Lifelong friends Gary Graham, Brian Gratz looking forward to weekend reunion

North Side club hockey team's 1997 state championship roster.

Their stories together always start with how goaltender Brian Gratz lost his state championship game shutout because a goal went in off defenseman Gary Graham. With Komets broadcaster Shane Albahrani calling the action, North Side beat Carmel B 4-2 for the 1997 Class 1A state hockey title, but…

“I know we were up 4-0 with three minutes left, and I know the first one went in off his shinpad,” Gratz said. “I must have blocked out the other one until my mom sent me a picture (a few years later) of me getting mobbed with the scoreboard showing 4-2.”

Of course, that’s an easy mistake but not the end of the discussion.

“He always made it sound like the only goal that went in was off of me!” Graham said with a laugh. “That jerk, what the heck was he talking about? He let in a second goal!”

The friendship between the Fort Wayne Komets and Greenville Swamp Rabbits coaches started a little earlier than that, though. Gratz was a sophomore goaltender who had come back facing burnout after playing away from home since he was 8 years old. Graham, a senior, came back from Culver Military at midseason to help stabilize the defense.

And they’ve been friends ever since, which is only part of the story, because there’s really no reason two men with their hockey backgrounds should have clawed their way up the hockey order to become head coaches in the ECHL, sacrificing so much because they came from outside the normal coaching development system. If they didn’t believe in themselves and each other, it’s a sure thing no one else would have.

“We both have our unique paths, and we are each other’s biggest cheerleaders as long as we aren’t playing each other,” Graham said.

That’s until this weekend when Gratz brings his Swamp Rabbits to Fort Wayne. It will be the first time Graham and Gratz face each other as head coaches on opposing benches. Sometime during Friday’s game, they’ll look across the ice at each other and probably bust out laughing at the irony.

After North Side, Graham went to Ball State where he studied exercise science and physiology. Along with playing on the club roller hockey team, he wanted to become a professional athlete trainer, and Gratz, who was playing goal for the Penn State club hockey team, became the summer guinea pig.

“He was always in unbelievable shape, and he definitely kicked my butt,” Gratz said.

Between sessions, they’d draw up some plays on a dry-erase board, designing drills they someday dreamed of using as coaches.

“He’d tell me I didn’t know what I was talking about,” Gratz said, “but I’ve been scored on enough to know what works.”

Those sessions led to essentially running the Ball State roller hockey team where Graham started to get the coaching bug.

“I would be in Western Civilization class drawing up faceoff plays and then take them to practice that night,” Graham said. “We always laugh, but we never thought while we were in that room drawing up plays that years down the road we’d both end up as professional coaches.”

After college, Graham played 23 games for the Pittsburgh Jr. Penguins — racking up 140 penalty minutes — before starting his high school coaching career and eventually volunteering as Al Sims’ Komets assistant in 2008. Gratz got to play one game for the Komets in 2005-06 and mostly bounced around the minors as an emergency backup goaltender before volunteering as an assistant with Reading in 2007.

Then Gratz got his break coaching two years in Class A hockey, winning championships both seasons.

“When he was coaching in those leagues, he was the coach, he was the general manager, he was the equipment manager, doing the skate sharpening, the laundry and he might have even had to drive the blasted bus,” Graham said. “He did everything.”

Those titles helped Gratz become coach of Dayton in the IHL for two seasons and then Bloomington for two before becoming an assistant at Greenville in 2014-15. He was named the team’s coach the next season.

After four years as the Komets’ assistant, Graham won a Southern Professional Hockey League title with Pensacola in 2013, and since becoming Komets coach the next year has averaged 42 wins over four seasons, winning at least one round of the playoffs each season.

“I look at how much success Gary has had and there’s no reason he shouldn’t be a finalist for AHL jobs,” Gratz said. “He has put himself in position to be more than deserving of one of those positions.”

Which might someday lead to another major goal. Somehow, sometime they want to coach in the AHL together. It doesn’t matter, they say, which is the head coach as long as they are on the same bench. They know they’d work perfectly together, covering each other’s weaknesses, still challenging each other to improve.

“Someday it’s going to happen,” Graham said. “It’s a fun dream to have, but you have to dream and have goals.”

Along with potential players, more strategy, venting about every-day coaching life and who dresses better, it’s something that always comes up as they talk at least once or twice a week.

“I know it’s going to happen if nothing else out of sheer willpower to get there,” Gratz said. “I think he’s a lot closer than I am because of the success he’s had, and the way he’s handled the expectations in Fort Wayne. Things are different there because it’s win or go home. I think both of us are where we need to be to maybe get those opportunities at the next level.”

But their real next goal would be for their teams to face each other in the Kelly Cup Finals this spring. That would be one heck of a family reunion to celebrate their success individually and together.

And you know the first thing they’d talk about then? The goal than broke up Gratz’s state championship game shutout.

“I love Gary, and he’s obviously done a lot for me over the years, but I got him a state championship,” Gratz said with a laugh.