It’s almost a decade ago that the Atlanta Gladiators sat at the top of the South Division. After opting out of the 2020-21 season due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Gladiators returned this year in full force and returned to the Kelly Cup Playoffs for the first time since the 2017-18 season. For two Gladiators rookies, this is the first time their families and friends have the opportunity to see them play without extensive travel.
Defenders Malcolm Hayes and Zach Yoder both grew up in the Atlanta area. With few ice rinks in the south, the pair actually played together for the Atlanta Fire out of Alpharetta.
“We [Yoder and Hayes] actually played together in Alpharetta, “Yoder remembered,” I clearly remember Malcolm scoring a goal in a match, I do not know if he knew, but he went on the top shelf and we were like 10 years old, and I was so pumped. “
Yoder started playing roller hockey on a local ice rink and in his neighborhood’s dead end with friends. “The Atlanta Thrashers were here at the time and I went to one or two games and I was just hooked,” he recalled. Then Yoder started playing at the local ice rink in Alpharetta.
Hayes started playing hockey while living in Detroit until he was 6 years old.
“When we first moved to Alpharetta, luckily all the ice rinks in Georgia were only 30 to 45 minutes away from me, so we were a little lucky at that place,” Hayes explained. “Hockey is pretty small around here, so if you play hockey, you know everyone. I can really thank my parents for just talking to people around us and hooking us up with skating coaches and stuff like that, and I ended up running with it. . ”
Hayes even participated in a few Gladiators games when he himself was growing up. “I actually remember a paint on the field where I saw Derek Nesbitt play and now he’s my teammate,” he laughed. “So it’s actually fun, and I laugh about it once a week.”
Hayes went on to mention that playing with Nesbitt, who played his 1,000th. professional match in December, and playing for a team he grew up watching is full circle. “It shows you how long Derek has been around, and that’s why I look up to him and have so much respect for him,” Hayes said. “It’s inspiring because he’s been working for so long since I was a little kid and chasing that dream, and it just makes me want to go harder and get better every day.”
Due to the minimal programs in the area, both Hayes and Yoder left Georgia for preparatory school and juniors, respectively. The transition was tough for both of them, leaving their friends and family, but both knew and recognized that these steps and experiences would bring them closer to their future goals of playing in college and beyond.
“It was not really my first choice to take down here, I love this,” Yoder recalled. “But at the same time, I got an opportunity to go to (United States Hockey League). I knew it was one of the best leagues, and if I wanted to play college, I knew it was a good opportunity, and I had to take it. ”
Hayes knew that going to preparatory school in the Northeast was a pretty big thing to do.
“There are a lot of recruits out there who play from Hockey East and the Big 10 and the big conferences, so I looked at it like this is how you get closer to the goal, play college hockey and hopefully try to get to the NHL. “
After college, both had a professional stay with the Southern Professional Hockey League and ECHL in the 2019-20 season before the COVID-19 pandemic stopped the game. Two years later, both defenders will be playing close to home for the first time in over a decade during their rookie season and are tied for the playoffs, which is not common to say.
“It’s a good feeling,” Hayes said. “I have not been so close to home and played hockey where my friends and family can just drive for 20 minutes and watch me play since I was like … I do not know; when Yoder and I played together, ”he said. “I do not take it for granted. It’s a great thing to have, and being close to them right now is just a cool experience, and I’m definitely grateful for it every day. ”
“I’ve always been the kid who played hockey, but no one knew anything about hockey or got to watch games or anything.” Yoder remembered. “So now that I’m back, it’s a little cool to actually get all my friends to come to the game so they can see, ‘okay, that’s what Yoder has been working so long and so hard for, that’s why he missed all the middle and high school events, like, this is really cool, ‘so it’s super special, and the same for my family.
“It’s super, super special that we’re going to play at home, all these friends and family are coming, especially since we’re all just as good and hoping to make a push for the Kelly Cup.”