Minor league hockey was set to return to Atlanta when the ownership group of the Mobile Mysticks hockey club announced on May 1, 2002 that an agreement has been reached with the Gwinnett County Convention and Visitors Bureau to relocate the East Coast Hockey League (ECHL) franchise to Gwinnett County, Georgia for the 2003-2004 season. Co-owner Toby Jeffreys saw an opportunity to play in a brand new 11,200 seat arena with 38 luxury suites and recoup some of the losses the team suffered over its seven seasons in Mobile.
Originally known as the Gwinnett Civic and Cultural Center when it opened in 1992, it was one of several projects built with funds from a four-year sales tax approved by voters in 1988. After an expansion that added an arena and ballroom, paid for with a 1% increase in the county hotel tax that funded a 20-year bond, the name of the facility was changed to Gwinnett Center.
In the fall of 2002, the name and logo were announced. The Gladiators name was reportedly chosen from among more than 2,500 entries submitted in a “Name the Team” contest. The logo was designed by the Joe Bosack Graphic Design Company. In December, Gladiators General Manager Steve Chapman unveiled the team’s new jerseys. The new Gladiators mascot, appropriately named Maximus, was designed by Alexis Conrad as part of a mascot drawing contest.
By the end of the summer of 2003, the Gladiators announced their affiliation with the NHL Atlanta Thrashers and the AHL Chicago Wolves. They also signed their first two players, Troy Milam and Phil Lewandowski. Jeff Pyle, the Mysticks’ head coach for four seasons, was retained as the head coach for the Gladiators. On October 18th, the team kicked off its inaugural season in Charlotte with a 5-3 win over the Checkers. Cam Brown scored the team’s first ever goal. Six days later, 6,457 fans witnessed the Gladiators beat the Augusta Lynx in the first home game. The Gladiators made the playoffs and advanced to the third round before losing to the eventual Kelly Cup Champions the Idaho Steelheads.
The Gladiators would reach the ECHL playoffs in each of their first six seasons under the leadership of Jeff Pyle, reaching the Kelly Cup Finals at the end of the 2005-06 season. The Gladiators lost to the Alaska Aces in the finals, one of the teams added when the league absorbed six teams from the old West Coast Hockey League in 2003.
Prior to the start of the 2007 season, the Gladiators unveiled their fifth anniversary logo which featured both the Gladiator sword and the Roman Numeral V superimposed. The team wore specially designed gold jerseys at five select home games during their fifth season, beginning on December 27.
Near the mid-point of the 2008-09 season, the Gladiators announced an affiliation agreement with the Chicago Blackhawks of the NHL. Chicago’s previous ECHL agreement with the Fresno Falcons ended when Fresno ceased operations on December 22. The Gladiators remained the ECHL affiliate of the Thrashers.
At the start of the 2009-10 season, the team’s seventh, the Gladiators announced a new affiliation agreement with the NHL Columbus Blue Jackets and the AHL Syracuse Crunch. This agreement replaced a previous one with the Chicago Blackhawks organization and had no effect on the long-standing relationship with the Atlanta Thrashers.
In December, the ECHL announced that former Gladiators captain Cam Brown was named an inductee into the ECHL Hall of Fame for the class of 2010. Brown was the first Hall of Fame inductee from the Gladiators organization, and was selected in his first year of eligibility for the honor. Brown played three seasons with Gwinnett from 2003-2006, serving as captain for all three years before retiring following the 2005-06 season.
Two other significant events took place during the second half of the 2009-10 season. On February 13, former Atlanta Knights National Anthem singer Rick Morgan returned to the Arena at Gwinnett Center to sing the National Anthem as part of the Gladiators’ tribute to the Atlanta Knights during the Gladiators’ annual Pink in the Rink Weekend. The team wore specially designed throwback jerseys based on the Knights classic sweaters worn during their four seasons in Atlanta between 1992 and 1996.
On March 20, the Gladiators signed former Atlanta Braves pitcher Tom Glavine as an honorary member of the team in support of Keep Georgia Safe. Selected in the fourth round in the 1984 NHL Draft by the LA Kings, Glavine could have had a future in hockey if baseball had not interfered. He took part in the pregame warmups and even took the opening faceoff before leaving the ice. Ten days later, the Gladiators were officially eliminated from the playoffs for the first time in their seven-year history after falling to the Charlotte Checkers in OT by a score of 2-1.
The Gladiators failed to make the Kelly Cup Playoffs again at the end of the 2010-11 campaign. With the exit of the Atlanta Thrashers to Winnipeg, the team announced two new affiliation agreements during the off-season. The primary affiliation was with the Phoenix Coyotes and their AHL affiliate the Portland Pirates. A secondary affiliation was signed with the Buffalo Sabres and their AHL affiliate the Rochester Americans. John Wroblewski was named head coach following the departure of Jeff Pyle, the only coach the Gladiators had for their first eight seasons.
At the start of the 2012-13 season, the Gladiators introduced two ten-year anniversary logos to celebrate their first decade. One was a stylized number ten with the Gladiator head logo inside the zero, listing the years of operation of the team (2003 to 2013) in Roman numerals along the side. The second logo was similar to the Gladiators’ fifth anniversary logo, using the Roman Numeral X. On October 9th, the team introduced a new alternate jersey, to be worn at home during opening weekend and during the second half of the season. The design was similar to that worn by the team’s NHL affiliate Phoenix Coyotes, maroon with white stripes, and a lace-up neckline.
The Gladiators again qualify for the 2013 ECHL Playoffs. During the first round, the Glads sweep the Stingrays in four games, avenging the previous season’s loss. The sweep is Gwinnett’s third in history and the first since their 2008 first round sweep of the Charlotte Checkers. However, on April 30th, Gwinnett’s season comes to another early close as the Cincinnati Cyclones defeat the Gladiators in Game 6 of the best-of-seven series, 5-3. The game, which should have been played in Gwinnett, had to be played as a road game as the Gwinnett Center management had failed to block out potential playoff dates and had booked another event for the arena, angering both team management and fans.
During the summer, former Gladiators defenseman and assistant coach Rick Emmett was named the third head coach in Gwinnett Gladiators history when John Wroblewski announced he had accepted an assistant coaching position with the AHL Rochester Americans. A month later, Andy Brandt announces his retirement from professional hockey and is named the new Assistant Coach.
The Gladiators went 29-38-3-2 in 2013-14, their worst record ever, and missed the playoffs. After starting the 2014-15 season 5-3-0, the team dropped eight of the next nine games, prompting Team President Steve Chapman to replace Emmett with Assistant Coach Andy Brandt. Things did not improve much under Brandt’s leadership, with the team posting a 14-35-6 record, missing the playoffs for their second straight season.
In January, 2015, the team introduced another alternate jersey as tribute to the NHL Atlanta Flames, who played in Atlanta from 1972 to 1980. The red, gold and white jerseys incorporated design elements from the Gladiators G-sword logo with stylized flames added. The logos and especially the jerseys, worn periodically during the second half of the season, were a huge hit with fans.
Prior to the start of the 2015-16 season, the Gladiators announced they were changing their name from the Gwinnett Gladiators to the Atlanta Gladiators. In a statement released by the team, General Manager and Vice President of Business Operations Joe Gelderman said “We hope that incorporating ‘Atlanta’ into our name will allow more fans to identify with us, and will inspire people from all over the metro area to continue to support and embrace our organization. This was not a decision we made lightly, and in doing so we made sure to consult with a cross section of our fan base, as well as some of our corporate partners. The feedback we received was overwhelmingly in support of making this adjustment.”
The 2015-16 season saw the Gladiators improve to 34-31-5-2 but the team failed to make the playoffs for the third straight season. Attendance dipped below 5000 per game for the second year in a row.
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The 2016-17 season began with great promise. Thirteen of the players on the opening night roster spent time with the Gladiators during the previous season, including team captain Derek Nesbitt and alternate captain Tyler Murovich. The team struggled throughout the season and was unable to string together more than three wins in a row, finishing with a 27-37-6-2 record for 62 points, their second lowest point total in fourteen seasons. Once a perennial playoff contender, they failed to reach the playoffs for the fourth straight season with the average per-game attendance at an all time low of 4,738.
Wroblewski led the Glads to a 41-20-7-4 record, earning the team a South Division championship, a second place finish in the East, and a playoff berth. On April 6th, the Gladiators participate in the second longest ECHL game in history, dropping a heartbreaking 4-3 playoff game to the Stingrays in the fourth overtime. Zach Tarkir broke the deadlock just after midnight on April 7th and four minutes into the fourth overtime session, just two minutes short of the all-time record of 126 minutes and 10 seconds. Both goaltenders played all 124:19 minutes; Marc Cheverie makes 44 saves on 48 shots, while Rob Madore makes 54 saves on 57 shots. South Carolina took a 2-1 series lead in the best-of-five. One day later, and for the second straight game, the Gladiators lost an emotional overtime game, ending their season when they dropped a 4-3 decision to the Stingrays in the second overtime session. John Wroblewski was recognized by the league at the end of the post-season, winning the John Brophy Award as the ECHL Coach of the Year.
In August 2017, the Atlanta Gladiators organization went through several key management changes. First it was announced that Team President Joe Gelderman was leaving the organization to pursue a different career path. Then Head Coach Andy Brandt accepted an Associate Head Coach position with the NCAA’s St. Norbert College hockey program. Scott Henrichsen, a former employee of the Atlanta Falcons from 2002 to 2009, was named President of the Atlanta Gladiators. Henrichsen comes to the Gladiators with over 20 years of experience in sales and the sports industry for various sports teams at every level, including the Minnesota Wild and the Idaho Steelheads. Henrichsen, who previously served various organizations as Director of Ticket Sales, Director of Business Operations and General Manager, now makes the logical next step as Team President.
Other changes in front office included the departures of long time staffers Jim Hall, Christi Johnson and Chris Leverette.
In keeping with previous five year anniversaries, the Atlanta Gladiators unveiled several logos to celebrate their 15th anniversary season in the Atlanta area since relocation from Mobile in 2002. Their new “Advance The Legacy” slogan plays on the common abbreviation for Atlanta (ATL) and the teams desire to return to their years of on-ice successes.
Prior to the start of the 2017-18 season, the Gladiators announced that Chuck Weber has been named the fifth Head Coach and General Manager of Hockey Operations in team history. Weber’s resume included 17 seasons as coach or assistant coach in the AHL, ECHL and in Europe. The bulk of his experience has been in the ECHL, where he held a 177-92-19 record as head coach and captured two Kelly Cup Championships. Weber stated his goals were “to maximize this team’s potential, develop players for the AHL all while winning as many games as possible. I have learned what it takes to be a consistently successful organization at the ECHL level. There will be a lot of ups and downs throughout the season, but I feel my experience will benefit in managing those situations.”
Ups and downs there were. In an injury-plagued season, the Gladiators roster included 27 forwards, 19 defensemen and 7 goaltenders. “I’ve never seen a season like this as far as injuries,” said Weber, whose first year with Atlanta was his 19th coaching pro hockey. We lost over 300 man games to injuries this year. We by far led the ECHL in games lost. This season, for me, was trying to find bodies,” Weber told the Gwinnett Daily Post. The Gladiators were in third place in their division through February, but a late season slump put them in fourth and left them facing the team with the best record in the league, the Florida Everblades, in the first round of the playoffs. The Glads were the only team in the playoffs with a record under .500, but it was the first time they were in the playoffs since 2013. The injuries continued in the playoffs as well, with three players going down. They were swept in round one, but three of the four games went down to the wire with game four being decided in overtime.
Most troubling was the continued decline in attendance. With the regular season average hitting an all-time low of 4215 fans per game, new ownership from out of state and the team in negotiations for a new arena lease, hockey fans in Atlanta have cause for concern.
In July 2018, the Gladiators announced that Jeff Pyle, the winningest coach in franchise history, was returning for the 2018-19 season. Pyle moved with the former Mobile Mystics to Atlanta in 2003 after coaching in Mobile for the previous four seasons. Pyle's 309-210-57 record over eight seasons with the Gladiators made the team a perennial playoff contender, reaching the post season six out of eight years, including one trip to the Kelly Cup Finals. Pyle's 477 ECHL wins is third all-time behind John Brophy and John Marks.
The team introduced new jersey designs for 2018-19. The new jerseys retained the team’s three main colors; garnet, gold and black, along with the Gladiator head logo and secondary shield and sword logo, both of which were in use for all fifteen seasons. The dark jersey, formerly black, would now feature garnet as the main color. The white jersey was replaced with a gold jersey, reportedly making the Gladiators the only team in the NHL, AHL or ECHL to not have a white jersey as one of their main home and road uniforms.
In December, the Gladiators continued their tradition of honoring former Atlanta professional hockey teams by introducing their new heritage jerseys which combined elements from the jerseys worn by the Flames, Knights and Thrashers with the elements of the Gladiators jerseys worn for the fifteen previous seasons.
By early January, the team had a dismal 8-19-5-1 record. Then the team caught fire and went on a franchise-record 13 game point streak which ended on Valentine’s Day. On February 22, Jeff Pyle became just the second coach in ECHL history to reach 500 career wins when the Gladiators blanked Rapid City 4-0. In the last two weeks of the season, the Gladiators were battling for the final divisional playoff spot with South Carolina. The team went 0-4-0-1 in its last five games of the season, with three of those against the Stingrays. It came down to the final game of the season and the Gladiators had to beat South Carolina in regulation in order to qualify for the playoffs. They couldn’t get it done.
“It's disappointing because we lost, but I'm proud of the year considering all the stuff we had to go through,” head coach Jeff Pyle was quoted as saying following the final game. “I think we've prepared a good nucleus for next year. It is a pretty good group of guys, but we needed everybody to step up today and obviously we didn't get it.
The good news is the team saw an uptick in their average attendance, with a 4,686 paid attendance per game. It has been rumored that the team has reached a new arena deal but it had not been formally announced by the season’s end.
On August 6, 2019, the Atlanta Gladiators introduced an updated team image that included new colors and logos prior to the start of their 17th season. The new colors of blue and gold were reportedly chosen as a sharp contrast to the standard black and red that dominates the Atlanta sports market, something the team hopes will help them to "create a unique identity and attract fans throughout the highly diverse landscape in metro Atlanta." Initial fan reaction was mixed but many were hopeful that the new colors might signal a new affiliation agreement on the horizon with the Nashville Predators.
The Gladiators had an up and down season through the end of December, finishing 2019 with a 13-16 record. After the first of the year, the team got hot at home, winning nine in a row from January 29 through March 6 and picking up points in their last ten games before the ECHL announced March 12 it was suspending play as a precautionary measure to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Just two days later, the ECHL Board of Governors approved the cancellation of the remainder of the 2019-20 Season.
Eric Neily and Sam Asselin led the offense with over 20 goals each and Atlanta’s 200 total goals put them atop 15 of the 26 teams in the ECHL. Defense, however, was an issue, with only three other teams giving up more goals than Atlanta. With the Gladiators being the hottest team in the ECHL right before the untimely end to the season, one can only speculate what might have happened if the team earned a playoff spot. Unfortunately, attendance hit an all-time low of 4075 per game.