Gary Graham is an amazing Fort Wayne story.
Thanks to his mother's brother, Greg Cummings, the newest Fort Wayne Komets coach began to love hockey. They were huge Boston Bruins fans, and they'd buy standing-room-only tickets to watch their team play in Chicago and Detroit every year. Greg knew a Bruins' scout who would leave them tickets, so twice they drove cross-country to see their team play in the old Boston Garden.
"If a game was on a Friday he would take off on a Thursday night and take us to the game and we would drive straight back," Graham said.
What's even crazier, the second time they did it, Cummings drove all night so they could watch a Saturday afternoon game in Boston. Then, because Cummings didn't want to miss his final adult league game of the season at Memorial Coliseum on a Sunday afternoon, they drove 12 hours straight back. Cummings played in the game and then they stayed to watch the Komets' Sunday evening game against Cincinnati.
"It was just an insane hockey-lover weekend and it was just awesome," Cummings said.
Graham's father was not a part of his life, so Cummings became his father figure. Starting out, Graham was more enthralled with baseball, but he adopted his uncle's passion for hockey.
"For his 12th birthday I got him his first pair of roller blades," Cummings said. "That's when he really got bit by the bug, and the next fall is when he hit the ice for the first time. He was a late bloomer, but he picked up skating backward really quick. That and his size is he always played defense."
Graham's late start ruined any chance of becoming a professional player but only seemed to increase his desire to be involved with the game. He became a high school coach, then a junior coach and an unpaid Komets' assistant. He won three titles in four years with the Komets before working his own bench to lead Pensacola to the Southern Professional Hockey League title this spring.
Few people can see the nuances of a hockey game the way Graham can. He's always studying it, trying to figure it out so he can devise strategies. He loves thinking the game. Cummings recalls driving to games several times in recent years while Graham watched videos and compiled scouting reports on his laptop from the passenger seat.
"I always kid him when we watch Bruins games on TV, 'You cannot sit down and just enjoy a hockey game any more,'" Cummings said with a laugh. "He just sits there and picks every thing apart. It's become part of who he is."
Part of what drives Graham at age 34 to learn as a coach is he feels like he's still catching up from that late start. He never acted like a know-it-all as a player and understands he has so much to learn as a coach. That drive means he's never complacent and is always trying to improve.
His coaching career has risen so quickly, Graham could be considered a natural, but only a few know how much work he's actually put in. He had to pull himself up to reach each level.
Graham's hiring is shocking to many Komets fans. Because he was the assistant coach to Al Sims for four years, he always remained behind the scenes, seen but not heard, the buffer between players and coach. Few people know his understanding of the game or of his connections and recruiting ability. They've never talked hockey with him or heard him talk strategy because they haven't had the chance.
"People don't understand exactly what my role was here," he said. "You have to do things the right way in life. This has been a long road, and I feel like I've worked extremely hard to get to this point. There's a passion I can't turn off, and I want to make sure everyone on this team has that same kind of passion. There are a lot of great players in the ECHL, but you have to get the most out of what you've got."
Graham's already done a pretty good job of that himself.