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Young Graham right man for job

The right coach at the right time, Michael Franke says.

And at the back of the room a door opens, and in walks the 28th coach in Fort Wayne Komets history, slaloming through the rows of chairs set up Tuesday in the Memorial Coliseum White Room. In walks No. 28, shaking a hand here and a hand there, a ripple of applause trailing him as he heads for the podium and the microphones and, most of all, the Big Chair.

Six years ago, Gary Graham was commuting back and forth between Fort Wayne and Indianapolis, where he was coaching a Tier 1 junior team. Now he’s the 28th head coach in Komets history – which is some weighty history, considering there’s six decades of it.

In other words: This is quite the heirloom they’ve dropped in Graham’s lap. And it’s fair to wonder if he’s up to caring for it.

And then someone brings up Pensacola, and you wonder no more.

Graham went down there last fall as head coach of the Southern Professional Hockey League’s Flyers after four years and three titles as former Komets coach Al Sims’ sturdy right arm, and some stuff happened. Right off the hop he had to tell Dan Buccella – the team’s captain and a candidate for the job Graham ultimately won – that his services would no longer be needed. Ditto Steve Christie, one of the SPHL’s top goalies.

Then along came the NHL lockout, with all the shuffling and re-shuffling of lineups it ignited up and down the hockey ladder. Then Leo Thomas, whom Graham brought with him as his handpicked team captain and player-coach, was involved in an altercation with fans and suspended for the season.

“That doesn’t happen very often to anybody in any league,” Graham said. “I could have sat in my office and really got down on it, but the reality of it was, it was out of our control.

“So the first thing I did, I brought in my two assistant captains and we formulated a game plan as to how we were gonna go forward. We found a way to have a new leadership core going forward, and my guys responded great.”

Graham, too, of course.

A man grows up in a hurry in the big chair when he has to stitch his entire leadership core back together in midseason, and when he has to go back to the captain he rejected and convince him to return for the playoffs. But he did it. The captain, Buccella, came back. He scored six goals and 11 points in 10 playoff games, and a few guys who’d gone up came back, and the Flyers wound up winning the SPHL President’s Cup.

And suddenly it didn’t matter quite so much that Graham was only 34 years old and had just five years of professional coaching experience.

You pull off what he pulled off in Pensacola – you command the kind of loyalty from your players that brings them back after their seasons are over elsewhere – and why not make him the 28th coach in Komets history?

Robbie Laird, after all, was just 30 years old when he took over the reins in 1985. Sims, who succeeded him, was only 36 when he went behind the bench. Four years later, he won the Turner Cup.

And now?

Now comes Graham: Young, driven, with more experience than either Laird or Sims had coming in. It’s fair to wonder how well he’ll recruit, but he didn’t have much problem finding players last year, and this year there’s no lockout. And as we have seen, guys want to play for him.

“(Fort Wayne) sent myself and John Dunbar back there, and Gary being there was a very, very pivotal part of wanting to go back down there,” Jeremy Gates said Tuesday. “Throughout the lockout and all the guys going up and down, he was always very, very honest with all of his players. As players at this level you’re expected to be a professional, and that’s the way he was.”

Right coach? Right time?

Sounds … right.

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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