Gary Graham was filled with regret and optimism after it was announced Monday that he'd been fired as coach of the Komets.
After six seasons in which his team never missed the postseason and he became the fourth-winningest coach in the franchise's 67-year history, Graham wished he could have brought a championship to the Komets. However, he believes he'll land another job soon – perhaps as a head coach in the ECHL or an assistant in the American Hockey League.
“It's been a heck of a run here. We've had a lot of success in the ECHL. I would have loved to have won a championship. That was the goal and where I'll leave most disappointed, in not being able to get the Kelly Cup to Fort Wayne,” Graham said.
“Getting to the conference finals twice in three years is something I'll look back on and wonder what could have been. That's not to take away from a lot of the success the players had while they were here. My record is a direct correlation to all of the sacrifice and work that the players put in.”
Graham had a 251-130-51 regular-season record, putting him behind only Al Sims (437), Greg Puhalski (271) and Ken Ullyot (264) in franchise victories.
In the postseason, Graham was 40-33, and the Komets won seven of 13 series.
There are two vacant ECHL jobs – the Indy Fuel's and Wichita Thunder's – and Graham doesn't plan to rest on his laurels even though the Komets must pay him for the final year of his contract.
“I can't wait to get on to the next coaching job. I want to get going right away,” Graham said. “That was the earliest I've ever been knocked out of the playoffs in my career, so it's been stinging. I've had way too much free time on my hands and I don't like it at all. I'm looking forward to what's next and the Komets fans can look forward to what's next, too.
“That's the nature of the game. There are going to be changes. As a coach, you know how hard it is on the other side when you have to make trades or cuts. Al Sims always taught me, and I learned a lot from him, 'You're not really a head coach until you've been let go and moved in a different direction.'”
Graham, a 40-year-old native of Fort Wayne, is an example of hard work paying off. With a résumé of playing only at the junior level and coaching only in the high school and junior ranks, he persuaded the Komets to take him on as a volunteer assistant coach in 2008. He began getting a paycheck from the Komets in 2009 and, as an assistant to 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.
“You got to remember that when I took over, it was a last-place team with no (NHL) affiliation. To take it to where it's been, and to have had some consistency, I can leave with my head held high,” Graham said.
The Komets went 36-26-10 for the third-best record in the division before losing to Toledo in six playoff games. A poor start to the season led to 11 trades and the re-signings of Shawn Szydlowski, Mason Baptista and Craig Cescon to become competitive. The team remained dogged by turnovers, penalties and inconsistent efforts.
There were a number of embarrassing losses, most notably an 11-0 loss at Toledo on March 2 and an 8-2 loss at the Coliseum to Adirondack on Feb. 15. Also befuddling were a 6-0 road loss to the Walleye in Game 2 of the playoffs and a 4-1 season-ending loss at the Coliseum.
“I don't think there was any one thing that led to this,” Komets general manager David Franke said. “We just felt, ... it was our duty to make sure we got everything right this summer. We just decided to get a new voice behind the bench and that's the main reason for this.”
Franke declined to discuss any potential candidates for the coaching search, except to say assistant Ben Boudreau will be in the mix.
“We're only here in the middle of May,” Franke said. “We've got the whole summer ahead of us to recruit a team. It's going to be a new start for the organization. ... It's just time for a fresh start for the team. We'll have turnover in players, we know that already, so if we're going to have turnover in players then we want a new voice for the new guys coming in and anybody returning to the team, too.”
Under Graham's tutelage, Szydlowski won the ECHL scoring title and MVP award in 2018 and made the All-ECHL first team twice; Brandon Marino won the ECHL 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 and Andrey Makarov, while Jamie Schaafsma, Mike Embach, Cody Sol, Pat Nagle, Garrett Bartus and Michael Houser became fan favorites.
Graham coached the Komets while they were affiliated with the Colorado Avalanche, Arizona Coyotes and Vegas Golden Knights, helping to groom prospects Will, Spencer Martin, Trevor Cheek, Mason Geertsen and Zach Fucale.
“For me, it's going to be whatever's next. You have to attack that next thing,” Graham said. “I'm full of optimism and there's no looking back. Once a Komet, always a Komet. If I can't win a Kelly Cup wherever I end up, I hope they do and I really mean that. The city deserves one.”