FORT WAYNE – The last time Gary Graham was at Memorial Coliseum wearing the same patterned, grayish jacket he had on Tuesday, he was getting doused with champagne and hoisting the CHL’s Presidents’ Cup.
The Komets hope history repeats itself, only now Graham will be the head coach and not an assistant.
“The one thing I promise to everyone is my commitment to working hard,” Graham said after he was introduced as the 28th coach in the Komets’ 62-year history.
“I’m extremely detailed and extremely prepared, and that’s what I’m all about. That’s what I expect from my players. The biggest thing at this level is guys want information. They want a chance to play for a coach who is seriously invested in their future and will put them in the right situations to be successful.”
Graham, a 34-year-old native of Fort Wayne, promised a change in culture after the Komets went 33-35-4 last season – their first in the ECHL – and missed the playoffs for the first time since 2002.
“There’s a lot of work that needs to be done, and I’m eagerly awaiting being able to dive into it,” he said. “I’m not naïve to the fact of what happened last season, and I’m looking forward to bringing in a faster tempo, younger, hungrier team.”
Graham replaces Al Sims, 60, who guided the Komets to four championships in the last six seasons before retiring.
“It was important for us to reconnect with the youth of hockey,” team president Michael Franke said. “With a younger coach, I think that will be much more easily accomplished. … We had a number of candidates who were interested in this job – some higher-profile name people – but there was a disconnect we had to look at and we wanted somebody who could easily communicate with the younger players.”
Graham’s playing career stalled at the Tier II level of juniors, and he began coaching at Snider in 2002.
He also coached North Side and Indiana Ice junior teams before Sims brought him on as an unpaid assistant coach in 2008.
Graham got more and more responsibility – and paychecks – through four seasons with the Komets. He started by breaking down video of opponents’ tendencies, commanded the power play and helped Fort Wayne to three championships in the IHL and CHL.
The Frankes encouraged him to spread his wings, and he guided the Southern Professional Hockey League’s Pensacola Ice Flyers to a 33-18-5 record, the No. 3 seed in the playoffs and the league’s President’s Cup.
“My four years here in Fort Wayne, I feel like I brought a lot to the table and I feel like that opportunity is because of the work that I did and because I was able to go it on my own this past season and have some success,” Graham said. “I feel like (last season) was a tryout season for me in a sense.”
Toward the end of the Komets’ season, players Jeremy Gates, John Dunbar and Ron Cramer asked to be returned to Pensacola to play for Graham. That loyalty spoke worlds to the Frankes, who vetted 20 applicants and interviewed six over nine weeks before settling on Graham. Terms of Graham’s contract weren’t disclosed.
“The mentality that needs to be here is a commitment to come to practice and get better every day,” Graham said. “We will practice with a purpose. There’s nothing that we’ll do that won’t be a direct reflection of preparing for our opponent or working on a deficiency in our game.”
Graham has come a long way since coaching at McMillen Ice Arena and he did it through hard work, which he hopes will bring a Cup back to the Komets.
“How far I’ve come, it’s something I’m proud of, I’m not going to lie to you. But it’s been a lot of hard work. And I think that’s why players respect me. It’s how hard the road has been for me to get to this point,” Graham said. “But it’s a two-way street; I have to respect the players for the hard work they’re doing. We had that last year in Pensacola. We worked hard every day. I’d give them optional practices and they’d still show up.”