``I remember in training camp this year, (Komets captain Colin Chaulk) Chaulker and I were talking and we just knew he was going to kill the job,'' Festa said. ``He loves to learn the game and teach it. You could tell he was totally ready for it. The guys in Pensacola loved him. They were always totally paying attention.''
Last year, in his first as a head coach, the 34-year-old Graham led Pensacola to the SPHL playoff championship after finishing third in the regular season. That was partly because most of his better players were spending a large part of the regular season in Fort Wayne.
``You knew from his hard work in Fort Wayne he would be successful,'' Thomas said. ``It was nice to see how guys reacted to him as a first-year coach. Every guy bought in and wanted to play for him. It was just shocking how good a coach he was.''
During his four years as a Komets assistant coach, Graham was in charge of breaking down the opposing team's video for scouting reports and running the defensive pairings on the bench. He would also pitch in on special teams.
``He would just pick apart teams on video,'' Festa said. ``We knew exactly what we were going up against, and I can't tell you how much of an advantage that was. It was to the point that Gary would point out openings in the defense were guys could get shots from because of the defensemen's tendencies. We were totally prepared.''
Festa also said Graham's practices were fast-paced, and the Ice Flyers were trying new drills all the time to keep things interesting. He said Graham was also great at pulling individuals aside to help them improve their game. The fact that Graham never played professionally, Festa said, rarely came up.
``He knows the game so well that the younger guys actually thought he had played,'' Festa said. ``You can't tell because he really does know the game so well from studying it. Sometimes I wonder if that counts against guys who play when they become coaches because they quit learning and don't work as hard. Gary's No. 1 focus is always how he can become a better coach.''
Festa said he was shocked at the end of the season when Graham asked the veterans if they had any suggestions what he could do to improve as a coach. That had never happened to him before, Festa said, but Graham explained it by saying, ``We're all here to improve and keep working on things.''
Thomas said Graham had no problems taking over the locker room or controlling the bench.
``When something wasn't going right, he wasn't a guy to be quiet about it,'' Thomas said. ``He'd let you know. He would call guys out and that's something you need to do as a coach, I think. There's a way to do it, and guys respected him and responded to him the way he did it. A lot of times guys might talk behind a guy's back, but they respected Gary right away. They kept learning from him and got better.
``He just has that ability to get guys to work for him, and he's just as hungry as the young guys to get better. Just watching a coach like that, he made me want to work even harder because he's just so hungry to win.''