FORT WAYNE – A new era of Komets hockey began Thursday, with their long-anticipated entrance into the ECHL.
And with it supposedly ends the era of the Komets changing leagues more than they change goaltenders.
This is it, said general manager David Franke, whose team has played in the UHL, IHL and CHL since 2007, having won championships in all of them. As long as we own this franchise, we’ll play in the ECHL. We’re not going to play in the (higher-level) American League. It’s cost prohibitive; we’d have to raise our ticket and sponsorship prices to the point where we’d price ourselves out. And I don’t think we have a big enough building for the NHL, although, if they want us, maybe we’d go.
The Komets will enter their 61st season this fall, and the ECHL will be their fifth league, if you count both incarnations of the IHL separately.
Fort Wayne captured its ninth playoff championship, the CHL’s Presidents’ Cup, on May 7.
With the addition of Fort Wayne and Evansville from the CHL, along with expansion teams in Orlando and San Francisco, the ECHL will likely have 23 teams for its 25th anniversary season.
At this point, it just seemed like the right thing to do and the right time, ECHL commissioner Brian McKenna said. We’re excited about it, getting Evansville and Fort Wayne and their Midwest geography, rekindling some of those old rivalries and bringing on board two very strong partners. With the tradition and history that this town has with minor-league hockey, it’s certainly a big benefit for us.
There had been flirtations between the Komets and the ECHL as far back as 1999, when the Komets left the AAA-level IHL for the AA-level UHL.
The Komets sought geographic sanity to their scheduling – in the playoffs, they made two trips to Rapid City, S.D., one to Independence, Mo., and one to Wichita, Kan. – and the CHL no longer made sense because the team in Dayton folded and teams in Bloomington, Ill., and Moline, Ill., have been on life support.
A ballpark estimate is out of the 72 games next season, about 50 will be against the teams in the closest geographic distance. You will see a lot of Toledo, Kalamazoo, Cincinnati, Wheeling perhaps, said McKenna, whose league spans from Estero, Fla., to Anchorage, Alaska. We try to make sure for the rivalry point of view, and the travel-cost point of view, to make it rational. But we also have come to realize that although fans love the rivalries, they also like to see some variety with teams that come into the building.
Coach Al Sims, who has five Cups with Fort Wayne dating to 1993, has signed an undisclosed contract to return. He has coached one season in the ECHL, with Reading in 2001-02, going 27-36-9.
We were an expansion team, and I didn’t have the advantage of a championship team and picking and choosing who I wanted from that team and then filling in the blanks, Sims said. It was starting from zero. It was a lot of young guys, not a lot of vets, and we paid the price.
No Fort Wayne players are under contract yet for next season.
I’m 59. Al is 59. This kind of stuff really reinvigorates us and really drives us, Franke said. One thing people can say about Komets hockey is it’s never stale. We have played in a few leagues and been very successful. But we’re putting the franchise in the best possible situation for the future and that’s the ECHL.