Gary Graham dreamed of being a head coach in the professional ranks, even if he hadn’t played the game at a particularly high level, so he arrived at the team’s offices in 2008 to ask for a job.
It took some guts, since the Komets were just coming off a championship in the IHL, his coaching experience was limited to high school and juniors, and the man whom he wanted to shadow, Al Sims, had coached in the NHL.
But the Komets took on Graham that year, and he helped them to three championships during four seasons in the IHL and CHL.
And after a year away, winning a championship with Pensacola of the Southern Professional Hockey League, he’s back with the Komets – as their new head coach.
The Komets introduced Graham today at a news conference at Memorial Coliseum, the building in which he grew up watching the Komets play.
Graham was a standout player at North Side, and also played Tier II junior hockey in Pittsburgh and Bismarck, N.D.. Realizing his career would stall at that level, he opened a pyrotechnics business in Fort Wayne and began coaching Snider in 2002.
He was a fiery personality, which sometimes rubbed players and parents the wrong way, and Graham learned maybe he’d be a better coach for older players. He went on to coach North Side and a couple of the Indiana Ice’s junior teams before he took Sims to lunch in 2008 and got the job as an unpaid assistant with the Komets.
“He's a bright kid and takes everything in like a sponge,” Sims said not long after that first meeting.
Soon Graham was doing video work, breaking down opponents’ tendencies and preparing scouting reports. Before long, he was in charge of the power-play unit. By 2012, as the Komets were en route to the CHL title, Sims would sometime cede him control of the bench and let Graham run the show.
After being considered for a few jobs at AA hockey – most notably with Bloomington of the CHL – he accepted the Pensacola job last summer and wasted no time in making his mark.
He got rid of Pensacola captain Dan Buccella, replacing him with former Fort Wayne player Leo Thomas, and Graham also got rid of arguably the best goalie in the SPHL, Steve Christie.
After Thomas was suspended for the season for hitting a fan, Graham brought Buccella back and led the Ice Flyers to a 33-18-5 record for the No. 3 seed in the playoffs. They went 6-1 in the postseason and won the President’s Cup.
On that team were John Dunbar, Ron Cramer and Jeremy Gates, all of whom had played in the regular season with Fort Wayne, which missed the postseason for the first time since 2002.
After the season ended March 30, Sims decided to retire, even though he had won five championships with Fort Wayne dating back to 1993, including four since 2008.
The Komets got about 20 applications for the attractive job – the team drew 7,582 fans last season, most in the ECHL and sixth-most in all of minor-league hockey – and six of them got interviewed by general manager David Franke.
Graham will be in charge of overhauling the Komets, who went 33-35-4 in the first year of an affiliation with the NHL’s Anaheim Ducks. Captain Colin Chaulk has retired, citing health issues, and no players are under contract for next season.