FORT WAYNE – For almost all of the Komets, it will be a new experience stepping on to the Memorial Coliseum ice, with the weight of the storied fireball logo and the expectations of the ECHL’s largest fan base weighing them down.
Only six players return from last season – the Komets went 33-35-4 and missed the playoffs – and the quest for redemption begins with the team’s 62nd season opener Saturday against the Toledo Walleye.
I’m very excited. We’ve got a whole new cast of characters, general manager David Franke said. I’m very excited for the new players we have and for them to get a chance to see what Fort Wayne’s all about. They’ll get a chance on Saturday night to play in front of over 10,000 fans. Almost everybody on our team is new this year, so that should be an exciting thing for them.
Forwards Brandon Marino, Lincoln Kaleigh Schrock, Chris Auger, Matt Firman and John Dunbar, along with defenseman Jeremy Gates, are back from last season.
After a season in Europe, 2012 Playoff MVP Mike Vaskivuo, a forward, has returned. So has defenseman Nick Tuzzolino, who began his professional career with Fort Wayne in 2007.
They will be guided by Gary Graham, an assistant coach with the Komets from 2008 to 2012, who was hired as head coach after leading Pensacola to last season’s Southern Professional Hockey League title. He replaced Al Sims, who resigned after leading the Komets to four championships in his last six seasons.
Graham has promised the Komets will play an exciting, puck-possession style of hockey, and they will be physical.
The guys who are here are going to do what needs to be done, and part of that includes playing physical and showing you’re not going to back down, said Marino, who was selected MVP by his teammates last season.
The Komets have an impressive goaltending tandem of John Muse, who won two NCAA championships with Boston College and the 2012 ECHL title with Florida, and Cody Reichard, a native of Celina, Ohio.
The revamped defensive corps boasts the 6-foot-7 Simon Danis-Pepin, the 6-6 Tuzzolino and playmaker Rob Kwiet.
And the new forwards include Dallas Stars prospect Tristan King, former Alaska star Bobby Hughes and speedster Mickey Lang, who was Marino’s linemate with Quad City of the CHL.
There’s plenty on which the Komets must improve from last season: their record at the Coliseum was 16-20-0, despite a league-best attendance average of 7,582; their power play ranked last among the ECHL’s 23 teams at 13 percent efficiency; and the penalty killers were 20th at 80.1 percent.
In the preseason, which culminated with last Saturday’s 6-2 victory over Wheeling, the Komets won two of three games and were led in scoring by Auger (three goals and five points), Dunbar (three goals and four points) and Scott Fleming (one goal and three points).
Since then, the Komets have worked on installing Graham’s systems and improving on special teams.
There are still a lot of things we’ve got to work on, like just overall talk and communication, Graham said. We’ve got to work on the systems and we (have had) a lot of video this week, a lot of teaching and working on the details in practice.
Come Saturday, the Komets hope to have new TV monitors set up in the locker room so players can keep tabs on the extensive pregame ceremonies and, as Franke said, get charged up a little bit before the game starts.
If they win, which didn’t happen often last season, the fans will be charged up, too.