Gary Graham didn’t miss the postseason in six seasons as head coach of the Komets, becoming the fourth winningest coach in the team’s 67 seasons of play, and he twice got them to the conference finals.
It wasn't enough.
The Komets decided today to make a coaching change, after a tumultuous season that saw them need to make a bevy of trades to improve their roster, endure inconsistent efforts from the players and some embarrassing losses, and ultimately fall to the rival Toledo Walleye in six games during the first round of the playoffs.
"Gary did a great job during his 10 seasons with the Komets," Komets president Michael Franke said. "We will honor the final year of Gary's contract. This will give him the opportunity to land a new position in the hockey world while still under contract."
The Komets have not yet named a replacement for Graham, who had one year left on his contract. Assistant Ben Boudreau will be considered, but he lacks head-coaching experience and the Komets will conduct a search for other candidates.
"It's a fresh start for Gary to further his career and provides the Komets a new voice behind the bench," Komets general manager David Franke said. "We wish nothing but the best for Gary and his family and thank him for his service."
Graham, a native of Fort Wayne who didn’t play higher than the junior level, had coached in the high school and junior ranks when he joined the Komets as volunteer assistant coach in 2008. He began getting a paycheck from the Komets in 2009 and, as an assistant to head coach Al Sims, helped them to three championships in the now-defunct International and Central Hockey Leagues.
After a season as a head coach in the Single-A Southern Professional Hockey League – he led the Pensacola Ice Flyers to the 2013 championship – he was hired to replace Sims as head coach.
Despite the Komets playing in what’s regarded the ECHL’s toughest division, Graham led Fort Wayne to a 251-130-51 regular-season record, putting him behind only Sims (437), Greg Puhalski (271) and Ken Ullyot (264) on the franchise victory list.
In the postseason, Graham had a 40-33 record and won 7 of 13 series, including trips to the conference finals in 2016, when they lost to the Allen Americans in five games, and 2018, when they lost to the eventual-champion Colorado Eagles in overtime of Game 7.
Under Graham's tutelage, Shawn Szydlowski won the ECHL’s scoring title and MVP award in 2018, and made the All-ECHL First Team twice; Brandon Marino won the ECHL’s scoring title and made the All-ECHL First Team in 2014; and Mike Cazzola and Roman Will both made the league’s All-Rookie Team.
Other young players who excelled under Graham included Eric Faille, Kyle Thomas, Alex Belzile, Gabriel Desjardins, Marco Roy, Jake Kamrass and goaltender Andrey Makarov, while the likes of Jamie Schaafsma, Mike Embach, Cody Sol, Garrett Thompson, Mason Baptista and goalies Pat Nagle, Garrett Bartus and Michael Houser became fan-favorites.
Graham coached the Komets while they were affiliated with the NHL’s Colorado Avalanche, Arizona Coyotes and Vegas Golden Knights, helping to groom prospects such as Will, Spencer Martin, Trevor Cheek, Mason Geertsen and goalie Zach Fucale.
Since the Komets dropped from the original IHL to the Double-A level of hockey in 1999, they have had only five coaches: Dave Allison (1999-2000), Puhalski (2000-2006, including 2003 championship), Pat Bingham (2006-2007), Sims (2007-2013, including four Cups) and Graham.
This is somewhat unfamiliar territory for the Franke family, which owns the Komets; since firing Dave Farrish midway through the 1996-97 season, Sims had been the only coach they’d fired, after he’d missed the playoffs with a 33-35-4 record in 2012-13.
While most teams in the ECHL would love to have the recent success of Fort Wayne – the Indy Fuel and Wichita Thunder had already parted with their coaches, Bernie John and Malcolm Cameron, after missing the postseason – the Komets’ ownership group wasn’t pleased with what it saw from its team throughout this season.
A slow start, likely thanks to the Graham-led offseason recruiting, led to the Komets making a whopping 11 trades and the re-signings of Szydlowski, Mason Baptista and Craig Cescon. While Fort Wayne still wound up 36-26-10, good enough for third place among the six division teams, and gave the Walleye some fits, Graham was frequently frustrated with his players’ inability to stick to his game plans and play complete games. He spoke almost nightly about the players’ need to limit turnovers, stay out of the penalty box and not let their intensity wane, yet it kept happening all the way into the postseason.
Meanwhile, there were a handful of losses that management deemed embarrassing, most notably an 11-0 loss at Toledo on March 2, an 8-2 loss at Memorial Coliseum to Adirondack on Feb. 15, a 10-8 loss at the Coliseum to Kalamazoo on Jan. 16 and a lackadaisical 4-3 loss to Brampton in front of 10,233 fans on New Year’s Eve.
“You always, as a coach, look in the mirror," Graham said last month. “I need to see what went right and what went wrong. When you have the highest-scoring team in the league by about 50 goals last year, and then you go to (being) the lowest-scoring team in your division, that's a big difference.”
Also befuddling were a 6-0 loss to the Walleye in Game 2 of the playoffs on the road and a 4-1 season-ending loss at the Coliseum, after the Komets had stolen Game 5 at Toledo.
“I can be a very demanding guy at times. And I'm not afraid to be that guy; it's not a popularity contest,” Graham said last month. “This year, the group needed challenged a lot to get them where they needed to be some nights. It was frustrating for me because I didn't want to be that coach as much as I was this year. That's something where, as a coach, I've got to continue to learn the newer generation player and what motivates them. I can tell you I'm going to study sports psychology a lot this summer.”
A difference between hiring a coach in, say, the NHL and one in the ECHL is that the list of potential candidates is so much bigger. There are people perhaps worthy throughout North America and Europe, many whom haven’t been head coaches before and some with no coaching experience at all.
The Komets will be looking for a coach who can recruit players well, get the roster rebuilt quickly and avoid the pitfalls of inconsistent play that dogged them last season.
With Graham’s tenure as coach now over, here are 17 people The Journal Gazette believes will, or should, be at the top of the Komets’ list of candidates.
Aaron Schneekloth: He has to be phone call No. 1 for what he’s done in the ECHL, leading the Colorado Eagles to Kelly Cups in 2017 and 2018. Even though Schneekloth was forced into an assistant-coaching position when the Eagles moved up to the American Hockey League last year, it’s unknown if going back to being a head coach in the ECHL is something in which he’d be interested.
Ben Boudreau: Graham’s assistant the last two seasons, he’s well-regarded by players in the locker room. His father being Minnesota Wild coach Bruce Boudreau helps, since that means connections and good hockey lineage, but the Komets are unlikely to go with someone with no head-coaching experience. He’s also responsible for some of the recruiting problems this season.
Larry Courville: He led the Reading Royals to the 2013 ECHL championship and made the playoffs his final eight seasons with the team, 2009 to 2017, though he had a strange end with the team by being replaced on the eve of the 2017 playoffs.
Ryan Mougenel: He checks a lot of boxes, including being a good head coach in the ECHL with Las Vegas from 2009 to 2013, making it to the playoff finals once. He’s also spent five seasons as an AHL assistant with Hershey, Worcester and San Jose.
Scott Hillman: He was a better coach for the fledgling Indy Fuel than he’s been given credit for – a 63-66-15 record between 2014 and 2016 – and did some good things with the Central Hockey League’s Missouri Mavericks before that. The Komets want a great recruiter, so consider that he convinced Shawn Szydlowski and Garrett Thompson to leave Fort Wayne for Frisk Asker in Norway last year. That team, by the way, won a championship.
Colin Chaulk: A longtime captain of the Komets, Chaulk’s contract with the Brampton Beast is expiring. However, bad blood exists between the Komets and Chaulk from the way they parted ways, largely from a dispute over the medical care Chaulk received while playing. Some inroads in the relationship have been made – the team retired his number – but it’s far from repaired and thus a union would be unlikely.
Nick Vitucci: The man most responsible for getting the Toledo Walleye’s hockey operations off the ground, he coached Toledo from its inception in 2009 to 2014. With the Komets needing a rebuild, this would be an interesting idea if he’d consider it.
Gerry Fleming: He didn't make the playoffs in his three seasons head coach of the AHL's Bakersfield Condors, 2015 to 2018, but he he had winning records all three seasons. He has plenty of ECHL experience, too, taking the Florida Everblades to the finals in 2004 and 2005.
Robb Stauber: An outside-the-box idea, Stauber is a former NHL goaltender who coached the U.S. women’s team to an Olympic gold medal. As a goalie coach, he helped the Minnesota men’s team to two NCAA championships. He’s expressed interest in returning to the men’s game, but could he be a good recruiter of ECHL players?
Doug Shedden: He won five championships in the Central and United Hockey Leagues with Wichita, Flint and Memphis. He’s been a successful coach in Europe since 2005, where he’s probably making more money than he could make in Fort Wayne.
Glenn Detulleo: Just led the Huntsville Havoc to back-to-back championships in the Single-A Southern Professional Hockey League. But he’s been in that league since 2011, so it's unclear if he could recruit ECHL talent.
Andy Delmore: He has no head-coaching experience, but he’s been Dan Watson’s top assistant with Toledo, which has a 2-0 lead over Tulsa in the ECHL's Western Conference finals.
John Anderson: The former Komets player and ex-NHL coach would have certainly been at the top of the Komets’ list – he’s won four AHL championships – but he’s allegedly taken his name out of the running because he wants to get an NHL assistant-coaching gig.
Al Sims: He coached the Komets to championships in 1993, 2008, 2009, 2010 and 2012, but he and the Komets parted ways after their disastrous first season in the ECHL and replaced him with his understudy, Graham. He’s since coached in the ECHL with Evansville and gone into semi-retirement. He’s said to have interest in returning, but the Komets are unlikely to go this route again.
Jamey Hicks: The SPHL’s Coach of the Year, he took the Birmingham Bulls to the finals and has made them a power in just two seasons.
Jean-Guy Trudel: His Peoria Rivermen tore up the SPHL in the regular season, going 40-7-0, though they bowed out in the first round of the playoffs. He’s been the SPHL’s Coach of the Year three times. He played for two former Komets coaches – John Torchetti and Dave Farrish.
Enrico Blasi: He has no professional experience but coached Miami (Ohio) to two Frozen Fours. His record over the last six seasons included only one season with an above-.500 record, but in fairness that was after a move to a more difficult conference and with players perhaps more invested in their NHL futures than winning at college.