Shawn Szydlowski hasn’t been on Memorial Coliseum ice since March 11. To say he was gleeful about Tuesday’s announcement the Komets will play this season would be an understatement.
“I don’t even think there’s a number for (my excitement), to be honest. It’s just through the roof,” said Szydlowski, the longest-tenured player, entering his eighth season. “It’s obviously been a long year for us and for everybody. Just the way I’d sum it up: To finally get some good news out of this whole situation means the world to all of us.”
While the Komets lost some player commitments in recent days – including defenseman Bobby Shea, who retired – it beefed up its impressive-looking roster by signing Justin Vaive, Anthony Nellis and Austin McIlmurray on Tuesday.
With only 14 of the ECHL’s 26 teams participating, and three teams in the higher-level American Hockey League bowing out, the ECHL’s talent level is perhaps higher than ever before. The Komets don’t expect to get players from their parent club, the Vegas Golden Knights, because NHL roster sizes have been increased, but Fort Wayne’s 22-man squad features A.J. Jenks, Marco Roy, Zach Pochiro, Mason Bergh, Blake Siebenaler and Jackson Leef.
“Unfortunately, we can’t sell the building out (despite) the product we’re going to have on the ice,” Szydlowski said. “I mean, it’s going to be unbelievable. I had this conversation with my parents today: I don’t care who I play with; there’s not a bad option on the team. First to third line, there’s not really going to be a number on any of those things this year. … It’s going to be a one-time thing. You’re not going to get this same product even next year, anywhere in the league. It’s going to be something to see.”
The Komets, who averaged a league-best 8,090 fans last season, have been approved by the Allen County Department of Health to have 2,619 fans per game when their season begins the weekend of Feb. 12. The Komets will skate a 50-game season. The 13 teams that already began play will skate 72 games apiece. It’s unknown if the ECHL will hold a postseason.
Vaive, a 31-year-old forward, had 21 goals and 35 points in 58 games last season for Cincinnati, which opted out of this season.
“Justin will be a big part of this hockey club. He’s been a pain in our side for years and has scored a million goals against us,” Komets general manager David Franke said. “So now we’ve got him on our side and it reminds me of when Scotty Gruhl came here in 1990 to be with us (after years with Muskegon).”
In 2017-18, Vaive racked up 32 goals and 45 points in just 48 games.
“Justin is just a beast of a hockey player on the ice, a true professional, a leader, and somebody that will make a difference every time he steps on the ice,” Komets coach Ben Boudreau said. “He brings a very mature element to the way he approaches the game and makes everyone around him better, both on and off the ice.”
Nellis, 26, had five goals and eight points in 10 games for the Komets, when he was fresh out of Lake Superior State, in 2019. Last season, the center had 15 goals and 29 points in 47 games for Idaho.
McIlmurray, 24, was a forward last season with Sacred Heart University, accruing 18 goals and 32 points in 34 games.
Along with Shea, the Komets have also lost forward Luke Boka, who will play college hockey in Canada, Franke said.
Szydlowski noted that there are “pros and cons” to starting the season two months after the other 13 ECHL teams, and that he’s “looking forward to seeing how we stack up because it’s going to be great competition. Everyone’s going to have stacked rosters, no matter who we play this year. It’s really going to be probably the hardest this league is ever going to be.”