PHOENIX – Back in 2011, the Gwinnett (Georgia) Gladiators joined the Phoenix Coyotes organization as the team’s ECHL affiliate, a relationship that lasted until 2015 when their contract expired and the two franchises went their separate ways.
Now, nearly eight years later, they’ve rekindled the relationship and are together again, although under slightly different names.
The Phoenix Coyotes became the Arizona Coyotes to expand their reach, and the Gladiators became the Atlanta Gladiators for similar reasons, hoping to expand their brand through the Atlanta metropolitan area.
“We are very pleased to once again partner with the Atlanta Gladiators as our new ECHL affiliate,” Coyotes General Manager Bill Armstrong said in a press release. “The Gladiators are a first-class organization with a loyal and passionate fan base. We look forward to working with Gladiators President Jerry James and head coach Jeff Pyle this season.”
The Coyotes’ agreement with Atlanta begins with the 2022-23 season. No other details of the affiliation were announced. The Gladiators served as the Ottawa Senators’ ECHL affiliate in 2021-2022 and the Rapid City Rush were the Coyotes’ affiliate in the ECHL the last two seasons.
The Tucson Roadrunners, the Coyotes American Hockey League (AHL) affiliate, will work directly with the Gladiators as well in developing players. The ECHL is one level below the American Hockey League.
On the heels of the new affiliation agreement, the Coyotes also announced that Lee Stempniak, who had served as their hockey data strategist since Jan. 25, 2021, will now serve as the club’s director of player development. Among his other duties, the 39-year-old Stempniak will oversee the Coyotes minor league system.
Pyle has been the Gladiators coach and director of hockey operations since 2018. He had previously coached the Gladiators, but departed before the first partnership with the Coyotes. However, he said he has heard great things about the Coyotes organization.
“The biggest thing when you have an affiliation is that they kind of look out for you and that they’re there to help,” Pyle said. “I’ve known Bill Armstrong for quite a while, and I’ve known John Ferguson (Coyotes assistant general manager) for the last couple of years. So I’m familiar with them, and they’re good people. I think they’re going to do a great job with Arizona and Tucson.”
Mike Folta, the Gladiators’ director of broadcasting and communications, believes Pyle is the perfect guy to develop a winning culture for some of the young prospects in the Coyotes’ system.
“Everyone loves playing for him, as he really let’s the guys kind of be themselves,” Folta said. “He has a very simple structure that a lot of guys are able to pick up easily. Jeff was a guy that was an extremely successful player in the minor leagues and was never given a chance in the NHL. He wants to make sure that he gives his players every opportunity possible to get to that next level.”
Last year, the Gladiators were affiliated with the Ottawa Senators and their AHL team, the Belleville Senators. Folta said Gladiators forwards Kameron Kielly and Mitchell Hoelscher, who each came from Belleville of the AHL, had their best statistical seasons under Pyle in Atlanta last season.
“Those guys are looking at their next round of AHL contracts because of the way they played under Jeff Pyle,” Folta said.
Pyle understands that the Coyotes are in rebuild mode and said he will preach patience and structure to his team.
“I’ve always told guys at this level that you’re never going to make it to the (AHL) or the NHL if you’re not detailed in your game,” Pyle said. “So the bottom line is we just want to make sure that we prepare our guys for every single situation they’re going to be in when they’re ready to go up. And then when they go up there, I want them representing us to the highest level.”
Matt McConnell, the Coyotes’ television play-by-play announcer who previously worked as the play-by-play broadcaster of the NHL Atlanta Thrashers, said a good ECHL affiliate can be vital for NHL and AHL player development.
“I think the (ECHL) really started to legitimize itself when NHL teams started affiliating with its members,” McConnell said in an email. “That was a huge turning point. Now, it’s very common to see ECHL alums in the NHL, especially goalies. It’s become a great developmental league for the American Hockey League and NHL.”
During the last Gladiators and Coyotes partnership, former Coyotes goaltender Louis Domingue was one prominent player who developed in Atlanta with the Gladiators, made his way up to Portland of the AHL and eventually received a call up to the Coyotes.
Arizona has also seen former players such as Michael Bunting, Dysin Mayo and Adin Hill grow into important roles in the NHL after playing in the ECHL in Rapid City.
Pyle hopes to add to that list from his roster in Atlanta this season.
“There’s no better league than the ECHL for developing anybody and everybody,” Pyle said. “We’re excited for the opportunity to develop and learn with these organizations. And, you know, like I said, we’ll give it everything we can to make sure that we develop as much as we can to be the best partner.”
Not only does Pyle want to develop players but he wants to win as well. Last year, the Gladiators went 43-24-4-1 and finished second in the South Division.
Pyle believes this upcoming season can be even better and is looking to continue building a winning program.
“I think it’ll be fun,” Pyle said. “We have a really good group and a great leadership group here, and I got a lot of my guys coming back this season. I’ve always said I gotta get to know my players. If I don’t get to know them, I can’t properly coach them and help them. So really that’s all I’m trying to do is create an atmosphere and a culture that everybody buys into.”