Saturday, January 23, 2010

Gwinnett Gladiators 2 at Florida Everblades 3 - ECHL - January 22, 2010

Between Tampa and Miami lies the Gulf Coast city of Fort Myers, FL. Just south of here lies Estero, a small community which is home to the Florida Everblades, an ECHL team for the last 12 seasons. The hockey scheduling gods were paying attention and were kind enough to set a game for January 22nd, the day between the Leaf games in Tampa and Miami. So I spent a night at Germain Arena watching the Gwinnett Gladiators take on the Everblades

The Teams

I saw the Gladiators last week in Duluth, GA, a suburb of Atlanta. They've been in Georgia since 2002, when they moved from Mobile, AL. They are affiliated with the Thrashers and Columbus Blue Jackets of the NHL. They are also quite successful, having made the playoffs every season in Gwinnett, going all the way to the Kelly Cup Finals in 2006, only to lose to the Alaska Aces. A few of their players have been drafted and a couple have had cups of coffee in the NHL. In the first game, I was impressed by Matt Siddall, who was drafted in the 9th round back in 2004 by Atlanta but has yet to see any action in the bigs.

The Everblades have one of the best names in sports. With Fort Myers located near the entrance to the Everglades; they've combined local features with ice hockey terminology perfectly. The team has existed since 1998 and has made the playoffs in every season, although they have yet to win a championship. Their NHL affiliates are Florida and Carolina. Their uniforms are similar to those of the old Hartford Whalers, with blue and green as the primary colors. Their goalie tonight was Barry Brust, who played 11 games with the L.A. Kings back in 2006-07 and now leads the league in GAA.

Both teams play in the Southern Division, with Florida lying second in the 4-team division while Gwinnett is on the bottom despite an 18-15-3 record.

The Arena

Located just off exit 123 of I-75, Germain Arena is a good minor-league rink. Opened in 1998 when the Everblades began, the arena seats just over 7,000 for hockey and is usually quite full as the team is averaging over 5,000 fans this season. Parking is $5 and I don't think you can avoid the charge as there is nothing else within walking distance.

There's only one level of seating, with prices determined by row number. Row 1 is $34, while rows 2-7 are called the "club" and cost $24. Rows 8 and above cost $18 along the side, $15 in the corners, and $12 behind the nets. With the rink so small, there's not a bad seat to be found.

If you get there early, you can enjoy dinner or drinks at the Breakaway Sports Pub, which is a full service restaurant located above the seating bowl in one corner of the rink. Make sure to make a reservation if you want a table, the place was nearly full when we arrived an hour before the game. The picture below shows the pub underneath the scoreboard.

There's a good variety of food options as well, although as I've mentioned before, I've given up on arena food on this trip.

Overall, a very nice place to watch a hockey game and highly recommended for anyone in Florida on a hockey trip.

The Game

Fans had hardly sat down when Chris Higgins scored off a bad bounce, beating Brust to give the Gladiators a 1-0 lead after just 24 seconds. But Florida replied at the two-minute mark with captain Ross Carlson scoring off a scramble. The rest of the period featured a lot of action, but no more goals.

Everblade Kevin Baker missed this chance

In the second, the Everblades dominated the period with 15 shots and managed two goals to take a 3-1 lead into the third. They then moved into a defensive mode, and Gwinnett scored a great goal on a 2-on-1 to cut the deficit to one with just under 10 minutes to go. But Brust was strong, turning aside 31 shots in total and the home team held on for a 3-2 victory.

The game was very quick, coming in at 2:07. There were a lot of penalties, but few scuffles and with only one official timeout each period, the match moved quickly. In fact, in the two ECHL games I've seen on this trip, I've noticed that the league is much improved from the games I had seen years ago. Many of the players are real prospects and the speed and level of play is quite high.

Another missed opportunity

I was also impressed by Brust (shown below), who was unruffled after giving up the early goal. Turns out he is down with Florida on a rehab assignment from the AHL, so maybe we will see him back in the NHL at some point. He can't be as bad as Vesa Toskala, can he?


Tonight's promotion was a visit from the ZOOperstars, a troupe of mascots that were on America's Got Talent a few seasons ago. They wear oversized costumes that appear to be synthetic and allow for some strange movements. Each character is named after a famous athlete, with a twist on the name to indicate the type of animal. Today's show saw Shaquille O'Seal, Bobby Orrangutang, Whale Gretzky (all shown below), Clammy Sosa, and Tiger Woodschuck. Given Woods' recent problems, perhaps this one should be changed to Tiger WouldF*** (pretty much anybody). OK, sorry, it's a show meant for children, so this is unlikely to happen.

Anyway, they made appearances during each intermission, dancing and racing around the ice. It was really well done and kept the fans laughing long after they had left the ice. I'm not a big fan of mascots, but these guys are entertaining and worth checking out if they visit a town near you.

Overall, this was a highly enjoyable sports experience. The fans here were friendly and talking to us all night long as we were wearing our Leaf jerseys. The home team won and it marked the 7th consecutive pro event decided by a goal.

The next day I visited Sunrise, home of the Everblades' parent club, the Florida Panthers, who hosted the Leafs. It was not a fun night, but there's another post on that coming up shortly.



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