The chances of the Komets playing this season improved Monday when the ECHL’s Board of Governors and the Professional Hockey Players’ Association approved a plan for the Komets and their biggest rival, the Toledo Walleye, to target February starts.
Both teams had been gearing toward Jan. 15 openers for almost two months.
The hope is that more time will give the coronavirus pandemic more time to settle down, increase the chances that a vaccine becomes readily available, and limit potential financial losses for the ECHL’s most watched teams. Last season, Fort Wayne averaged a league-best 8,090 fans and Toledo was second with 7,448 per game.
“This pandemic is changing every day, but we are encouraged by the vaccine news, and what the landscape could look like two months from now,” Komets president Michael Franke. “We are pleased to be given the opportunity for that chance to play (this) season, and we are doing everything in our power to investigate over the next few weeks if that can happen in a safe way.”
The Komets also beefed up their roster by signing defenseman Mathieu Brodeur, 30, a third-round draft pick of the NHL’s Arizona Coyotes in 2008, who skated last season in Slovakia.
Enthusiasm over the possibility of a season was tempered by announcements Monday by division-rivals Kalamazoo and Cincinnati that they were opting out along with the Idaho Steelheads.
“This decision for our clubs was immensely difficult amidst the everchanging landscape of the COVID-19 pandemic and the inability to return to play throughout our various jurisdictions,” ECHL commissioner Ryan Crelin said in a news release. “We look forward to returning fans and ECHL hockey in these great markets as they shift their focus to the 2021-22 Season.”
Eleven of the ECHL’s 26 teams – including Atlanta, Norfolk, Newfoundland, Reading, Brampton, Maine, Adirondack and Worcester – have now opted out.
“Today is a difficult day for all of us in the K-Wings organization, including our players, coaches and front office staff members” Kalamazoo coach Nick Bootland said.
Komets officials stressed that the new target date is so they can exhaust every avenue to try and get a season in, but it is not by any means now assured they will play.
Thirteen ECHL teams are slated to begin play this week on 72-game schedules. Among those teams are the Indy Fuel and Wheeling Nailers, members of the Central Division with Fort Wayne, Toledo, Kalamazoo and Cincinnati.
If the Komets play, presumably around 50 games, most games would be against Toledo, Indy and Wheeling because ECHL teams are trying to limit the number of long road trips that would require hotel stays amid the pandemic.
Walleye coach Dan Watson said, per his team’s website: “We are grateful to be given the opportunity to play and understand this season will be like no other. During this time, I will continue to work with the ECHL to ensure our return to the Huntington Center is done with the utmost adherence to the health and safety protocols necessary for our team's well-being.”
The Komets were approved to have 3,830 fans per game by the Allen County Department of Health in October, a number well short of the roughly 4,500 fans the Komets feel they need to break even financially. However, COVID-19 cases have dramatically increased since October and Allen County public gatherings are capped at 100 people. The Komets cannot apply for 3,830 fans again until 30 days before games would begin at Memorial Coliseum.
The Komets have 23 players signed for this season, highlighted by Shawn Szydlowski, A.J. Jenks, Marco Roy and Fort Wayne-natives Blake Siebenaler and Jackson Leef.
Brodeur, 6-foot-5, 215 pounds, has significant experience in the ECHL and higher-level American Hockey League. That includes 48 games in 2017-18 with Adirondack, for which he had four goals and 29 points in 48 games.
"He has carved out a career specializing on the penalty kill and, offensively, he is not afraid to join the rush,” coach Ben Boudreau said. “Mathieu is extremely tough to play against and can often be counted on in all defensive situations.”