A.J. Jenks summed it up succinctly Sunday: “This sucks.”
It wasn't just that he won't ever know what the Komets would have accomplished this season – and they felt there were evolving into a Kelly Cup contender – but also that the players' personal lives were thrown upside down after the ECHL determined Saturday night it was canceling the remainder of its season because of COVID-19.
“We were just starting to hit our stride, just starting to get healthy, starting to get the whole lineup back. We'd won 10 out of 14 games and there were a couple more games in there that we could have squeaked out a couple more W's,” said Jenks, the Komets' captain.
The Komets had 10 games remaining in the regular season, including six home games. They seemed poised to make the playoffs for the seventh straight season with a 31-23-8 record that put them in third place in the Central Division.
The Komets won their last game, 7-2 Wednesday at Memorial Coliseum over the Wichita Thunder, and the ECHL suspended play Thursday afternoon. The wait-and-see attitude abruptly changed Saturday, when a day's worth of conference calls with the league office, member teams and the Professional Hockey Players' Association resulted in cancellation of the season for the 26 ECHL franchises.
“It's tough to even put into words at all,” Komets veteran Shawn Szydlowski said. “Obviously, I don't think this is something any player ever expected to experience in their career. On Thursday morning, after playing a game on Wednesday night, it was still a normal day and all that. We still had no clue what would happen with the league. And then you hear the NHL was suspending its season and you knew something was going to happen with us as well.
“For me being around long enough and knowing the workings of minor-pro hockey, I knew unfortunately this was going to be the outcome. I was a little more prepared for it than most, but it still hasn't even set in that you won't be going back to practice or won't be playing another game until October, which is kind of insane to think of. I think that's the most disappointing thing – how long the summer's going to be.”
Players will draw paychecks through today and continue to receive health insurance through June 30, after which they'll be eligible for COBRA.
However, players had been counting on the paychecks for the remainder of the regular season and, possibly, the playoffs where bonuses could also have been earned.
“The email we got from the PHPA, the compassion they had for the owners, it seemed like they kind of got lost in who they represented. Three days' pay, making what we make, doesn't do a whole hell of a lot, especially when you know you've got people who count and depend on you,” Jenks said.
The typical ECHL player earns around $630 a week. Rookies make as little as $480 per week.
“I don't know where I'm going to go next for someplace to make money,” Szydlowski said. “That's all stuff that needs to be figured out. Think of guys in the league who are rookies and making minimum salary, they're the ones who have to get out of here as fast as they can to go home and even try to get a summer job right now.”
While Fort Wayne is one of the most stable franchises in the ECHL – it led the league with average announced attendance of 8,090 this season – there is a belief that some teams will not recover from the lost income.
The ECHL's players had to worry about themselves, though, Sunday.
“There are some guys who are going to be scratching pennies for the next few weeks. That's the worst part,” Szydlowski said. “I was hoping they would come to an agreement where we would get a little bit of severance pay or something like that. But I also understand that a lot of teams are going to lose a lot of money and possibly not be able to recover from this, so it's tough on all ends right now and not an easy time.”
Komets rookie Alan Lyszczarczyk was preparing to try to get to Poland on Tuesday amid travel restrictions.
“I am nervous because I don't know if they'll shut down all flights,” said Lyszczarczyk, 22, “If they do that, I may not be able to get back to Europe and I'll have to stay in the U.S. for I don't know how long. That's why I'm flying to England and I can stay in England. And if everything is better, than I can fly to Poland.”
Lyszczarczyk was born in Poland, and typically spends his summers there, but if he cannot make it out of the U.S., his parents have a house in New Jersey.
He was fifth among ECHL rookies with 46 points.
“I'm really upset because I think we have a very good team,” Lyszczarczyk said. “It's a young team, but we could have had a big run this year and I could have showed what I can do in a pro playoffs for the first time. It's tough, but we can't do anything about this.”