Hiring Gary Graham as head coach might seem like the Fort Wayne Komets are reaching.
The 1997 North Side graduate is only 34, his playing experience was negligible and he has only five years of professional coaching experience. He's also been a head coach for only one year.
Yes, the Komets may have hired Graham a little early in his career, but if that's true, it's only one year too early. The Komets are determined to start rebuilding this season, and they believe Graham is the man to provide the passion, the energy and the teaching and recruiting ability to guide them. The Komets believe Graham is going to be a foundation coach to build their next era around.
It is a bit of a gamble. Graham might have gotten here a year ahead of schedule, but if the Komets hadn't hired him now, he would not still be available the next time they need a coach. Someone else would have hired him, possibly to compete against the Komets, and Fort Wayne management did not want that to happen. That's how much the Komets think of his potential.
He's that good. Graham has an amazing work ethic and hunger to learn. He continually writes down plays, ideas and insights while watching NHL games when most players and coaches are just watching for fun. Graham believes he can learn something from any game he watches. He loves nothing like picking the brains of other coaches and already has an extensive library of play diagrams and drills. He has a better phone book than Bob Chase, who's been in the game 60 years.
It's also OK to doubt him because he LOVES hearing what others think he can't do. It's what drives him to keep improving, keep learning and keep pushing himself. His coaching mantra, which is also true for his players, is ``We're all here to improve every day.'' He drives himself to improve so much he also inspires his players, many of whom can't believe how hard he works.
Graham has always reminded me of former Komets coach John Torchetti. Neither made it to a high level as a player, but each was willing to start from nothing and do anything to learn at the start of his coaching career. Both are incredibly passionate, and before Graham, I never expected to meet a hockey person who worked as hard as Torchetti. Both guys relax late at night by watching more film.
There were doubts when Torchetti was named the Komets coach, too. Coming in halfway through the 1996-97 season, he struggled to connect with a roster he had no input on building. The next year the Komets recruited the MiG. Line, signed Bruce Racine at Torchetti's request and won the division title during their last great year in the old International Hockey League. Torchetti drove that team to succeed.
Torchetti used that year to start his rise to the National Hockey League as a head coach with Florida and Los Angeles. He's won a Stanley Cup ring as an assistant coach with the Chicago Blackhawks and is currently coaching in the American Hockey League.
Graham has many of those qualities.
There will be questions of whether players will listen to Graham because of his lack of high-level playing experience. That doesn't seem to bother the Miami Heat, Indiana Pacers, New England Patriots or Baltimore Ravens. Players understand if a coach knows what he's talking about, and Graham does.
This job will be a challenge, but Graham is smart enough and works hard enough that he'll build himself to where he outgrows it. In a few years, no one will remember there were any doubts at the beginning, because he'll be that good.