FORT WAYNE – Ken Hitchcock didn’t play hockey at a high level, and he’s won a Stanley Cup. Roger Nielson didn’t play competitively at all, and he’s regarded as a one of the greatest hockey coaches of all time, an innovator in things like using video to break down games.
So it’s not uncharted territory what Gary Graham has done, going from a player who only made it to Tier II of juniors and was hired last Tuesday as coach of the ECHL’s Komets, two rungs below the NHL.
When people talk about playing careers and things like that, I wouldn’t change anything that’s happened in the last 10 years, said Graham, whose coaching career began with Snider’s club team in 2002. A lot of everything that’s happened to me – the highs and lows – are what’s made me who I am today, and I wouldn’t change anything.
Graham, 34, is a North Side graduate. He picked up the sport at age 12 and played 1 1/2 years of juniors in Pittsburgh and Bismarck, N.D. He graduated from Ball State with a degree in exercise science, and he also coached North Side’s team and juniors for the Indianapolis-based Indiana Ice.
It was while he was with the Ice that a friend – former Komets captain Guy Dupuis – arranged for him to have lunch at a local Chipotle with then-Komets coach Al Sims, who was just coming off the 2008 IHL championship. After that meeting, Sims took on Graham as an unpaid assistant, even though Graham was still coaching in Indianapolis and commuting back and forth.
It was his desire and drive to get to the next level. He wanted to propel himself to the IHL. I could see that in him, said Sims, a former NHL coach with the San Jose Sharks. I thought, he’s eager and wanting, and I heard he’s a loyal guy and that’s what I wanted.
Over four years under Sims, Graham went from watching video and preparing scouting reports, to getting a paycheck as a full-time assistant and running the power play. By 2012, Sims sometimes ceded control of the bench to Graham, and they won the CHL’s Presidents’ Cup together. It was their third title together.
While Graham’s lack of playing experience was known in the locker room – about 2003, he had skated alongside forward Lincoln Kaleigh Schrock on a roller-hockey team at The Plex – it rarely came up in conversation.
Some guys are just such good students of the game that it doesn’t matter, Komets center Jean-Michel Rizk said. As long as you study so much, watch so much tape, and pick up other teams’ tendencies, you’ll be fine. Maybe Gary didn’t play the game at a high level, but he’s so smart and has so much hockey sense that it doesn’t matter.
Graham had been in the running for some head coaching jobs while with the Komets – most notably with Bloomington of the CHL – and he was itching for a new challenge even before Fort Wayne general manager David Franke told him it was time for him to get his feet wet elsewhere as a professional head coach.
That place was Pensacola, Fla., where he led the Single-A Southern Professional Hockey League’s Ice Flyers in a season rife with drama and celebration.
One of Graham’s first moves was to get rid of the incumbent captain, Dan Buccella, and replace him with former Fort Wayne player Leo Thomas. Graham also got rid of Steve Christie, one of the best goalies in the SPHL.
Graham endured a slew of call-ups – thanks largely to the end of the NHL lockout – and the league suspended Thomas for the season for punching a fan. Graham convinced Buccella to return, finished the regular season with a 33-18-5 record and the No. 3 seed and he won the championship. Players John Dunbar, Ron Cramer and Jeremy Gates had been with Fort Wayne but asked to be sent back down to Pensacola to play for Graham.
He was able to create a situation and a culture in Pensacola, whereby they had a good team but lost a lot of players, Komets president Michael Franke said. He went out and found a bunch of new players to make sure they were still at the top of the list in the SPHL. And then at the end of the season, his players from earlier in the year demanded to go back because they wanted to win a championship in Pensacola. To me, that speaks volumes about the type of person Gary is and what players think of him.
The Komets, meanwhile, went 33-35-4 in their first ECHL season and missed the playoffs, which hadn’t happened since 2002. Sims, 60, retired soon after.
If you had asked me a year ago if Gary would be in the ECHL as a head coach so soon, I would have probably said no, Sims said. But after what he did in Pensacola, it’s impressive. He was going against good coaches like (former Komets player) Kevin Kaminski, and he was able to come out on top and I think he’s ready.
Sims played 516 NHL games – he was Bobby Orr’s defense partner – and it was that résumé that landed him his first gig as a player/assistant coach with the Komets in 1988. He never had to do what Graham did and cajole then-head coach Robbie Laird into giving him a job.
(Graham) works extremely hard and that’s how he’s gotten to today, and he loves the game, Sims said. He watches every NHL game on TV, loves his Boston Bruins and tries to learn whenever he watches a game, whether it’s SPHL or NHL. He’s constantly learning. You’ve got to constantly change and come up with new things.
Graham welcomes any of the doubters because it drives him to succeed.
I feel like the fact that I didn’t have that playing career gives me that edge that I need, that thirst for knowledge, and I’m never complacent, he said. I always feel like there’s always something to learn, whether it’s studying our own team, studying other teams, going to clinics or whatever. I have a thirst for knowledge and I know my players are the same.
Graham is a father of two – son Connor is 8, daughter Isabella is 4 – and owns Fort Wayne’s Pyromaniac Fireworks, which he rebuilt after it burned down in 2009.
He really has come a long way and has had to work at every level to take the next step, Schrock said. That’s what’s encouraging about him. He’s proved himself at every level, so why can’t he do it here?
Graham has taken particular inspiration from two other coaches with limited playing experience: Tampa Bay Lightning coach Jon Cooper and Chuck Weber, who won two titles with Cincinnati of the ECHL and now coaches San Antonio of the higher-level American Hockey League.
They broke in and got a door opened up for them and made the most of what they had, Graham said. I think the new generation of players, they want coaches who know how to work with them and how to communicate with them. I’ve had to show people my ability to gain people’s respect. The best way to do that is to outwork everybody, and that’s the only way I know how to go about my business.