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Ben Smith

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Michelle Davies | The Journal Gazette
Former Komets assistant coach Gary Graham helped lead the Pensacola Ice Flyers to a title in the Southern Professional Hockey League in his first season.

Ex-K’s coach finds glory down south

– So another spring has come around, and the view has not changed. Here again are the hockey players sprawled on the ice. Here again is the silver cup in their midst, about to be filled with delicious adult beverages.

Someone raises a camera. A motor drive whirs. Hang it on the wall with the rest of the posterity, boys.

Hang it in the offices where Gary Graham will see it, and where it will produce memories as comfortable as a pair of broken-in shoes. Another spring, another Cup: This is the natural order of things, right?

“Four in five years,” Graham says across the miles, chuckling in delight.

The only difference this time is the location.

The difference this time is Graham is talking at you from Pensacola, Fla., where the Ice Flyers have just won the Southern Professional Hockey League title. Won the finals two games to one, shutting out Huntsville (Ala.) 2-0 in the deciding game. Did it with a bunch of kids and a stalwart veteran, and more on that later.

For now, allow Graham, a Fort Wayne native, to bask a little in his first season in the big chair, after years of learning at the feet of Al Sims. Fifty players came and went for Pensacola this season, and somehow the Ice Flyers won anyway. Leo Thomas, the former Komet who was Graham’s handpicked team captain, was suspended for the season for his part in a brawl that got into the stands. Ryan Raven, a right wing who scored 18 goals and 36 points in 42 games, went down with an injury in March.

Somehow they won anyway.

“I had the hardest-working group of guys,” says Graham, whose team never lost more than two games in a row. “I was very fortunate to have a great group of guys your first year as a head coach. No egos at all, no cliques. It was a very unique ride.”

More than he could have imagined.

At the beginning of the season, for instance, Graham had the uncomfortable job of telling incumbent team captain Dan Buccella he wasn’t going to be asked back. Graham had his own guy, after all, and Buccella, a 29-year-old left wing, had actually interviewed for the Pensacola coaching job. And Graham didn’t think that dynamic would work.

Then Thomas was gone, suddenly. And suddenly Graham was reaching out to Buccella – who, to complete the strangeness, had been his son’s youth hockey coach.

“I said, ‘Dan, you’ve got to realize we want you here,’ ” Graham said. “ ‘I got four guys on my team right now that played with you last year and that you led.’ ”

And so Buccella came back. Graham made him an alternate captain, and Buccella became the sensation of the playoffs, scoring 11 points and six goals in 10 games.

It was validation, of sorts, for the philosophy Graham learned in Fort Wayne: That character and locker room chemistry matter almost as much as talent.

“That was the biggest thing I learned form David (Franke) and Al,” Graham says. “I felt the common denominator was the class and character of the guys you were recruiting.”

And now?

“I’m proud of the championship,” Graham says. “But I really feel like the biggest thing I wanted to do down here was create a culture where the winning perpetuates itself. It’s about repeating. It’s about doing it over and over again.”

Better clear some more wall space.

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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