For the first half of their 62-year existence, there's no way the Fort Wayne Komets could have existed without Ken Ullyot. The franchise's longtime coach, general manager and eventual owner died this morning at age 92.
After the Komets reported losses of $87,000 at the end of the 1957-58 season, the team was close to going out of business after only five years. Troy General Manager Ken Wilson said he had the perfect guy to come to Fort Wayne, his childhood friend from Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Ullyot.
Ullyot started coaching in the New York Rangers organization, working through the Western Hockey League and eventually becoming Fort Wayne's hockey godfather. Without him, it's doubtful the Komets, the International Hockey League and maybe even minor league hockey in the Midwest would have lasted. At times, it all barely survived anyway.
Ullyot's contract was actually written on the back of a pack of cigarettes, signed by Ullyot and co-owner Harold Van Orman, who was a constant smoker. There were no monetary terms or even the length of the contract mentioned. Van Orman told Ullyot to pay himself what he needed to live on.
It also turned out to be the only contract Ullyot ever signed with the Komets. Though he was offered other opportunities during the years, including in the NHL, Ullyot never left Fort Wayne.
He was officially named the Komets general manager Aug. 12, 1958, and the coach Sept. 19, 1958. Doing both jobs helped the team save money.
With help from Eddie Long and Len Thornson, he coached the Komets to the 1963 and 1965 Turner Cups, and was the general manager of the 1973 champions. Maybe just as importantly, Ullyot helped keep the IHL alive by continually propping up weaker teams through the 1950s and 1960s.
``These things happened all the time with us,'' Ullyot said. ``Practically every summer we had to find different teams or help somebody out of a problem to keep them alive so we could have a league. All those times we fought to survive because we didn't have another league to go to.''
Ullyot used his connections in Western Canada to find players for other teams or even loaned them players off his roster. Some of the fans wondered what in the world he was doing, but he was helping keep the league alive so the Komets had someone to play. Sometimes the only way to help the league was by helping another team.
``Survival was our main concern always,'' he said. ``League problems came ahead of individual problems because we knew if you don't have a league, you can't have a team. We were partners in the league, and you were only as strong as your partners.''
Sometimes Ullyot joked that he was a commissioner who coached, too. He often said he could not remember a time when the owners were not concerned about the future of the league.
``We were very vulnerable, and there's no doubt in my mind the league would have died without them,'' former IHL commissioner Bill Beagan said of Ullyot and partner Colin Lister in 1997. ``It's very accurate to say Fort Wayne saved the league in the mid-'60s. We would have gone under a couple of times without their help.''
On the ice, Ullyot was known as a great teacher who always helped his players improve. He taught fundamentals every day, but he did it in ways that weren't boring to the players. He didn't run them through drills just to give them something to do.
``The only time you skated and worked your a-- off was when the coach was hung over,'' he said, laughing.
Ullyot has always been known for his wickedly dry sense of humor. He once said of his wife, Violet, ``When I die, I'm going to be cremated and they're going to spread my ashes at Value City. If they put me in a cemetery I might get to see Violet once a month, but this way I'll get to see her once a week.''
In fact, he used to call it Violet City. Unfortunately for him, she died in 2009.
Ullyot quit coaching for good in 1970 after he was accused of going onto the ice to take a swing at referee Howie Halter. Ullyot always denied swinging at Halter but admitted going onto the ice. There were no game films back then.
``The devil made me do it,'' Ullyot quipped.
Beagan fined Ullyot $500 and suspended him for 30 days (saying the devil made him do it). Violet Ullyot told Beagan he added 10 years to her husband's life with the suspension. The two men remained very good friends.
Ullyot finished his career behind the bench with 322 wins and six Turner Cup Finals appearances in eight years. Long once said that Ullyot was probably one of the top 100 hockey coaches of all time.
``With great respect to Eddie, I'd say he was in the top 50,'' Beagan said. ``He was a hockey guy, and he understood men. He lived in the skin of a player. He brought the best out of the business people in our league because he emphasized that this was a business. To me, he's the George Halas of hockey in that he's the consummate hockey man.''
In 1982 Ullyot stepped down as general manager but worked for the team until 1985, mostly representing the Komets at league meetings.
In 1997, The Hockey News named Ullyot the IHL's all-time best general manager. In 2001, the Komets retired No. 58 (marking the year he came to Fort Wayne) for Ullyot.
Though he retired in 1985, Ullyot continued to attend virtually every Komets home game until 2004. Even then he'd pester fans, reporters and former players for detailed reports about the team, often offering suggestions that someone, he said, should let the current coach know he could try.