On a fall night in 1952, George Drysdale is sitting in a Chatham, Ontario, hotel bar arguing with the new Maroons owner over his upcoming season salary.
“I'm not asking for the world, but I think I deserve a raise for being a first-team all-star,” Drysdale says.
Of course they are enjoying a few beverages, both figuring that might aid their side of the negotiations. The argument keeps going through a case of beer and until the hotel clock starts to ring 3 a.m., when Drysdale makes his final ultimatum in a bid for $25 more per week.
“I've gotten a call from a new team that is having training camp in Woodstock,” he said. “They have agreed to give me the money, so if we don't come to an agreement here, I'm going to meet them on their way through town in the morning.”
The owner thinks Drysdale must be bluffing, so he finally walks away without an agreement. At 8 a.m., the Fort Wayne Komets bus picks up Drysdale in downtown Chatham on its way to Windsor, where the team crosses into the United States for the first time.
And the Chatham owner?
Maybe because of all the beverages, he gets around to Drysdale's apartment at 2 p.m., when Roe Drysdale tells him her husband has already left for Fort Wayne. The confused owner waits a few hours before finally being convinced.
Which just goes to show you should never try to out-drink a hockey player or doubt him if he says he wants to come to Fort Wayne.
Started with a bluff
There are a million stories like that with the Komets, who have always been filled with character and characters, including their original owners who bluffed their way into the International Hockey League. When plans for the new Allen County War Memorial Coliseum were announced, Ernie Berg, Harold Van Orman and Ramon Perry – Trio Enterprises – figured maybe a hockey team would work in Fort Wayne and met with the IHL's board of governors in Toledo.
At the end of Fort Wayne's presentation, some board members inquired about the group's financial status. Van Orman assured the board that financing was no problem, even being so brash as to pull his wallet out and place it on the table before asking, “Do you want a fee now?”
The cost of an expansion franchise was $2,500.
“Fortunately,” Van Orman said later, “they didn't ask to see our money. I think I had about $11 in my wallet. If they had asked to see our money, we were done.”
Even the team name is unique in a bizarre way. Berg came up with the name Komets because he wanted a name that suggested speed, flash and excitement. He spelled it with a “K” instead of a “C” after his wife Kathryn, who went by Kay.
And this season the Komets will celebrate their 60th season, although there were many times during that history when it seemed as if they wouldn't last another five minutes.
The original owners lost a lot of money for five years before bringing Ken Ullyot in, and then even they got out, essentially giving the team to Ullyot, who gave part of his shares to Colin Lister.
Before the Franke Brothers came in in 1990, the three previous owners – David Welker, Bob Britt and Colin Lister – all declared bankruptcy.
How did the Komets always manage to survive? How did they come to mean so much to Fort Wayne?
Rather be somewhere else
Maybe it's about overcoming adversity, both financial and personal.
There are 13 names hanging from the Memorial Coliseum rafters on the Komets' retired banners. Besides being great hockey players, they almost all have three things in common:
•It's amazing how many of them experienced personal tragedies while growing up, only to become successful in their careers. Eddie Long lost two brothers to World War II. Colin Lister's mother died of cancer. When Ken Ullyot was 5, his father died from an asthma attack. Lionel Repka's brother died in a car accident. Bud Gallmeier's brother died in World War II.
•They almost all wanted to be somewhere else before they got to Fort Wayne, somewhere closer to home or closer to the National Hockey League. This was their second choice and often last chance, and sometimes they had to be convinced by Ullyot, their wives or a parent, but they came.
“What's funny is that if I'd gone to the NHL, they'd never be there,” Len Thornson once said of his Komets records. “Coming to Fort Wayne and staying here is the best thing that ever happened to me.”
•Some, like Robbie Irons, Steve Fletcher, Terry Pembroke, Robbie Laird and Repaka, left for a time, but they always came back. Then they remained, even after retiring.
“I consider myself a Fort Wayne Komet and always will. Fort Wayne has always been great to me. From the time I came to Fort Wayne, I've been here every year. I went to play and work in other cities sometimes over the years, but home was in Fort Wayne,” said Robbie Laird.
•And they've always had a tight fraternity, a bond that has lasted decades as well. They always rally to help each other, supporting their brothers.
As Komets, the impact they have had on people's lives is astonishing.
It's a bit about idols and heroes. First, it's about sport's place in our society and how we turn players into bigger-than-life myths at times.
Derek Jeter never signed an autograph 10 times or more for the same kid, always with a smile, but Guy Dupuis did, and so did Norm Waslawski and Dale Baldwin.
Peyton Manning never taught our kids the fundamentals of the game, but Colin Chaulk, Derek Ray, Ron Leef, Doug Rigler and Eddie Long taught them every hockey skill there was, and they still do.
Reggie Miller never talked at our schools, but Jumbo Goodwin, Ian Boyce, Jake Pence and Doug Teskey did. Call the Komets office, and they'll still send a player over, and the players love doing it. Since they grew up in Canada and Minnesota and Michigan and, yes, even Fort Wayne, they understand the opportunity and the responsibility.
Kobe Bryant and LeBron James never played a charity game here, but Colin Chin, Kevin St. Pierre and Steve Fletcher did. So did Teddy Wright, Gerry Randall and Chuck Adamson.
Kirk Gibson, Buster Douglas and Michael Jordan may inspire us with once-in-a-lifetime moments, but Reggie Primeau does it every night when he walks into the building on the prosthetic leg after diabetes took his other one.
“The reason Fort Wayne was and is successful is because they operate with big league scruples,” Terry Pembroke said. “The thing that kept that hockey team going was the links to the past. Every generation draws a certain group of people, and then eventually they all show up at the arena. Everybody in Fort Wayne knows a Komet, either a current one or a former Komet.”
They have been near-perfect role models. We may not be big league or a major metropolitan city, but we didn't need to be because in many ways the Komets were even better to Fort Wayne than those superstars could be. They weren't just on the radio or TV or playing in front of us. They were in our neighborhoods, churches, classrooms and yes, even our living rooms. They became our insurance agents, our bread man, our financial planners and our coaches.
One of the cool things about the Komets is that every generation had its own favorites, almost by decade. A grandfather might have started in the 1950s, and his son followed in the '70s, and then the grandson in the '90s. They all had distinctly different experiences with the team and the players, but they all loved them the same.
“That's the one thing (about) playing where it came full circle, knowing I was a part of what the Komets were when I was growing up,” Colin Chin said. “When I look up and see names like Repka, Thornson, Long and … So I'm with those guys? That's pretty neat to even be mentioned with those guys let alone to hang up there with them.”
The Komets were part of us when they played, and they still are. We adopted them and they became part of us.
Fort Wayne's team
The hockey team didn't put Fort Wayne on the nation's sports map, the Zollner Pistons did. But the Komets kept us there for decades when every other pro sports venture failed, sometimes more than once. Only the Komets and the Wizards/TinCaps lasted as long as a decade in Fort Wayne.
Why have they lasted while almost every other sport – some much more based in American culture – have failed? How did the Komets connect so much that we wouldn't allow them to die when they probably should have?
Fort Wayne admired and enjoyed the Pistons, but for some reason we loved the Komets from the start. Maybe it was because the Komets were seen as second-best at the start and were the underdogs, kind of like their home city, in fact.
At the time, Fort Wayne sports were struggling mightily. The fastpitch softball Pistons disbanded in 1954, the Daisies left in 1956, the same year the PGA's Fort Wayne Open ended, and then the NBA's Pistons left in 1957. The Komets' management fought to keep the team going and brought in Ullyot to turn things around. He brought in Lister to help run the business side. Over the next two years, the team got better and the books got cleared up.
Throughout Fort Wayne's history, sports fans have never been shy about expressing their favorites, which has led to some great rivalries. Indiana or Purdue? North Side or South Side? Bishop Luers or Bishop Dwenger? Cubs or Sox? Chicago Bears or Indianapolis Colts?
But the one team everyone in the Summit City roots for has been the Komets. Maybe that's because for 60 years the Komets have always been Fort Wayne's own team, a franchise we didn't have to share with anyone else. The majority of the players weren't going anywhere once they got here, and they kept coming back to build continuity.
“Another thing that makes Fort Wayne great is that the people make the players,” Long, the first Komets' star, always said. “The players don't make the people.”
Now the Komets are part of northeast Indiana's identity as much as Glenbrook Square, the Fort Wayne Children's Zoo, Mad Anthonys golf tournament, Johnny Appleseed Festival or Science Central. They are part of who we are as a city.
But why this team and this sport for so long?
The only constant was Bob Chase, whose enthusiasm for 59 seasons has been and is always unrelenting. He has always been our pipeline to getting to know the players and the coaches, and we've all learned to see the away games through his eyes. Maybe no one in history has done as much to introduce new fans to the sport, and we all seem to be able to take a piece of his passion and expand on it, share it with others and watch it continue to grow.
He helped make these players heroes for us.
Newspapermen Bud Gallmeier from The News-Sentinel and Bob Reed from the Journal Gazette also had a tremendous influence on the team and its acceptance in Fort Wayne.
All the media coverage helped make the Komets one of the home bases that people who have left Fort Wayne still connect with. Maybe as kids they hid under the covers to listen to playoff games on WOWO, but now they listen to Chase question a referee's vision on the Internet. They also participate on blogs and on Facebook by the thousands. The Komets are something they can talk about with their friends and family who remain here, once again, a common bond and cause.
The Komets' influence has spread across the continent as well. They gave hockey Mike Emrick, John Ferguson, Olympic hero Ray LeBlanc and maybe someday Artem Podshendyalov. One of the most interesting things about the team is there's always somebody who someday might be someone, and we can say we somehow saw him somewhere first.
After moving to three different leagues since 1999, the Komets are still growing. They even helped make another Allen County cornerstone, the Memorial Coliseum, grow in 2002, literally raising the roof to add more seating.
Better in person
Perhaps nowhere in North America is it more true that being at a game in person is so much better than watching it at home on television. TV cameras miss so much, and they can never adequately capture the atmosphere, the personality of a crowd. The Komets gave us the games, and we gave them and the Memorial Coliseum personality.
Part of that came from Jack Loos on the organ, Jim Amstutz or Larry Schmitt on the public-address system and even from Sister Miriam, Leatherlungs, Young Elvis and the Twister. There's Tom Didier, Tim Hoke and Randy Marcom, and owner Ray Perry yelling over the PA, “That's not a penalty!”
A lot of that personality comes from the fans with “Hit somebody!” and “Welcome to the Jungle,” and “Rock and Roll Part 2,” and always trying – and usually succeeding – to rile opposing players. It's also about accepting those same opposing players when they later come to play for the Komets, no matter how much they were hated before.
The energy also comes from mascot Icy, who started out mostly as a way to keep the kids occupied so their folks could watch the game. Now he's an institution (or needs to be in one) as much as booing the referee when he skates onto the ice because … well, he's just the referee and referees get booed. Today there are children of the original children who were at first too scared to approach Icy and then later ran into his arms. Now their kids are giving the mascot Peanut M&Ms after slapping five with him.
There are also the traditions of opening night, Thanksgiving, New Year's Eve and Report Card Night. There are the rivalries with Toledo, Indianapolis and Rockford, battles so great that long-time fans pray for a rematch someday. There are also introductions of legends, moments of silence and now the blasting of the goal horn. Postseason parties, Komets Kare Package and players saluting fans at center ice after wins have also become standbys.
More than 12 million fans have watched hockey games in Fort Wayne. Over the last 20 years, no minor league hockey team has consistently drawn more fans, and no fans have cheered on more consistent winners. Almost every other minor league city would be thrilled to average 4,500 fans.
And that doesn't recognize how well Komets fans travel to road games, often drawing salutes from the players after key victories just like they do at home.
Celebrating a 60th
But why now? The 60th isn't that big of an anniversary to celebrate, is it?
Over the next 10 years we're going to go through a lot of heartache. It has already started with the losses in recent years of Roger Maissoneauve, Len Wharton, Dick Zimmerman, Vi Ullyot, Colin Lister and Tim Hoke. We've been so blessed that so many of our icons are amazingly still here to help us celebrate this 60th anniversary. It's almost a miracle.
But they likely won't all be here for the 70th anniversary or almost assuredly not for the 75th. That's a big reason why the Frankes decided to make a big deal out of the 60th anniversary instead of waiting for the 75th. They know that so many won't be here then except in memories, and it's always better to celebrate with them in person.
And those people have had a tremendous impact, with their play, their inspiration and their friendships. They are why a 60th anniversary, this 60th anniversary, is so important. They created the Komets, and what the team means to us as individuals, as fans and as a city.
“Maybe there's a lot of fans who in their teens or their 20s who go, ‘Why do they do this? Who are those old people?'” Komets president Michael Franke said. “They are the history of the team, and they are so important because we wouldn't be here without them and if it wasn't for that history. That history carried this franchise through a lot of tough times over the years.
“As long as we own the team, we're always going to make sure we honor that history. We're very, very blessed that for the most part, most of these guys are still here with us.”
What else in Fort Wayne creates such passion and joy and bonds so many family members? How many marriages started with first dates at a Komets game? How many proposals have been accepted either on the ice or in the stands? How many kids' lives have changed for the better through hockey, because of an example someone set on the ice, or sitting next to Mom and Dad at a game or maybe even getting a pep talk from a player?
“We're so grateful that our sons were born here and we decided to stay in Fort Wayne,” Lionel Repka said. “Everything we have is because of Fort Wayne. It isn't anything I did or Helen did, it's just because this city has always been a strong, traditional family community.”
How many former Komets are coaching their kids and ours in the youth hockey program where everybody wants to be the next Lincoln Kaleigh Schrock or Brandon Warner or Bobby Phillips or John Baldassari or Colin Chin? Or maybe, if they work hard enough, even the next Fred Knipscheer or Dale Purinton and follow their own NHL dream?
That would be a miracle, but how many times have the Komets shown us things we'll never see again? Events like the 1993 playoffs, 1-0 Joe Franke or Kevin St. Pierre's rolling miracle save? How about the Muskegon comeback in 1963, three Game 7 overtime marathons or even last year's comeback against Rapid City in Game 3?
How many times have the Komets shown us that impossible is just an excuse?
Constant and a cornerstone
The Komets have changed with all of us and this city in so many ways over 60 years. They've been a constant and became a cornerstone, but also a home base. As long as they are here, Fort Wayne won't change too much, grow too far or forget who we really are.
It certainly worked out well for George Drysdale, who came to Fort Wayne to become one of the Komets' first stars and the team's first elected captain.
One Sunday afternoon during that first season, George had the day off, and he and Roe were tired of looking at the test pattern on the new TV, so they decided to go across the street to Franke Park and skate. While she worked on her figure skating, he went across the pond to find a group of kids splitting up for a game. After asking if he could play, George was picked last.
“Back home in Canada, the guy that got picked last couldn't skate as well, so they put him in the goal,” Drysdale said.
“‘Where do I go?' I asked and one of them said, ‘Just stand in there, that would be OK.' The wind was whistling across the pond there, and I was starting to get a little chilly, so I grabbed the puck and went through and up to the other end and scored a goal. I heard this one kids say to another, ‘Who is that old guy?' I was only 23 years old.”
And then he went back to playing goal until he saw that Roe was ready to go home. Even then, none of the kids knew who he was.
A few years later while battling an illness in the hospital that forced his retirement, Drysdale received many get-well cards, some even from those kids he played with that day.
He and Roe will celebrate their 61st anniversary in November with their two sons, their wives, three grandchildren and four great-grandchildren – all of whom still live in Fort Wayne. He has a million stories like that.
“I'm sure glad he didn't come up with the money,” Drysdale says on a fall night