Fort Wayne Komets players looking for new opportunities in Europe

Mason Baptista scored Game 6's first goal while battling for a rebound in front. (By Blake Sebring of News-Sentinel.com)

The season has barely finished and it feels like almost daily the Fort Wayne Komets have been losing key players off their roster. Phelix Martineau signed with Laval of the American Hockey League even before the playoffs finished, and Gabriel Desjardins (Sweden), Mason Baptista (Germany) and Garrett Thompson (Norway) have announced they’ll play in Europe next season. Other players are talking with overseas teams.

This is not necessarily bad news to anyone but the fans. To the organization, it’s simply part of the process, and to the players it’s a chance to make significantly more money and explore new parts of the world and their game.

“The team had a great season, a lot of the players had career years and going to Europe offers them a chance to cash in on the success they’ve had with us,” Komets General Manager David Franke said. “Plus, you have guys who are going to turn veterans and they may not want to be a vet in the ECHL. I have no problem with any of them going. They were all loyal to us and played their hearts out for us and did everything we asked them to do. It’s just a part of the business. If any of them don’t like it and want to come back we’ll sure talk to them.”

There’s really nothing to Komets can do to prevent or convince the players not to take these offers. After every season the Komets lose players to other opportunities, but this year it seems like there have already been more changes than most summers. Part of that is because this season was more successful than most with a run to the Western Conference Finals.

But still, it hurts for the fans who have grown to know the players personally and love their play. The thing is, though, no one knew anything about any of these skaters before they came to Fort Wayne, and none of them had produced the personal statistics they did before coming to the Komets. They accomplished their individual goals, and it’s time to try for new ones. It’s part of being in a developmental league.

Komets forward Gabriel Desjardins chips the puck away from a Colorado defender during the first period. (By Blake Sebring of News-Sentinel.com)

“I looked at my age and the prospect of being able to move up,” said Baptista, 28. “I would never want to go anywhere else in the ECHL, but I want to play until I’m 35 or 40 and playing here it’s very difficult to do that because of the amount of the games and how taxing they are. Guys like Shazzy (Jamie Schaafsma) are very rare. Europe offers fewer games and I’m going there with the prospects of developing and playing at a high level and then maybe having more opportunities to play in an even high league.”

Like Baptista, Thompson is 28 and coming off a career-best season. He either takes advantage of this opportunity now before he gets married and settles down with a family or he never goes. The money in Europe is tax-free, salaries have a chance to be significantly higher than the ECHL, there are about half as many games, the style is less physical and the season is shorter. Playing careers are also finite and could end at any time before of an injury.

“Somebody told me that we are living our retirement right now,” Thompson said. “Once you are done playing hockey, you aren’t going to travel as much and you’re going to be locked into your hometown. It is taking a chance, but it’s like someone who is an entrepreneur stepping outside of their business to try something new. It’s an opportunity to stretch myself and see what’s out in the world.”

Another factor is that players are always looking to move up to better leagues, and many players understand they have plateaued in North America before signing in Europe where they have other opportunities. Some former Komets, such as Matthew Pistilli, have chosen to remain in Europe. He’s found a new career in Germany.

If a player has success in the ECHL, they are always going to attract interest from teams in Europe. Desjardins was the Komets’ Most Valuable Player, Thompson finished fifth in the ECHL scoring race and for much of the season, Baptista was a first-line center on the league’s highest-scoring team. Agents for Baptista, Desjardins and Thompson all had talks with multiple teams before the players made their decisions. There’s no way for the Komets to compete with those kinds of offers because of the ECHL salary cap and the limit of four veterans.

Komets forward Garrett Thompson has served the team's Finemaster throughout the season. (By Blake Sebring of News-Sentinel.com)

“Fort Wayne did everything right,” Baptista said. “I have a fantastic relationship with Dave, and the coaching staff are all super-pumped for me and understood the situation, but I felt a little weird going into the meeting to tell them I was leaving because I have so much respect for them and what the Komets have meant to me.

“I owe a lot to the organization, and that’s why it’s difficult to move on, but it’s part of being an adult to make tough decisions. Now, it’s moving on to a different chapter. It’s a part of life, a part of growing.”

And how do the Komets respond? As they continually do, they keep looking for new players, but helping players advance to better contracts also helps them recruit new prospects, sort of a success breeds success mantra.

“There will be some big shoes to fill, but we’re at June 5 and we have plenty of time,” Franke said. “There are a lot of players out there. Our league is still doing the playoffs so is the AHL and the NHL. It will be a lot of work to replace those guys, but we work hard at recruiting every summer. I’m sure there will be new guys coming in that nobody has heard of and hopefully they’ll establish themselves as well as these guys did.”

The Komets cannot announce any new player signings until after June 16.

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