DULUTH, Ga. – One piece of offseason news was unfurled by the Atlanta Gladiators on Tuesday with the announcement that Georgia’s longest-running pro hockey franchise will be affiliated with the Nashville Predators.
The affiliation, announced in a press conference at Gas South Arena with guests that included Predators mascot GNASH, links Atlanta with the closest NHL team to its home arena and the Predators AHL franchise in Milwaukee. It comes after one season with Phoenix as Atlanta’s NHL affiliate and Ottawa the season prior.
“What an exciting day for hockey in the South. To be able to put Atlanta and Nashville together, it’s exciting for me,” Predators Assistant General Manager/Director of Hockey Operations Brian Poile said. “I was born in Atlanta, and my dad started with the Flames, so the opportunity to put those two together, it’s just fantastic. We hope that we can have Gladiators fans become Predators fans and vice versa.”
But in the spirit of the famed phrase from Apple events, “one more thing,” Atlanta had more to unveil.
The promotion of long-time head coach Jeff Pyle was announced, elevating him to Director Of Hockey Operations. But there’ll be no long drawn-out search for his replacement. It’ll be from just a few feet down the bench with Gladiators legend Derek Nesbitt, an assistant this past season for Atlanta, being named the sixth head coach in team history.
Tuesday’s moves ingrain a strong degree of familiarity for close followers of the Gladiators.
The 41-year old Nesbitt served as Atlanta’s captain for the past five years, logging 512 games in eight seasons as a Gladiator. Not only that, but he is the franchise’s all-time leader in games played (512), goals (166), assists (258), and points (424).
Nesbitt has sewn himself into the fabric of the local hockey scene, serving as Director of Youth Hockey at the Atlanta IceForum. Now, he’ll succeed a coach who has meant a great deal to him, on and off the ice.
“For me, I came here in 2005 and had no clue what to expect. I came into a beautiful rink and had an awesome coach, mentor, and friend. I could not be more happy to follow in his footsteps,” Nesbitt said. “It means a lot to me. I don’t take it for granted that my first time as head coach is at a place that I am so familiar with and call home. I understand that’s not what a lot of first-time professional hockey coaches get to do. I could not be more happy to start this chapter of my life here.”
That impact was well on Nesbitt’s mind Tuesday as he opened his remarks by thanking Pyle, who was seated nearby.
“Jeff, first of all, thank you for not just being my coach and mentor but also a friend for so long,” Nesbitt said as he addressed the gathering of media and Gladiators fans. “I’m obviously going to use a lot of the knowledge you have given me through the years.”
Pyle was head coach when the Gladiators took the ice near Atlanta in 2003, coming with the team from Mobile. He guided the Gladiators to the Kelly Cup Playoffs in each of his first six seasons in Atlanta, the high point being in 2005-06 when a 50-15 record took the franchise then known as Gwinnett to the Kelly Cup Finals. After one season with Texas of the AHL, one with Evansville in the ECHL, and two behind the bench in the SPHL with Evansville, Pyle returned to Atlanta for 2018-19, leading the Gladiators to the postseason in 2021-22. Atlanta’s 43 wins that year were its most in nine seasons.
“We’re so excited to have Mr. Gladiator himself, Derek Nesbitt, as the next head coach of our storied franchise. When you think of the Atlanta Gladiators, you think of Derek Nesbitt, and his accomplishments while wearing a Gladiators jersey. We couldn’t be more excited to have Derek at the helm beginning next season,” said Gladiators majority owner, Alex Campbell. “With that said, we would like to sincerely thank Jeff Pyle, for not only setting an example of excellence on the ice, but also your ongoing commitment to the Gladiators in the past, present, and future. We are proud to have promoted him to become our next Director of Hockey Operations.”
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