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Wednesday, March 16, 2016 8:18 am

Komets icon dies; Lionel Repka had champion's heart

Justin A. Cohn The Journal Gazette

Lionel Repka, who helped the Komets to championships in 1963 and 1965, and was one of the greatest defensemen in franchise history, died Monday at 80 after a battle with liver cancer.

Born in Edmonton, Alberta, he was selected the International Hockey League’s top defenseman in 1964-65 – he had 10 goals and 67 points in 70 games – and he was a three-time all-league selection.

He played the entirety of his professional career – 11 seasons – with the Komets and appeared in 740 games, sixth most in the franchise’s 63-season history. His 535 points are more than every Fort Wayne defenseman except Guy Dupuis and Jim Burton.

The No. 6 worn by Repka, affectionately nicknamed "Choo Choo," was retired by the Komets in 1991.

After hockey, he had a successful career selling insurance.

"Lionel was one of the most polite, soft spoken legends, and I vividly remember organist Jack Loos playing ‘Choo Choo’ after he scored a goal to the delight of the fans," Komets owner Steven Franke said. "After he retired he would try to attend all the important Komet events including opening-night ceremonies. He was very thankful that we continued to honor the original players and expressed his gratitude to the Franke family time and again.

"Lionel was not only a great hockey player but a very successful businessman who used his Komet career as a springboard to success for his family and the community. Lionel was truly a Komet legend, and I will personally miss him and the twinkle in his eyes."

Repka’s impact within hockey went far beyond just his era and wasn’t always because of his skills on the ice.

He helped influence a lot of young hockey players in Fort Wayne. Longtime Komets captain Colin Chin credited Repka as being one of his mentors growing up.

Mike Emrick, the voice of hockey in this nation who grew up as a Komets fan in LaFontaine, once recounted a story about an interaction he had with Repka as a kid at Memorial Coliseum.

"I had a 35-millimeter camera with me, and my dad and I went down to the boards," Emrick said. "(Repka) saw what I had and said, ‘Do you want a picture?’ I was shy to talk, but I said, ‘Yeah.’ He looked at the camera and said, ‘You know, I have one just like that.’

"It made quite an impression on me because the guy spent 15 to 20 seconds speaking to me before a game. He probably doesn’t remember that because he did it all the time. But I’ll never forget it."

In 1962, there was a 12-year-old kid named Randy Dannenfelser in Great Neck, New York, who was grief stricken because his mother had died and also a Komets fan, thanks to WOWO and broadcaster Bob Chase. Dannenfelser had grown particularly fond of Repka, who he had never seen play, and penned him a letter that was promptly responded to with a photo.

"I remember my reaction when I got the letter," Dannenfelser once said. "I went berserk, I went nuts, jumping around, look at this, I can’t believe it – you know. You could say that that letter accelerated me coming out of this grief period."

Dannenfelser made his first trip to Fort Wayne in 2002 to return the favor to Repka, who had recently lost his son, Ron, to a bicycling accident. "It just blows my mind, really. There must be some higher power that orchestrates all this," Repka said of a fan coming so far, after so many years, to meet with him.

Repka, undoubtedly, affected countless other people through his play with the Komets, who have lost several legendary players over the past year – Terry Pembroke in March, Burton in January, Reggie Primeau last May.

Funeral information for Repka is pending.

jcohn@jg.net