FORT WAYNE – Gary Graham is in the restaurant at the Lutheran Health SportsCenter on a recent night, watching his 8-year-old son, Connor, play hockey. He orders a beer and some food and Graham notices the server’s awkward, nervous body language.
Are you, hmm, well, are you ready for this? she says.
Graham chuckles and replies, I think you are more nervous about this than I am.
This, of course, is Graham’s new job, head coach of the Komets, who open their 62nd season tonight at Memorial Coliseum.
Those who are skeptical of the hire have their ammunition: Graham is only 34; his playing career stalled out at low-level juniors; he’s got one year of head-coaching experience in the lower-level Southern Professional Hockey League (where he won a championship).
But Graham is confident he’ll resurrect the Komets, who spoiled their fans with four championships in the IHL and CHL between 2008 and 2012.
Last season, the Komets’ first in the ECHL, was at best mediocre. They went 33-35-4, fifth worst among 23 teams, and they missed the playoffs for the first time since 2002.
In the aftermath, five-time championship coach Al Sims retired – though he soon accepted a job to coach the junior-level Bradford Rattlers – and longtime captain Colin Chaulk also retired. The rest of the roster was almost entirely gutted by Graham and general manager David Franke.
Only six players are back – Brandon Marino, Lincoln Kaleigh Schrock, Chris Auger, Matt Firman, John Dunbar and Jeremy Gates – but Graham exudes confidence.
He grew up in Fort Wayne and knows the expectations. As an assistant coach, he helped the Komets to three championships. And he believes he’ll outwork everyone.
It’s a big moment and I don’t want to diminish it, Graham says. But I was in the organization for four years. It’s not a new environment for me.
A few days before training camp, Graham walks into a local Starbucks, looking more frat boy than coach of the Komets.
Wearing a hooded sweatshirt, shorts and tennis shoes, he admits he hasn’t been in a coffee house in over a year because he spends almost all his time coaching or watching film.
Sitting in the corner, almost every bit of the conversation is somehow connected to hockey.
He talks about longtime Ottawa captain Daniel Alfredsson signing with the Detroit Red Wings over the summer and how he thinks he’ll have a huge season because the European players have so much chemistry.
He reminisces about refereeing deck hockey as a teenager, at the old Blue Line Hockey Center, where he was berated for calls by Komets public address announcer Larry Schmitt, sports radio host Billy Elvis and a slew of Komets legends such as Steve Fletcher.
He remembers, longingly, now-defunct McMillen Ice Arena, where he started his own playing career at 12. Because his mother, Cathy, traveled for work, and his father was out of the picture, Graham and his twin sister, Amanda, sometimes lived with their uncle, Greg, and grandmother, Lavondah.
It was Greg who got Graham into hockey, where he played for North Side’s club team.
I just remember walking into McMillen and those doors were always fogged up and you would get dressed in front of the fireplace, says Graham, who was class president at North Side. You had to go in the dungeon by the furnace, where the locker rooms were at. It had nostalgia, that’s for sure.
One of two subjects on which Graham is dodgy is his family.
It’s complicated, he says, when asked about his wife, with whom he doesn’t currently live.
The best part of being the Komets’ coach is that he can see his kids, Connor and Isabella, every day, which didn’t happen when he was in Pensacola, Fla.
They just knew I was going down there and chasing this dream and it was going to be hard, he says. But it would have been tougher this year, not only for myself but also for the kids. I’m just blessed to get this job.
Over the summer, the kids were about the only ones who could drag Graham away from the computer. After being hired June 4, he watched film of every single Komets game from last season, plus dozens of games from other minor leagues.
That’s how I have to coach, he says. I have to be prepared and know what I’m getting into for me to have the confidence and be prepared, and for the guys to know what’s expected of them.
The other night, Connor was drawing up drills with me. He has drill paper. He’s watching film, too. He could be like Bill Belichick someday. He just grew up as a kid in the film room.
Graham’s start in coaching was as rocky as it was successful. His first big gig came with the Snider club team in 2004. He got it to the city’s regular season and playoff championships in his second season.
But many players and parents were put off by his in-your-face style.
I definitely look back on that time and think to myself there were mistakes. But I’m so competitive in everything I do and I had a big challenge, Graham says. When I took over Snider, nobody wanted the job. I had coached a peewee House League team the season before. That’s how I got into coaching.
I went from coaching a fricking youth team to Snider the next year.
Graham spent three years coaching Snider and North Side before believing that he could make it to the professional ranks as a coach, even if he hadn’t played at a high level, and that his style was more suited to players focused on being pros.
As acknowledgment of what he was like coaching at North Side – he was 28 – he tells this story: I was trying to merge the teams from Dwenger and North Side. Nobody liked it because I was basically trying to load up one team, build a powerhouse. I felt if I could pull it off, I’d be able to play Culver and beat Carmel and have a dominant team in Fort Wayne.
Graham then laughs loud enough for the barista to hear.
They knew what I was doing and they didn’t let it happen. But I was trying, he says.
North Side and Dwenger were eventually merged.
But not before Graham left to coach juniors in Indianapolis and also talked his way into a meeting with Sims, who took him on as an unpaid assistant after the Komets won the IHL’s Turner Cup in 2008, which meant Graham commuted back and forth for a season.
Money is the other subject Graham doesn’t like discussing, and it includes his business, Pyromaniac Fireworks.
It’s been a passion for 14 years, but it’s also brought a bigger bump in the road than anything he’s encountered in hockey.
When Graham was in college – he has a degree in exercise science from Ball State – he started working for former Komets player Doug Johnson, who owned the chain of Low Bob’s tobacco stores.
In the summer, they sold fireworks, and that was something Graham knew about because he and his uncle used to put on shows in the neighborhood.
I thought, Man I could easily do this on my own,’ Graham says. I’m 20 or 21 years old. And one of the ladies I worked with at Low Bob’s lent me $15,000. Just like that. And I started my fireworks business. I kept trying to do more. I bought that building in Waynedale. Then the fire happened and everything has been downhill since then.
The fire, in December 2009, took 45 firefighters and more than 3 1/2 hours to control, and the building was leveled by it. No cause could be found, though foul play was not suspected.
Because they didn’t rule it anything, that was the loophole for no compensation on the insurance. I lost everything. Everything. And I don’t like talking about it. It just brings up bad memories, says Graham, who rebuilt the business. Personally, financially, I’m still hurting from that. I was able to bounce back, though, until that drought (and ban on burning) last year. That was like putting another hammer down on the head.
But that misfortune coincided with the job in Pensacola, which came with Franke’s blessing.
After four years of having Graham as an assistant coach – he started getting a paycheck in Year 2 – Franke wanted Graham to cut his teeth as a head coach.
Graham had been given a lot of responsibility en route to the Komets’ 2012 CHL title; he ran practices and sometimes the bench during games. The pivotal moments came in the playoffs, though, when the owners sat in on his video sessions with the players.
They saw how the players reacted to me and how I talked to the guys. I don’t care about credit, but I think they finally saw what I did for Al behind the scenes, Graham says.
It was clear 60-year-old Sims’ career was winding down and Franke was already thinking about a possible replacement, but he needed to see if Graham could be successful on his own. He encouraged him to apply for every job out there.
Graham eventually got the Pensacola gig and, less than a year later, came back to Fort Wayne having won a Cup as a head coach.
Gary’s forté is cutting down film. He’s excellent at it, says Franke, who has hired Cup-winning coaches Sims and Greg Puhalski, as well as Bruce Boudreau, now coach of the NHL’s Anaheim Ducks.
Gary can decipher and pick things up quicker than anybody I’ve known. It’s such a positive because he can make adjustments from what he sees. When it comes to video, there’s nobody better.
And, Sims adds, there may be no one whose work ethic is better.
Gary works extremely hard and that’s how he’s gotten to where he is today. He just loves the game, Sims says. He watches every NHL game on TV, loves his Boston Bruins and tries to learn whenever he watches a game, whether it’s one in the SPHL or NHL. He’s constantly learning and that’s what you have to do – constantly change and come up with new things.
Graham knows so many people locally – maybe he sold them Marlboros or a Roman Candle, or chewed them out at McMillen – and people are quick to chat him up, though he’s left alone on this visit to Starbucks.
It was always hard to go somewhere and be someplace where they didn’t know me before. It’s just different now because my ugly mug is always in the news, says Graham, who is asked for autographs these days. It’s different from being an assistant coach, that’s for sure.
Fort Wayne fans are notoriously harsh on coaches. Just ask Puhalski or Sims, who were booed in the midst of championship seasons.
Graham knows he has to win – and do it in exciting fashion – to be popular. And he has promised a high-flying, puck-possession, energetic team.
No one will put bigger expectations on me than myself. I’m my harshest critic, he says. And to have been a part of four championships in the last five years, as I have been, you get spoiled on winning. You come to expect to win. I don’t look at this as rebuilding. I look at it as a new group of guys coming in. The goal is to win.
He wants his Komets to be ultra-prepared, super confident and never lose back-to-back games.
That all starts with him.
You win games on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, not on Friday when you actually play them. You win them on your preparation every day as you go to work. That falls on me, he says. We will be a very detailed and prepared team. Players are smart. They read their coach well. If they read that you’re nervous or pessimistic, they will get that. If you are prepared, you can be confident.
And as he gets up to go to lunch with the owners and some sponsors, he says he’ll tell them the same thing: Success is on the way.