FORT WAYNE – Twenty-five years along now, and still I see the man, sitting up there next to David Welker. He had hair then. He was even stingier with words than he is now. And except for the fact that he’d been an assistant coach for one season and, once, famously, had manned a blue line with Bobby Orr, no one knew much about him.
Well. We knew his name: Al Sims.
Two years after being introduced as the coach of the Fort Wayne Komets, he took a splendid bunch of misfits to the Turner Cup finals.
Two years after that, he won it.
Twenty years and four more titles after that, late one night, some guy called me out for not ripping the Frankes after Sims retired and they hired Gary Graham.
Five championships! the guy kept saying.
And Gary Graham has one, in the Southern Professional Hockey League, in his first year as a head coach. After four seasons as Sims’ right-hand man. After 34 years on this earth, which is only three fewer than Al Sims had lived the day he became the head coach of the Komets.
So what does all that mean?
It means, relax, people, because Graham has got this handled. He’s the right man in the right place at the right time, with his 2013 obsession with visuals – the man screens more film than the late Roger Ebert – and his understanding of a dynamic that is unlike any the Komets organization has experienced in its 62-year existence.
Which is to say: Fort Wayne is never going to be a kid’s hockey destination again, not in a way it was in the past. In the ECHL, it’s just a nice stop on the way to somewhere else. That’s the way it works.
Graham had to deal with that ebb and flow in Pensacola last year, and he succeeded admirably. Eight of his players were called up when the NHL lockout ended in January, but Graham found a player here and a player there, and the Ice Flyers kept on truckin’. They finished third in the regular season, then went 6-1 in the playoffs.
And, sure, that was the Southern League and this is the ECHL, and, sure, Graham is still new to all this. But he’s not the only young man in this game; there are young coaches everywhere in this league, and some have even less experience than Graham. Utah, for instance, will have Tim Branham behind the bench this winter, who’s just 32 and has never been a head coach before.
So no one is throwing Graham to the wolves here. He’ll just break down a little more video, make a few more phone calls, do what he can to – how did he put it at the start of camp? – help guys move up.
Because they will. And Graham knows it. And he knows his role in it.
Relax. This thing’s in good hands.