The Journal Gazette
Sunday, March 22, 2020 1:00 am

Hockey in China reignites Graham

He saw how COVID-19 cleared Beijing, altered his season

JUSTIN A. COHN | The Journal Gazette

Gary Graham looked out from atop his hotel room in the embassy district of Beijing, where he was accustomed to seeing packed streets any hour of the day. But it was completely desolate because of the coronavirus pandemic that would upend his hockey season.

Two months later, he's home in Fort Wayne and the pictures making the rounds of normally mobbed U.S. areas that are now barren – Bourbon Street, Nashville, Times Square – ring all too familiar.

“Now it's full circle. On top of that, my wife (Melissa) is on the front lines, working at the ER of the busiest hospital in town,” Graham said. “So here she is worried that I'm going to get out of China safely and, all of a sudden, it's in our own backyard and my wife's on the front lines.”

Graham, who coached the Komets from 2013 to 2019, may be more prepared than the typical Fort Wayne resident trying to elude the coronavirus. He was coaching last season in China, where COVID-19 began, and his final 10 games were played in Russia to keep players away from the coronavirus.

But he looks back excitedly on his first season coaching overseas.

Graham was fired by the Komets despite a 36-26-10 record last season and earning playoff berths six straight years.

Ben Boudreau, who had been his assistant, led the Komets to a 31-23-8 record before this ECHL season was canceled because of the coronavirus. A lifelong fan of the Komets, for whom he got his pro coaching start as Al Sims' volunteer assistant, Graham was rooting for Boudreau from afar.

“Are you kidding me? I followed them non-stop,” he said. “I watched games and talked to Benny and (assistant Olivier Legault). For me, there's never any hard feelings. The Komets opened up every door possible for me. This job I have now is even better. The opportunities I'm presented to do over there are good. The hockey is a step up, the pay is better and almost everything is better over there.”

That's correct, Graham is all-in on international hockey, and sees it as a potential path to fulfill his longtime dream of coaching in the NHL.

“That style of play that we play overseas is what's going to start getting into the NHL more and more, I believe,” said Graham, noting that the Chicago Blackhawks' Jeremy Colliton began his coaching career in Sweden.

Graham, 41, coached ORG Beijing of the VHL (Vysshaya Liga), a Eurasian league one step below the Russian-based Kontinental Hockey League, which is widely considered the top league outside of the NHL. Brian Gratz, another Fort Wayne native and a former Komets player, was one of Graham's assistant coaches.

Their mandate was to groom players for China's national team.

“It's a totally different directive from coaching in Fort Wayne,” Graham said. “It's not about winning, it's about developing. It's almost like the American (Hockey) League, where winning is nice but it's not the sole (goal). For me, as competitive as I am, it was a unique challenge for me, especially coming off not a great season, for my expectations with my record, in Fort Wayne.”

ORG Beijing, which had won only 8 of 56 games in 2018-19, won 20 of just 54 games under Graham. His roster included former Komets defenseman Bobby Shea, who was called up to the KHL, and Gabriel Desjardins, who was limited to nine games because of a knee injury.

Under Graham, the team's goal differential was shaved in half, it had the No. 3 power play led by Gratz, and it had two of the top five scorers in the league with Riley Sheen and Artur Tyanulin, another former Komets player.

There are differences between Eurasian hockey and that of the ECHL – the rosters are bigger there with four forward lines, not three; and teams never play on back-to-back nights there, whereas three games in three nights is common here – and Graham thinks that helps the quality of play and limits injuries.

“It's like a college hockey game with more skill, on steroids, over there,” said Graham, though VHL teams can have only four North American players each.

Dealing with language barriers was an issue, and ORG Beijing had a Chinese-speaking assistant, Guan Wang, and a Russian-speaking one, Dmitri Katayev.

“Getting the message to the players through the coaching staff was not difficult,” Graham said. “I think the biggest challenge was the amount of time you'd have to spend at the board and in meetings because when you explained a drill, you'd have to explain it in three languages. You know how it is, guys don't like sitting in front of the board or in meetings, so you really have to try and find a way to keep guys focused and keep their heart rates up in practice while not spending too much time talking.”

After evacuating China, ORG Beijing based itself in Penza, Russia, but was basically hopping from city to city.

Graham, now back in Fort Wayne, has been hurrying to get supplies for his local business, Pyromaniac Fireworks, before travel restrictions make that too difficult. He's spoken with friends in the fireworks business in China, and they said they're starting to go back to work, so he's hopeful businesses won't be shut down too long here.

He has another year on his contract to coach ORG Beijing, though the Russian Ice Hockey Federation will decide when games can be played in China again.

Regardless of where he's coaching, Graham will be rooting for the Komets.

“I'm always a Komet at heart. I'm cheering on the Komets till I die. It doesn't matter,” he said.

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