The last time the Fort Wayne Komets missed the playoffs, they kept their coach but changed captains. The new guy they brought in was brash, bull-headed, squashed excuses and pushed everybody to play better, sometimes with a skate to the backside.
Colin Chaulk won a championship his first year as a Komet, and the only shame about his Friday retirement announcement is that everyone's last memory won't be him skating a cup around another Memorial Coliseum celebration. Because of health problems, Chaulk, 36, leaves as the Komets' third all-time leading scorer and No. 1 winner. That, and he's passionate to start his coaching career.
``The Komets will miss his leadership, and the fans will miss him,'' Komets coach Al Sims said. ``He's one of the most tenacious players I've ever seen as far as his will to control the puck.''
Chaulk always wanted to control everything, especially the scoreboard. Now the Komets have to find the next captain, something that looks tremendously difficult this close to losing their leader. No one else over the last 25 years has won five championships. How do you replace that?
``It'll be tough,'' winger Kaleigh Schrock said. ``If it's somebody that's been there in the room, there's a lot that Colin did that you could learn from. I don't know if anyone could use his exact approach, but it's going to be tough for anybody. He was a character who had a lot of character. He could be a joker and also be serious and not a lot of guys can do that.''
As Sims said, Chaulk was just as comfortable being a leader by example as by delivering a speech when necessary, and most leaders are one or the other.
Chaulk's rant to get the Komets fired up last spring when they trailed Missouri 2-0 was as classic as the way he drove the net with no hesitation the next game. He wasn't backing down or backing up in either instance. The players were leaning over in their locker room stalls to hear the speech, and they followed his example down the ice to crash into Charlie Effinger.
``You probably can't fill his skates,'' said center Brett Smith who was the Komets' defacto captain this season when Chaulk was out of the lineup. ``Can you bring in different kinds of leadership? There are always people out there who can do that, but he's one of the best leaders I ever played with and he does a fantastic job on and off the ice. I'm not sure it can be done.''
Some of that is showing respect to Chaulk, but the same things were said when Colin Chin retired in 1996. No one could imagine anyone coming in who could do what he did or who would mean a tenth as much to Fort Wayne, but a few years later Chaulk did, and Guy Dupuis came back. The rough part is some very good players and people struggled to live up to Chin's ghost in the locker room for six years until Chaulk arrived.
It's never easy being the man who follows the man. No other sport puts as much expectations on one leader as hockey does, not even football with a quarterback. A captain in hockey is responsible for the team on and off the ice. He sets the tone in how his teammates compete and how they relate to the community. He's the big brother who takes responsibility during bad times but who also doesn't want the siblings going anywhere else if they need help.
``It's definitely pressure, but at the same time it's a challenge,'' Smith said. ``If you find the right guy to accept that challenge, it's only going to be good for the Komets. Pressure is not always a bad thing.''
The one benefit for a new captain is the Komets might have a strong leadership core depending on whom they bring back. Schrock and Smith help, as could Tyler Butler, Brandon Marino, Chris Auger or J.M. Rizk. No one knows yet which players the Komets want back, and the veteran quota limits options. It's part of what must be decided this long summer.
``It was unbelievable how Colin could play both sides of the spectrum,'' Schrock said. ``You need a guy who can joke around and a guy who can scare the daylights out of you when you need that. I remember the playoffs my rookie year (2010), and Keith Rodgers took a penalty that put us down 5-on-3. and Colin came in and just shredded us. I've never been more scared of a hockey player in my life. He knew when to frighten guys. I may not ever play for a better captain.''
That doesn't mean the next guy won't be effective, though. Bruce Richardson was a good leader in 2006-07. So was Ian Boyce in the late 1990s, and Dupuis 10 years later. Maybe Auger, Marino, Schrock or Rizk might be ready soon.
``We have some younger guys who hopefully can grow into that position,'' Sims said. ``Not everybody can be a Colin Chaulk, but you have to see who develops into it. You can't necessarily go out and find a guy like that. You want a group of guys to be a leadership group. Colin was extraordinary in that he could almost to it by himself.''
Maybe finding the next captain should be Chaulk's first assignment if he becomes a full-time assistant coach. At the very least, he can design the job description.
It now seems impossible to replace Chaulk but remember another truism he always proved correct: adversity is opportunity. With Chaulk it was always an opportunity for greatness.