FORT WAYNE – Gary Graham learned from Komets coach Al Sims for four years, getting more and more responsibility and helping Fort Wayne to three championships in the IHL and CHL.
Now he’s getting an opportunity to run his own show.
Graham, 33, was hired as head coach of the Southern Professional Hockey League’s Pensacola Ice Flyers.
It’s been a lot of hard work and something I’ve been working toward for a long time, said Graham, a native of Fort Wayne. I’m grateful to the Frankes and Al Sims, who gave me my first pro coaching job. It’s been nothing short of spectacular, winning championships, and it’s given me a great platform to work as a young assistant coach.
The Ice Flyers were 30-22-4 last season, and the SPHL is expected to have nine teams next season.
Gary brings extensive hockey knowledge, championship experience and excellent recruiting avenues to our organization, Pensacola owner Tim Kerr said. We wanted to make sure we have the right person on and off the ice to lead our team, and every person I talked to about Gary had nothing but positives to share with me.
The SPHL is a Single-A level circuit, which has had several players and coaches move up to leagues like the ECHL and CHL. Missouri coach Scott Hillman, for example, won two SPHL titles with Knoxville.
I think the Southern Pro League has proven it’s a great league for developing young players and young coaches, Graham said.
You can go down there and be competitive and move up. You just have to prove yourself.
While Graham’s playing experience was limited – he played at North Side and spent less than two years in juniors – he has had success coaching in high school, juniors and with the Komets.
He began as a volunteer assistant with Fort Wayne and became a full-fledged assistant coach, and he’s been in the mix for several head and assistant coaching jobs over the past year.
In Pensacola, it’s going to be a lot of what we did in Fort Wayne, Graham said. It starts with getting character guys in there. You want guys to work on the little things and little details. We want guys who will be hungry to move up to the next level.
We want to field a team that will compete night in and night out for 60 minutes. We will pride ourselves on being the hardest working and best prepared.
Graham may not move to Florida until September, but he’s already working the phones.
For me, as I’ve had a chance to work with the Komets, I’ve had a great adviser in Al Sims in how to recruit and work with agents, Graham said. For me, it’s getting out there and making phone calls and talking with agents and letting them know what I’m all about. ... It’s building relationships with college coaches and junior coaches. It’s networking.