It’s a said truth of sports. You win or the team will find someone who does.
There’s little consolation for character, class and decency. It is what it is. Character can help, but doesn’t cover everything when it comes to success. That is, success in the field of competition.
We saw that Monday with the ousting of Fort Wayne Komets head coach Gary Graham.
He won, just not the games he had to win. He was expected to win a Kelly Cup, the ECHL championship.
In six seasons, Graham won 251 games, good enough to move into the top five in team history.
In each season, they made the playoffs. Twice making it to the conference finals.
When it’s Komet hockey, you have to win championships, or consistently challenge for them. Simply put, it’s not about the game in the game. Developing players. Improvement. Little things. It’s the big thing — that is the BIGGEST thing — the Cup.
The Komets are a victim of their own success. They essentially owned the United Hockey League, the new International Hockey League and the Central Hockey League. But, life in the ECHL is a brand new ball game.
Fans expect a winner. Sure, local fans know the game to a degree, but the game in the game gets lost in the passion. You can’t see something when your focus is somewhere else.
That’s Komet hockey.
There’s NHL affiliations to navigate. There’s travel. There’s the delicate balance of amateurs to veterans. It’s like walking a tightrope with an anvil. Gary Graham seemingly did all those things, just didn’t win a Cup. Something he’d say is his biggest regret.
So if you are Komet ownership, you still need to sell tickets, sponsorships and you still need to show you are in shooting range of a title.
And 2018-19 was a challenge. The team recipe was much different. The team was inconsistent. They likely tuned out Graham’s preaching and teaching. It happens to everyone.
Graham was a gift to Fort Wayne. You likely won’t find another one like him for decades, if ever.
A local boy. A hard-working blue-collar guy who brought his lunch to work every day, worked to finish the job and was proud to work for the team. If you really asked, he’d probably say it was the only job he really wanted.
He climbed the ranks. He coached youth teams, was an assistant and had a head coaching job in a lower league. Just enough success to impress the owners.
He didn’t have a silver spoon or an elite hockey track record.
He had a dream. He had passion and he made it work.
He had humility. He loves Fort Wayne. He’s invested. No matter where he goes, he’s a Fort Wayne guy.
He took time for kings and kids and made others feel like they were the most important person in the room. He did it proactively.
During an open house he spoke to my grade school daughter like she was first-round draft pick. Right there in the Komet locker room, he got down to her level, looked her in the eyes and made her feel like she was a player. He did that for me as a reporter. He didn’t talk down. He listened, he tried to understand. He treated me with respect and moreover as a friend.
Another time, I was in one of the mega stores and he was with his kids. By the checkout, he stopped, called me by name and spent a few minutes asking about me, not hockey. Not like i was some fan, but a friend. And he knew I didn’t want to bug him, so he showed initiative to show how much he cared.
That’s the story we all are sharing today. The man who was a man outside of hockey.
That’s Gary Graham. We’ll likely see him again with another ECHL team. We’ll likely see him win a Kelly Cup somewhere someday.
And we’ll gladly say, that’s my friend. And Gary will be as real as he ever was and be humbled that someone took the time to care.