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Ben Smith

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Core leaders help K’s weather change

He’s the first guy you see, bumping through that door after too long away. Here’s the short hallway and here’s the arena and out there on the ice, framed in the open bench gate, is Komets defenseman Brent Henley, doing a little post-practice stretching.

He looks up. His eyes widen.

“Holy (bleep),” he says, or something like it.

And, OK, I get it, I haven’t been around in a while. But there’s irony here, thick as the rinkside chill: Henley’s the first Komet I see when I show up, and he’s about to be the next to disappear.

Before the day’s out the news will come that he’s headed to Cleveland for a stint with Lake Erie of the AHL, and welcome to coach Al Sims’ world and general manager David Franke’s world and every Komet’s world, in these most interesting of times. Henley goes, and Daniel Maggio – an ECHL All-Star defenseman summoned to Bridgeport of the AHL last week – is presumably on his way back. Leading scorer Brandon Marino and J.M. Rizk, meanwhile, are on loan to Norfolk of the AHL.

So far this season, 35 players have seen action in at least one game. Three goaltenders – Ken Reiter, Charlie Effinger and Marco Cousineau – have started at least seven games. Only Reiter, in 40 games, has started as many as 20.

Holy (bleep), indeed.

“Some guys, I bring them over here five or 10 minutes before the game and show them the systems, and they’ve got to try to take it in and do it,” Sims says. “You have to be resilient and realize that some nights you’re not going to have a strong lineup, and you might have to play a different way than you normally play because of that.”

And so far, not bad, all things considered. Forty games into their first ECHL season, the Komets stand second in the North Division, four points behind Cincinnati. They’re 21-17-1 and 5-3 so far in January, despite the constant lineup changes that are the lot of ECHL clubs, and a wholesale shakeup in the wake of the NHL settlement that added Brayden Metz, Nick Wheeler, Jeremy Gates, Ron Cramer, John Dunbar and Mike Hoban to the roster virtually in one gulp.

Sims credits the core leadership, the Henleys and Brett Smiths and Lincoln Kaleigh Schrocks and Colin Chaulks, and a still-developing ability to adapt. Franke says it helps, too, that the lockout has given everyone’s rosters a good shaking.

“We’ve had to find more players so far this year than we used all of last year,” he says. “But we’re not the only ones. Everybody in the league is facing that. I saw where Kalamazoo lost eight or nine guys, or maybe 10 guys.”

And yet here the Komets are, four games clear of .500 and four points out of first. And that’s because, strange and volatile as all of this is, certain bedrock truths remain.

Here, for instance, is Brett Smith, one of those core leaders Sims talked about. The Komets’ newest leading scorer, he’s played every forward position this year (“I’ve been all over the place,” he says), and with any number of linemates. And yet if change is constant these days, so are other things.

“One thing I’ve been trying to preach is we need to work hard,” Smith says. “It would be nice to have a set line to build some chemistry and play, but it is what it is and you’ve just got to keep grinding away. New guys are coming in like crazy, so there’s no time to find that chemistry. You’ve just got to come out and work hard every night.”

Whoever “you” happens to be, this time around.

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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