So much of this you view through a different prism now. Man dies of Alzheimer’s, you tend to re-evaluate.
And so I thumb back through close to a quarter century, and here is David Welker, replacing the fireball on a hockey jersey with a koala bear, changing its color scheme from orange and black to red, white and blue, and thinking, for a few perilous moments, about changing even the name of the team.
And here is David Welker getting torqued at the Coliseum – he pretty much was always torqued at the Coliseum – and threatening to move a playoff series to Kemper Arena in Kansas City, Mo., because of a scheduling conflict with the Ice Capades.
Here is Welker, firing longtime organist Jack Loos one week, hiring him back the next. Fantasizing about bringing in Harry Caray, or, hey, how about Jesse Jackson?
Hiring Denny McLain, Detroit Tigers pitcher/keyboardist/man with a screw loose. Accepting and/or forcing McLain’s resignation six months later, after which the lawsuits began.
He bought the Komets out of bankruptcy in 1987, effectively saving professional hockey in Fort Wayne. Three years later, he moved the team to Albany, N.Y., effectively killing professional hockey in Fort Wayne – at least until the Frankes stepped in soon thereafter.
The more charitable, at the time, said Welker was simply an eccentric man with a lot of money, and at least he wasn’t boring. The blunter assessment is that he one-upped McLain on the screw-loose thing.
My own take is that the view from 24 years away is a whole lot clearer than it is in the moment, and more nuanced, besides. And so when I hear that Welker has died down in Louisiana at 73 after a long battle with Alzheimer’s, I feel vaguely ashamed that I tended to come down on the side of the screw-loose brigade. I often walked away from one of his news conferences thinking only one thing.
What in the bleep is that man talking about? I’d say.
Now I wonder whether the nature of his passing doesn’t, at least partially, explain a lot of the things that seemed inexplicable then. And if, in casting his legacy in stone as The Man Who Killed Hockey, we’ve given short shrift to the rest of the narrative, which is that he first saved it.
He kept the Komets alive for three years when it was pretty tough going, says Komets coach Al Sims, who was Robbie Laird’s assistant when Welker tapped him as Laird’s replacement in 1989. For him to stick to it and kind of keep the train moving was great until David and Michael and Stephen got it. I’ll always think of David fondly for hiring me. He gave me my first job as a head coach, and certainly I’ve been thankful to him all these years for that.
He got a chance to tell him so about a month ago when the Komets played at Bossier-Shreveport, the team for whom Welker’s son and caretaker, Billy, is the equipment manager. Welker was in a wheelchair, but his mind, Sims says, was clear that day. And so they talked a bit about the past, then Welker asked what the gate was for a Komets game these days.
About 8,200, Sims said.
Welker shook his head.
How the hell do you get 8,200? he said. I couldn’t get 3,000.
He still remembered how it used to be, Sims says.
So do we, once more. Or finally, perhaps.