FORT WAYNE – Like many Komets fans, Russ Miller began attending Komets hockey games before he could say puck or even walk. When his mother went into labor with his youngest brother, it was at Memorial Coliseum.
Komets hockey, to me, is tradition, the 29-year-old Fort Wayne native said. It’s family and friends getting together, enjoying quality time. I grew up in The Jungle.’
Fort Wayne’s Caleb Allen, 24, agreed.
The Komets are a part of Fort Wayne in a way that few other cities identify with their teams, Allen said. My dad grew up going to the games, remembering when the rink had a chain-link fence to keep pucks out of the stands. Unsurprisingly, when he started his own family, the Komets became a part of our own family traditions. The heritage the team has in Fort Wayne makes it special in our hearts.
Tonight, against the Evansville IceMen, the Komets begin their 60th season at Memorial Coliseum. Only one other hockey team outside of the NHL’s Original Six can boast such a stretch of uninterrupted play in one town, and that’s in Hershey, Pa., where the Bears have been skating for 74 years.
Meanwhile, minor league teams have been dying in droves. Less than two weeks after winning the CHL championship last spring, the Bossier-Shreveport Mudbugs suspended operations. Whereas there were more than 100 minor-league hockey teams in the late 1990s, there are now 73.
Yet the Komets continue to thrive.
Their average attendance of 7,460 in the CHL last season was the highest among 18 teams and the sixth highest in franchise history.
The reasons for the Komets’ longevity are a mix of prudent planning, good fortune, having the right people in charge and, most of all, a symbiotic relationship between the organization and the fans.
Look at the vision that the three original owners had with Ramon Perry, Ernie Berg and Harold Van Orman in the late 1940s, when they looked at this whole deal, and when it all came into fruition in the fall of 1952, Komets President Michael Franke said.
In Fort Wayne, it was started at the grass-roots level. The building came out of the ground. It was an architectural wonder of its time, and it was something the community could get behind, and it was an affordable entertainment, too.
There were tough times in the 1950s, though, when the Komets had five coaches in six years.
That all changed in 1958 with the arrival of Ken Ullyot, who became a coach, general manager and owner with the Komets, overseeing their IHL titles in 1963, 1965 and 1973.
When they ran into the trouble, at the right moment, the quality of hockey here jumped fourfold when Ken Ullyot showed up, said Bob Chase, in his 59th season as the Komets’ broadcaster.
He brought in people no one had ever heard of. They were all competitive and all of a sudden, the entire focus turned around. And around the same time, the (NBA’s) Pistons left for Detroit (in 1957). I don’t think they were a factor; we were outdrawing them anyway.
Ullyot brought in Colin Lister, who became business manager and, ultimately, the Komets’ owner. He made sure the in-game presentation was geared toward families and that players and coaches interacted with the community.
People were really looking for something to identify with, Chase said. There was really nothing here to speak of at the time. There had been crazy adventures with football, roller derby, you name it. The consistent item was the Komets. They were legitimate, honest, and at the same time, give you your money’s worth.
The fans’ adoration kept them coming, even when the teams were bad, which was symptomatic of financial woes. David Welker bought the team out of bankruptcy in 1987 and moved it to Albany, N.Y., in 1990, before the Franke family almost immediately bought the defunct Flint Spirits and brought them to Fort Wayne to keep the Komets alive.
Even the owners that maybe some in the general public didn’t like, they still risked it. They still put their money on the line and kept this team going, Franke said. But the fans are at the top of totem pole because for generations, people have supported this hockey team.
With eight playoff championships, including four since 2003, the Komets have given the fans plenty to cheer about. And the fans have responded by packing the Coliseum; over the last four years, only Hershey and the Manitoba Moose, based in Winnipeg, which is now in the NHL, had consistently outdrawn the Komets in minor-league hockey.
Hockey will always be a part of the community in Fort Wayne – the fans, players and organization, said Jake Middaugh, 22, of Auburn. The whole Komets organization cares about the fans and community and will do anything to provide a competitive and entertaining hockey team.
Allen echoed those thoughts.
Many players talk about Fort Wayne being an amazing place to play because of the fans and the environment at the games, Allen said.
That environment has been created by great marketing and a great building. The longevity of the team here (led) to a shared identity across generations (and) gave way to the fans being more dedicated to their team than we see in other minor-league markets, likely rivaling major-league fans in that regard.