FORT WAYNE – It was 2002 and coach Greg Puhalski had settled on making newly signed center Colin Chaulk the Komets’ captain before he’d even come to town. I knew from his time with the UHL’s Missouri River Otters that Chaulk was a dynamic playmaker and tenacious defender. But I had no idea during my first interview with him that he’d morph into the greatest player in franchise history before his retirement Friday.
There was something about that first interview that stood out: Chaulk, 36, kept turning the interview around, asking what I thought about this and that, the Komets, the quality of the UHL, why a player of his skill set hadn’t moved up to a higher level.
I didn’t know if he was testing my hockey knowledge, or genuinely interested, but I think Chaulk wanted to glean information from me and then everyone else on what could get him his first championship, then his second, third and so on.
Not winning always seemed such a weight on his shoulders.
When he won his first Cup in 2003, you should have seen him the morning after, clutching the Colonial Cup while his wife, Jillian, ordered him to drink water to help his hangover. Chaulk and a post-Super Bowl Peyton Manning are the most relieved athletes I’ve seen in person.
Despite all the points Chaulk scored (684 in 578 games with Fort Wayne), it was his ability to get and use information that made him an exceptional leader. Chaulk discovered he had to push people’s buttons and practice what he preached.
He’s one of the rare guys that has the ability to demand respect from players. I would love to have that quality. But I don’t. It’s just something you have or you don’t, longtime teammate Nick Boucher said. I’ve played with skilled captains, but they didn’t want to do it themselves. Chaulker had a strong personality and was a skilled player, but he wasn’t above doing the third-line greasy hockey, the things he was preaching needed to be done.
Boucher butted heads with Chaulk for years. Everyone did to some extent. But as Chaulk was saying things like, Tired is for losers, and guaranteeing victories despite 3-1 series deficits, he was demanding excellence and he was going to get it.
It’s hard to fathom, but his playing career, which included five championships, five team MVP trophies (voted on by his teammates) and four leaguewide awards for being the best defensive forward, could have been even better.
He bottled it up well, but there were times his mortality showed and he even seemed scared.
In 2008, a MRSA staph infection in his foot got so bad, amputation was discussed, but he returned and won his second Cup.
In 2010, he left to play in Italy (he had been there in 2006-07), but the team hadn’t honored its financial bargain, his newborn daughter had to sleep in a bathroom and he felt he was letting his family down. He asked what I thought, and I told him, The Komets need you and you need the Komets, and he returned and took them from last place to the playoffs.
This year, he had another staph infection, from which he still hasn’t recovered. The nerves in his body are so ravaged that he has trouble using a remote control. He still tried to play, but for once, he wasn’t able to do all those things he preached.
No. 91 will go to the Memorial Coliseum rafters, but it’s hard to imagine he won’t coach in some capacity for the team someday, perhaps as an assistant next season. And he will demand excellence, he’ll just have to figure out how to do it from behind the bench.