The Journal Gazette
Tuesday, January 05, 2021 4:40 pm

'Fireball is back': Komets to play this season

JUSTIN A. COHN | The Journal Gazette

It almost certainly won’t be profitable to play amid a pandemic with a truncated regular season. And there may not even be hope of capturing a Kelly Cup, since the ECHL hasn’t yet determined if there will be a postseason.

But Fort Wayne has had professional hockey every season since 1952 and the Franke family, majority owners of the Komets, didn’t want that string to end and said they wanted to give the local community much-needed sports entertainment.

So, the team announced Tuesday that the 69th season of Komets hockey will begin the weekend of Feb. 12th and a 50-game regular season will be played.

Thirteen of the ECHL’s teams began play on 72-game seasons in December and the other 12 teams have opted out.

“A little over 30 years ago, the Franke family stood up in the (Memorial Coliseum) lounge and made the announcement that we were taking over the hockey club and bringing back old-time hockey and the orange, black and the white colors. Now … we’re here to say that hockey is back in Fort Wayne,” said general manager David Franke, whose team hasn’t skated since March 11.

“Like the legendary phoenix, the Komet fireball will now rise from the ashes of the COVID pandemic and once again fly over the city of Fort Wayne, the ECHL and the hockey world. The fireball is back and that’s good for everybody.”

CEO Stephen Franke made the ultimate decision on playing, even though there are only two teams, the Indy Fuel and Wheeling Nailers, within 300 miles of Fort Wayne because division-rivals Toledo, Kalamazoo and Cincinnati have opted out.

“After thirty years of ownership, we’ve made a decision to resume play based on the cooperation of the Coliseum, the direction of the ECHL and for the opportunity for the community to support the Komets in these awful times,” Stephen Franke said. “We hope the protocols established will make it a safe environment for the fans, players and the staff of the Komet Hockey team. We know this will be different than any other situation we’ve experienced in the three decades of ownership, so let me say, ‘It’s time to play Komet Hockey!’”

The Allen County Department of Health has approved a plan for 2,619 fans to attend games, seated in a pod system, and that is well below the Komets’ ECHL-leading attendance average of 8,090 from last season and the roughly 4,500 fans the team had stated in the fall it needed to break even financially.

Season tickets will not be honored this season – there are roughly 3,300 such people – though those in good standing will have an early window during which they can purchase single-game tickets.

The majority of the Komets’ staff has been furloughed since September and the Komets expect to lose money this season, though they are hopeful that money from the government’s Paycheck Protection Program will help alleviate losses. The Komets are also hoping to limit the amount of travel for financial and safety reasons, though Toledo’s decision Tuesday to opt out has made that more challenging. After Indy and Wheeling, Kansas City is the next closest opponent at 597 miles away.

“To say this is a financial problem would be an understatement. I’m not going to speak for the (Coliseum), but I’m sure they would feel the same way,” team president Michael Franke said. “But there is definitely a feeling that this is something that we all felt compelled to do for the community.”

The Komets’ roster, with big names such as Shawn Szydlowski, A.J. Jenks, Marco Roy and just-added Justin Vaive, looks particularly strong. However, given the increased roster sizes of NHL teams this season, the Komets don’t plan on receiving any players from their parent club, the Vegas Golden Knights.

Training camp will likely begin Jan. 31. There will be no preseason games.

Coliseum general manager Randy Brown said: “The safety of our staff, the players, guests, each other, is paramount.” Fans will experience a primarily touch-free experience at the Coliseum, where parking can now be paid for with credit cards; there will be grab-and-go concessions; and improvements have been made to the amount of outside air circulated into the building and to sanitization. Fans will be expected to have their temperatures checked, participate in contact tracing and sit only with those from their own households.

David Franke said “it will take a big commitment” from the team to remain in a “semi-bubble” and prevent any COVID-19 outbreaks and that fans can do their part by being diligent wearing masks, except for while eating, at the Coliseum.

“It’s going to take all of us to put this together and make it work,” David Franke said. “It’s an exciting time, a busy time. But hockey’s back in Fort Wayne and the Komets are flying high. I’m anxious to get going and I hope all of you are, too.”

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