FORT WAYNE – The yearly script never varied much, the way Komets radio broadcaster Bob Chase envisions it.
Every fall, Chase says, Len Thornson would head off to training camp with the Montreal Canadiens, the lords of all creation in an era when creation, at least in hockey terms, amounted to six teams.
Every fall, Thornson would skate and pass and score, and work his particular brand of understated magic.
Every fall, at the end of camp, Canadiens coach Toe Blake would call Thornson into his office, look him in the eye and say the same thing.
Thanks for coming to camp, Lenny. Good luck with the Komets this year.
And with that benediction, Blake would unwittingly add to a legend.
His annual sayonara would send Thornson back to a place that was building its own ice-bound legacy, with Thornson at its head. There was Eddie Long and Choo-Choo Repka and Jumbo Goodwin and Stubby Dubchak, all of that golden group you can simply refer to as The Guys. And then there was Thornson, the greatest Guy of all.
If The Guys made the Fort Wayne Komets one of the pre-eminent minor-league hockey franchises in America, it is Thornson, here in the Komets 60th season, who remains ascendant. Forty-two years after he hung up the skates, he reigns, in the judgment of The Journal Gazette staff, as the greatest player in Komet history.
He has Toe Blake and The Guys and, most of all, the era in which he played to thank for that.
It seemed in those days if you didnt make it by the time you were 23, 24, they werent interested, says Thornson, whose chances were further narrowed by the fact that he belonged to the Canadiens, who won nine Stanley Cups during his pro career. Then you played in the AHL or the IHL.
You look at who we had: Eddie Long, Len Ronson, Con Madigan, John Ferguson. Those guys all stayed here for a while. Norm Waslawski should have been a National Leaguer. The difference in the two (leagues) in those days was not a great deal.
And Thornson was the best of that difference. In his 12 seasons, he scored 1,382 points, an International Hockey League record that stood for 31 years. Seven times he won the James Gatschene Trophy, emblematic of the IHLs Most Valuable Player; no one else in league history ever won more than two.
What made him so good?
Probably the best thing I was able to do was I was, maybe, an exceptional passer, says Thornson. I was an opportune guy around the net, too, but I think the biggest thing was, I could handle the puck long enough to make the pass.
And we had good wingers who could put the puck in the net.
Amen to that, says his longtime roommate, Repka.
All (coach) Ken Ullyot did was give him fast wingers, Repka says. Hed give that Frisbee pass – where it kind of goes up, and he could spin it where it landed flat. All a guy had to do was stay on his wing and give him a target.
Then there was his mastery of the lost art of the carom.
He used that extra dimension a lot of guys dont use anymore – the boards, Chase says. Merv (Dubchak) would yell and Lenny would fire it off the boards, and it would come off the boards right on his stick.
He was kind of what you call a complete player. He didnt have one thing thats better than anybody else, but he had enough of all of them. And he had a style about himself that was so unassuming, it belied the fact all these talents were resting in one body.
Lenny wasnt very vocal, but he really worked with his linemates very well. One thing I noticed about him was he was faster on his skates than people gave him credit for. And there was no one who could stickhandle the way he could.
He was just a leader. We all looked up to him.