The Fort Wayne Komets took a major shift today by hiring former assistant coach Gary Graham as their new head coach.
Graham, a 1997 North Side graduate, coached Pensacola to the Southern Professional Hockey League title this spring in his first year as a head coach. Prior to moving to the SPHL, he served as Al Sims' assistant with the Komets for four years, helping the franchise win three titles.
Pensacola took a hit when eight players were called up at the end of the National Hockey League lockout in January, but Graham held the team together and the Ice Flyers finished third in the regular-season standings, two points out of first place. When the players returned, Pensacola went 6-1 in winning a trio of best-of-three playoff series.
``We had so much adversity this year it was unreal,'' Graham said at the end of the season. ``We probably had 45 different guys in our locker room, but everybody who came in just bought in right away. This group had no egos, no cliques. This was the hardest-working group I've ever seen. I'd try to give them optional (practices), and they'd all show up anyway.''
He becomes the second North Side graduate to coach the Komets, following Ron Ullyot from 1981 to 1985.
Graham is known to be a tireless worker who is excellent at breaking down video and compiling scouting reports. He also loves to teach younger players and help them develop.
Graham, 34, didn't start playing hockey until age 12. The defenseman played a year and a half of junior hockey before his playing career ended.
After coming home and going to Ball State, Graham started coaching the Snider club team and led the Panthers to the Class AA state title game. The next year they won the city championship. Then Graham worked as an assistant coach with a junior team in Indianapolis that finished one win away from advancing to the national tournament. After that, he returned to North Side where he coached the club team, taking a squad that finished last the previous season to the city title.
While working in his fireworks business during the offseason, Graham became friends with Komets defenseman Guy Dupuis. During his part-time job, Dupuis would sell Graham advertising signs and talk about hockey.
``Guy knew my passion for coaching, and one day after they won the triple-overtime game against Port Huron (in 2008), I told him I really needed to take this to the next level,'' Graham said. ``Because I didn't have a playing career, I knew I had to have somebody help get me into it. I asked Guy, `What do you think about getting me in front of Al Sims?' He said he could do that.''
Graham figured if he was lucky, he might get a few drills he could use from Sims or a chance to observe training camp. The Komets coach, Dupuis and Graham met one summer night on Chipotle's patio, with Sims quizzing Graham on hockey philosophy and systems. Sims sensed Graham's passion right away.
``Al said, `What would it take to get you here to help,' '' Graham recalled. "I said, `I tell you what, I'll make it easy on you, I don't want anything, I'll volunteer, that's how bad I want to get in.' "
The next year, Graham worked for the Komets for free and coached a AAA youth team in Indy. Twice a week after the Komets' morning practice he'd drive to Indianapolis for evening practices and then drive back down on the weekends for the bus trips to road games. He worked more than 100 games that year.
Working as the assistant who broke down film and scouting reports and ran the defense on the bench, Graham didn't earn any money from the Komets that year, but he did receive a ring as Fort Wayne won its second straight International Hockey League championship. The next fall he was a regular, paid member of the team.