When the Gladiators begin training camp in October, professional hockey players from all over the world will make the trip to Duluth for preparations ahead of the 2022-23 season. Dalton and Josh Thrower will make the multi-day haul from British Columbia, Tim Davison will drive down from northern Wisconsin, and Gabe Guertler will journey up from Miami.
Zach Yoder will hop on I-75, head south to I-285, get stuck in traffic around Sandy Springs, shoot up I-85, and arrive at the season’s first training camp all in about 50 minutes.
The 6-foot-5 defenseman hails from Woodstock and began falling in love with the game of hockey just a few blocks away from home.
“We had a roller rink about five miles from my house and a couple of my buddies started playing there, so I joined them,” Yoder recounted. “I fell in love with it and played every day out on my street. Eventually I moved to ice, and it was history from there.”
As his affinity for the game grew, so did his affinity for the hometown teams: the Atlanta Thrashers, and the Gwinnett Gladiators. “Growing up and watching Glads games, I always thought that it would be incredible to play for them, in Atlanta.”
Yoder eventually began playing hockey for Woodstock High and produced bountifully as a freshman with 14 points in just 15 games. The blueliner also earned a spot on the Thunder AAA team and began gaining attention from colleges and elite junior leagues. The United States Hockey League came calling in 2012, and so Yoder moved away from Woodstock and joined the Muskegon Lumberjacks to play Tier I junior hockey.
After a season-and-a-half in Muskegon, two North American Hockey League campaigns in Wisconsin with the Janesville Jets, one year at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, and three seasons in northern Michigan with Ferris State University, Yoder longed to play closer to home.
Yoder received his first taste of professional action with the Toledo Walleye following his senior year in 2020, despite an attempt to return home to Georgia and play for the Gladiators. “I wanted to sign with them right out of school. but it just didn’t work out,” said Yoder. “I did talk to [Jeff] Pyle though, and he let me know that he would be interested the following year.” When the COVID pandemic struck a few weeks after his first pro game in Toledo and cancelled the remainder of the 2019-20 ECHL season, he was forced back to Georgia to wait for his next opportunity to play pro hockey at home.
In July of 2021, Gladiators Head Coach Jeff Pyle began recruiting players to sign for the upcoming season, and with just a handful of professional games under his belt, the Georgia native narrowly made the list. “I wasn’t sure if he would crack our lineup,” admitted Pyle. “When I saw him play, I liked his vision, his size, and I thought he moved well. But the thing I liked most was his reads. With him being from Atlanta, I hoped he would excel, and he did. I was pumped for him. He showed me up in a very professional way…he proved it.”
Yoder’s signing announcement was coupled with fellow Atlanta native Malcolm Hayes on July 21 of last year. “It was a dream come true,” remembered Yoder. “The fans and all the support were amazing. Growing up, none of my friends or family really got to see me play since I was always up north.”
The big D-man served as a key cog in one of the best defense cores in the ECHL during the 2021-22 season. Yoder and the Glads finished with the fourth-lowest goals-against average in the league at just 2.75. He patrolled the blue line dutifully, killed penalties, and tallied 10 assists through 60 games. In his first full professional season, the rookie played often and played well.
“My fiancé Jordyn and my parents come to just about every home game. Most weekend home games I have normally have around 4-6 more friends or family coming. I think the most we had at one game this season was like 18.”
Playing for the hometown team isn’t the only thing that Yoder is looking forward to during the 2022-23 season. He’s also anxiously awaiting his first pro goal. “It would be unbelievable to score it at home,” he laughed. “I always think about the celly that I would do, but in reality, I think I’d just throw my hands straight in the air.”
Along with Yoder, this season’s Gladiators roster features several other key contributors from the 2021-22 team, all of whom are eager for the season to start and for a chance to avenge Atlanta’s first round exit last April. Yoder even went as far to state, “I think anything but a championship would be a disappointment.”
This season, the Gladiators will journey as far north as Portland, Maine and as far south as Estero, Florida. Zach Yoder will look the part no matter where the game is played, but when the Gladiators play in Gwinnett County at Gas South Arena, Yoder will literally be right at home.