Given the increase in COVID-19 cases, mounting restrictions on public gatherings and the reports today that the entire North Division has opted out of the coming season, it seems increasingly unlikely that the Komets will be able to play.
However, the team is still holding out hope that hockey will be at Memorial Coliseum.
The biggest issue may be the ECHL’s deadline of Nov. 30 for teams to declare if they are going to skate. According to Komets president Michael Franke, that cutoff date is simply too soon for the Komets to know if playing will even be possible. In essence, the ECHL may time Fort Wayne out unless the deadline is pushed back.
“Just based on the recent developments through the state and now locally, it would be very difficult for the Komets to make an affirmative decision by the end of November,” Franke said, alluding to the announcement Tuesday that public gatherings are capped at either 100 or 250 people, depending on whether Allen County is in the red or orange zone regarding the seriousness of the pandemic.
“We’re going to need more time. The pandemic is spiking. Obviously, that’s all the reason in the world to be given extra time.”
While some ECHL teams are slated to begin play Dec. 11, the Komets are scheduled to start Jan. 15.
The Komets and Memorial Coliseum received in October, from the Allen County Department of Health, approval for 3,830 fans per game. Even that number was well below the approximately 4,500 fans the Komets felt they needed to break even financially.
Now, just to get back to 3,830 capacity, they’ll have to reapply no more than 30 days before games are to be played, Franke said, and that application date would be more than two weeks after the ECHL’s opt-in deadline.
The Komets have been a Fort Wayne institution since 1952-53, though they haven’t played since March 11, when they had 10 games remaining in the regular season and led the ECHL’s 26 teams with average attendance of 8,090.
The Komets’ roster for this season seems loaded – they have 21 players signed, highlighted by Shawn Szydlowski, Marco Roy, Brett McKenzie, Zach Pochiro, A.J. Jenks and Anthony Petruzzelli – and they have an affiliation agreement with the NHL’s Vegas Golden Knights.
The teams in the North Division – the Newfoundland Growlers, Reading Royals, Brampton Beast, Maine Mariners, Adirondack Thunder and Worcester Railers – informed players Tuesday night they were opting out of the season. Their future was particularly complicated because of the Canadian teams, Newfoundland and Brampton, who would likely be unable to cross the border for games.
The Central Division, which includes Fort Wayne, Indy, Kalamazoo, Toledo, Cincinnati and Wheeling, also faces unique challenges from the upswing in COVID-19 cases and even travel restrictions on teams traveling state to state.
Indy and Wheeling are among the teams that had been slated to begin play Dec. 11.
Atlanta and Norfolk opted out of the season in October.
“I just don't think we would be able to make a good decision, a positive decision, on Nov. 30 based on what's going on right now,” Franke said.
If the Komets do play, they will have to do it in unique fashion with fans seated in pod systems throughout the arena. Fans accustomed to being near the ice surface every night may find themselves in the upper level some of the time.
Franke said the feedback he has received from season-ticket holders, through questionnaires, has been overwhelmingly supportive in understanding the challenges for the team in trying to play amid a pandemic. Unlike NHL teams, ECHL teams are generally considered small businesses. And unlike some other ECHL owners, the Franke family, which has the majority stake in Komets ownership, doesn’t have the resources to endure huge financial losses.
Additionally, the Komets get no share of parking or concessions revenue from the Coliseum. And the Komets also don’t profit off suite tickets, though those spectators, of course, count against the Department of Health’s capacity restrictions.
“To say that we are overwhelmed by the positive response from our season-ticket holders would be a huge understatement,” Franke said. “The loyalty of our season-ticket holders has been very humbling over the course of the last five or six weeks. When everything seems to be going bad, this situation occurs with our season-ticket holders and you realize, ‘OK, there’s a lot of good out there, too.’”