The Komets’ coach, Ben Boudreau, was optimistic his team would win a Kelly Cup this season.
We’ll never know what might have happened.
“I don’t think that part has even set in yet. This is all too real and you’re going through it,” Boudreau said Saturday, after the ECHL’s 9 p.m. announcement it was canceling the remainder of the season.
“Once you get a few days away and guys have left town, I’m sure you’ll sit down and the shock will actually set in. Right now, it just doesn’t feel real. It’s tough to describe any sort of emotion, but you just worry about the guys getting home. Me, my wife and my son, we all live here, but you want everybody else to get home safe to their families, too.”
The ECHL had suspended play on Thursday afternoon because of COVID-19. The decision to cancel the season came after a day’s worth of conference calls between member teams, the ECHL office and the players’ association.
“It’s a sad day. In our 30 years (of owning the team), we’ve never not been playing on March 14,” Komets president Michael Franke said. “It is very, very strange and the entire circumstance of why we’re not playing is obviously scary. You just see that going around town each day, going to the drug store or the grocery store or whatever. It’s just a very scary time. I think this was the only decision that we can make.”
The ECHL’s commissioner, Ryan Crelin, wrote in press release: “The decision by the ECHL to cancel the remainder of the 2019-20 season does not come lightly, as this is an emotional time for our players, coaches, member teams, fans and staff. At this point in the season, there has been immense dedication and countless hours committed in moving towards what is traditionally the most exciting part of the hockey year.”
The Komets, who were in their 68th year of play, had 10 games remaining in their 72-game regular season.
“I think everybody was more or less leaning toward this happening,” Boudreau said. “But ultimately, it’s the nail in the coffin. First and foremost, you’ve got to start thinking about your players and what to do next. What’s the next step? I think our first priority is a guy like Alan Lyszczarczyk and trying to (potentially) get him to Europe with travel bans already in effect. We’ve got to have exit meetings, we’ve got to have physicals, and get travel in place, and it’s all going to happen pretty quick here.”
The Komets, who were 31-23-8, were poised to make the playoffs for a seventh straight year, as they chased their first title since 2012 in the Central Hockey League and their first since joining the ECHL later that year.
The Komets led the 26-team ECHL in average attendance with 8,090 fans per game, including an announced crowd of 6,637 Wednesday when they defeated the Wichita Thunder 7-2, paced by Brady Shaw’s and Brett McKenzie’s two goals apiece.
Fort Wayne still had six games to be played at Memorial Coliseum in the regular season and was poised to have at least two home games in the postseason. The loss of revenue will be significant, especially for teams less financially stable as the Komets, and some teams may not recover.
“This is a major blow to any team in the ECHL,” Franke said. “What are we losing? Six home games? It’s a major blow, you know, but it’s one of those things that, in all honesty, every business in the country for the most part is going to be facing with similar hardships because of the circumstance.”
Franke wouldn’t guess as to the financial impact for his team, other than to say: “It’s a considerable amount of revenue that will be lost over the next several weeks. Also, realize that we would have qualified for the playoffs, too.”
The two professional leagues above the ECHL, the NHL and American Hockey League, were still in a state of suspension, not cancellation, of their seasons Saturday night. So, too, was the lower-level Southern Professional Hockey League.
Information is still to come on what the Komets' fans with unused tickets can do. Information will come from the points of purchase, namely the Komets, the Coliseum or TicketMaster.
Shaw ranked seventh in ECHL scoring with 27 goals and 62 points in 48 games. McKenzie had 23 goals and 60 points in 56 games. Shawn Szydlowski had 15 goals and 56 points in 55 games. Lyszczarczyk was fifth among ECHL rookies in scoring with 19 goals and 46 points in 57 games.
The Komets had the league’s seventh-ranked offense (3.52 goals per game), the top-ranked power play (25.5%), and led the ECHL in penalty minutes (16.8 per game).
Neither Franke nor the ECHL fully explained the timing of the decision. Players were still drawing salaries Saturday – though some teams were allegedly not wanting to comply with that without incoming revenue – but continuing the season was considered a long shot after Thursday’s suspension of play happened.
“(Each) passing day raises additional concerns for the safety of those in the ECHL community and as we take precautionary measures in conjunction with our local authorities across the continent to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, it has become apparent that this is the prudent decision,” Crelin wrote.
“Our game and our product are based on our fans and their ability to cheer on their favorite ECHL team and players at one of our many facilities around the continent. Without that social environment and game atmosphere, the ECHL simply isn’t the same.”
The Komets will not hold their annual end-of-season party and jersey auction, which had taken place in all 30 years of the Franke family's ownership and is normally attended by hundreds of fans and all the players.
“On behalf of the ECHL and our Board of Governors, we appreciate the Professional Hockey Players’ Association for their assistance during this unprecedented time and working as partners in hockey to reach this decision for the best interest of the ECHL and its Players,” Crelin wrote. “This decision allows our players the opportunity to return to their homes and removes the uncertainty that currently exists.
“While we are hopeful that this period ceases and an opportunity to return to normalcy for the hockey calendar presents itself, in the interim, we ask all fans, players, coaches, officials, and staff to continue to abide by the measures put in place by their local authorities and follow precautionary protocols for their safety, as we will begin preparations for the 2020-21 ECHL hockey season.”