development as Atlanta is. I know sometimes (Thrashers) fans get a little frustrated because they want Atlanta to win and win big now, but I’m telling you, that organization has laid the groundwork to be not only successful flash in the pan style, but to be long-term successful.”