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Ben Smith

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Samuel Hoffman | The Journal Gazette
Coach Al Sims says developing young players has always been essential to the Komets’ success.

With ECHL, expect more roster moves

– This pile of letters here, it isn’t anything with which you’re familiar. The letters are “E” and “C” and “H” and “L,” and, people, that doesn’t spell “CHL.” Nor does it spell “UHL” or “IHL,” either the 1.0 or 2.0 versions.

This ECHL is a whole other animal from that. Lesson No. 1 as the puck drops and the gloves come off season No. 61 today for the Fort Wayne Komets.

“We have to perform to stay here,” explains winger Chris Auger, who’s been in an ECHL camp or two.

“(The ECHL) is where all the good young players want to play,” says Al Sims, the venerable coach.

“You’ll always be up for change because you’ll never know what your roster is gonna look like,” says Colin Chaulk, the equally venerable captain.

And whether that is change you can believe in or change not to be believed, it is going to be change. Good or bad, lucky or unlucky.

“Komet fans will have to get used to seeing different faces coming in and out of their lineup,” Auger says.

And if that isn’t something anyone is accustomed to around this city’s most relentlessly status quo minor-league franchise, they’d all best get accustomed to it. Lesson No. 2.

“The vibe you get here is a lot more guys are more worried about positions,” Auger says. “They do know the turnover that can happen with guys being sent down, in comparison to the CHL, (where) if you make the team there’s a good chance you’ll spend the whole year here.”

So get ready for a bit more of a Mad Ants/TinCaps feel to everything, a necessary price for staying ahead of the game in an increasingly unstable landscape. The Komets have proved especially nimble at sensing where and when the ground was going to shift beneath their feet in that landscape, but this latest providential leap is nothing like the others.

Going from the United Hockey League to IHL 2.0 to the CHL was one thing, because the basic dynamic of those leagues was pretty much the same. Not so this time around.

“Here it’s more about an NHL/AHL kind of feeling, where you have to earn your spot week in and week out,” Auger says. “You get a feeling guys are coming in in a lot better shape, taking it a lot more serious – and that’s good, because hopefully that’ll translate to better performance on the ice and a better product for the fans.”

You can bank the latter like cash money. Partly that’s because there will be more defined prospects on the ice in this league, and partly it’s because, at least initially, the NHL lockout is expected to create a cascade effect that will raise the level of play that much more.

“I think the teams with two affiliations with the NHL right now, half the roster or more than half the roster will be American league players or American league borderline players,” Sims figures. “It’s gonna make teams really good at the start of the year.”

It also figures to put more of a premium on the coach-as-teacher, although that’s not a universally held opinion.

Sims points out that developing young players has always been an essential component in the Komets’ success; Chaulk figures that’s going to be an even bigger piece of the puzzle in the ECHL.

“It’s gonna be difficult for the coaching staff because you’re gonna be constantly teaching and re-teaching,” he says. “Guys who are moving in and out, (you’re) trying to get them to buy into what you’re selling.”

And what is that, exactly?

Ten more letters.

We shall see.

Ben Smith has been covering sports in Fort Wayne since 1986. His columns appear four times a week. He can be reached by email at bensmith@jg.net; phone, 461-8736; or fax 461-8648.

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