Kids always embrace Komets as heroes

As Ryan Culkin looks on from the rear, Komets Garrett Thompson and Jamie Schaafsma design ornaments during a recent Christmas party at Parkview Regional Medical Center. (By Blake Sebring of News-Sentinel.com)
Komets captain Jamie Schaafsma hangs an ornament from a tree at Parkview Regional Medical Center. (By Blake Sebring of News-Sentinel.com)
From left, Komets Garrett Thompson, Jamie Schaafsma, Bobby Shea and Ryan Culkin visit with Jefferson Middle School 8th grader Caleb Kurtz, 13, recently. (By Blake Sebring of News-Sentinel.com)
Komets Ryan Lowney and Shawn Szydlowski (in skicap) sign autographs after a recent game. (By Blake Sebring of News-Sentinel.com)
Shawn Szydlowski signs for a young fan after a recent game. (By Blake Sebring of News-Sentinel.com)
As a team, the Komets made a recent visit to Lutheran Children's Hospital to hand out presents and cheer patients. (By Blake Sebring of News-Sentinel.com)
The Komets are almost as excited as Meredith Stewart, 3, when she opens her present as her mother Amanda looks on. (By Blake Sebring of News-Sentinel.com)
While visiting the pediatrics area of Parkview Regional Medical Center recently, Jamie Schaafsma, Bobby Shea, Garrett Thompson and Ryan Culkin posed for a picture with the staff and Santa. (By Blake Sebring of News-Sentinel.com)
From left, Mason Baptista, Ryan Culkin and Garrett Thompson show off some of the presents the Komets gave to children at Lutheran Children's Hospital last week. (By Blake Sebring of News-Sentinel.com)
The Komets visited the Lutheran Children's Hospital last Monday, including the room of Emily Joveveski, 19, in cap, as her friends Marilyn Schutte and Taylor Relue were visiting. (By Blake Sebring of News-Sentinel.com)

No matter how happy the win or devastating the loss, Komets players always come out of the dressing room after a game reaching for a pen. That’s so they can sign autographs for their fans waiting outside a fence about 15 feet from the door.

It’s rare a player skips signing, and usually that’s because they are new to the team and no one has informed them this is part of the protocol for playing in Fort Wayne. It’s not like this everywhere else, but it’s part of being a Komet.

“I think we just realize what it was like when we were kids and looked up to anybody in hockey, no matter who it was,” Shawn Szydlowski said. “If they just stopped and said hi or gave you a high five it just meant the world to you. It was something special, and the most joy we get out of all season is making a kid smile. We want to be good role models and good ambassadors for the game. We love the game and we want other people to love the game, too.”

But it’s so much more than that, especially when you’ve signed the same kid’s T-shirt dozens of times already and their smiling face is among the first in line, even though there are family members or girlfriends waiting on you. Whether they realize it, the Komets are heroes to a lot of Fort Wayne kids. If Cody Sol or Jamie Schaafsma says hi, it can make a kid’s week, and for more than six decades the Komets have had a tradition of serving in the community. It’s something original Komets like George Drysdale and Eddie Long started and it’s something that Jason Binkley, Taylor Crunk and Dan Maggio and their teammates up to three times a week this season.

“These are the type of things that we love to do,” Schaafsma said after a recent visit to the Parkview Regional Medical Center’s Pediatrics Unit. “Guys are excited to go to the children’s hospital every year. For us, it’s a way to give back and it’s a privilege to be in the spotlight in the community. You can tell kids look up to us and we like to surprise them and put a smile on their face. We want to do what we can to brighten up their day, and maybe bring some excitement to them when maybe they are going through something that’s not the best time of their lives.”

Their appearances are almost as effective as Santa Claus. During a hospital visit, it’s not just the kids who light up but the parents and staff, too. Parents with worried faces light up with joy, a breath of relief during an incredibly stressful day. And their children light up like Christmas trees. There are tons of smiles wherever the players go as they hand out posters balloons.

The players don’t think they are anything special, but what they do and the impact it has certainly is.

“They see the jersey and the colors and the logo, and it makes them happy so that makes you happy,” Bobby Shea said. “It’s kind of fun to make kids happy and it also puts it into perspective how lucky we are. It makes your day when they are happy.”

Each week players make up to three appearances, usually speaking at schools or visiting hospitals around the holidays. Aubrey Bryan is the team’s director of community relations, and she schedules the appearances and then asks for volunteers. She’s never had to beg anyone yet, and usually the players are asking here when the next opportunity is before she has to ask. The team has never turned down a request but may have to reschedule based on the practice or road travel schedule.

The Komets aren’t the only Fort Wayne athletic team to do these kinds of things. Ron Howard isn’t just Mr. Mad Ant because of how he played on the basketball court. One way Arnie Ball built support for his IPFW men’s volleyball program was by speaking to more students than a school superintendent. And then he’d get down on the floor and roll around with the kids, too, which is one reason why his players loved these events.

But no team has the history of going out from the locker room and into the community like the Komets. Yes, it’s expected as part of playing here, but they genuinely enjoy making these appearances. They are comfortable doing them, are happy to talk to kids and even relay messages that may not be getting through from teachers or even parents saying the same things.

When the Komets talk at a school, they have recently been asked to preach on bullying, reading, working hard and even the need for personal hygiene. They also encourage kids to find something they are good at and not just something within the sports world. Whatever the message that needs to get across, they are willing to try.

They also have a tremendous amount of fun at these things. Some of the quietest teammates never shut up around children. Taylor Crunk loves answering a question about how many teeth he’s lost by pulling four from his upper jaw to show everyone.

As Daniel Maggio said, the entire process is uplifting for the players. Though the children would never believe it, speaking also beats sitting at home all afternoon playing video games.

“I love it,” Ryan Culkin said. “When I was a kid, junior hockey was pretty big where I was from and I loved the Quebec Ramparts. Now the roles are reversed and I love giving back and being in that role. It’s cool to make a kid’s day. We are their idols and heroes so we have to be responsible on and off the ice to be a good role model. We know that being a role model is a responsibility.”

Part of it is about responsibility to the game they love, but it’s also understanding their role in Fort Wayne’s community, and realizing they can make a difference.

“It’s the hockey culture and the kind of people we are,” Maggio said. “I enjoy getting to help. I love it.”

A couple weeks ago, roommates Maggio and Culkin were grocery shopping when a young fan recognized them instantly and approached for a picture. Pretty much wherever they go, the Komets get that kind of response. Garrett Thompson was shoe shopping recently when someone approached to say hi. It might be unnerving to be approached all the time by people they don’t know, but the players get it, and they get to know fans.

They sincerely, genuinely believe they get as much out of it as the kids. The players are away from family and may have nieces or nephews at home they don’t get to see that much, but the instant positive feedback helps everyone.

“For us, you see those kids’ faces and to see them light up when we walk into the room is pretty great,” Schaafsma said. “I feel like they get the most out of it, and for us, it’s the most fun to be around the kids, especially at this time of the year. Our fans come out and support us all the time and we’re lucky to be able to give back in ways like this.”

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