By Justin A. Cohn
The people of Fort Wayne didn’t quite know what to make of this new game ice hockey, while most of the Komets’ first players couldn’t even find Fort Wayne on a map.
But the 1952 marriage between professional hockey and The Summit City would prove to be an unbreakable one – the Komets are going strong in their 54th season.
"Muncie (Indiana), at one point, had a team in the (International Hockey League), and that’s where some of the guys thought they were going," said George Drysdale, the Komets’ leading-scorer in its inaugural season.
The Komets’ original owners were Ernie Berg and Harold Van Orman. Berg wanted the name of his team to describe speed, flash and excitement. Komets was spelled with a "K" to honor Berg’s wife, named Kathryn.
Playing professional hockey in a new arena like 8,003-seat Memorial Coliseum proved to be an exhilarating and daunting task, but it didn’t take long for the first-year Komets to appreciate the Fort Wayne fans.
Two days before the Komets’ first game in the IHL was skated, an exhibition was put on at Memorial Coliseum for fans to get their first glimpse of hockey. The 14,000 ticket requests couldn’t be met.
"Oh, yeah, I think all of us were kind of awestruck in having a sellout that night," said Eddie Long, the team’s second-leading scorer its first season. "Just to adjust to all the splendor and glamour down here."
The Komets lost their first game 4-0 to the Toledo Mercurys, in front of 4,956 on Oct. 25, 1952, at Memorial Coliseum.
Long, who would skate 858 games with Fort Wayne, was an integral player that first season. He tallied 31 goals and 52 points in 60 games for coach Alex Wood.
But it wasn’t easy for Long – he was accustomed to 30-game seasons from junior hockey, and his body had to adjust to skating in a heated arena. Long was also the youngest of the players by several years and, to find others his own age, Long hung out with students from Central Catholic High School.
The Komets’ first goal came from Drysdale on Oct. 28, 1952, a 6-5 loss to Grand Rapids.
Drysdale, then 25, had been a first-team all-star the season before, with the Chatham Maroons. His request for a raise was refused, so he accepted an invitation from Wood to join the Komets for $125 a week.
"I was probably one of the highest-paid guys (with the Komets)," Drysdale said. "As a matter of fact, you know, all I wanted in Chatham was $10 more a week. And they wouldn’t come through. Can you believe that? But that was back in those days."
Drysdale tallied 31 goals and 59 points in 55 games during the Komets’ inaugural season.
The Komets’ first victory came Nov. 5, 1952, 6-5 over Grand Rapids, after Vic DeMarco’s game-winning goal. The Komets finished in fifth place of the six-team IHL with a 20-38-2 record in 1952-53.
But the first-year Komets left a positive impression on the Fort Wayne fans, thanks largely to Wood, who had coached Toledo to the IHL’s championship in 1951-52. Wood, an ex-goalie with the NHL’s Chicago Blackhawks, emphasized toughness in his lone season with the Komets.
"Really, our first coach sort of set the precedent physically. Not fighting ... just to be aggressive," Long said. "We had players who could really dig in the corners."
The Komets formed a particularly fierce rivalry with the Cincinnati Mohawks, who had elite players like Don Marshall and Del Topoll.
"You know what, those games with Cincinnati were some of the finest games ever played in (Memorial Coliseum)," Drysdale said.
"I think that first-year team had a lot to do with the success of the hockey here in town, because the people took to the guys."
Throughout the years, many of the rivalries changed, but one thing didn’t: The Komets’ habit of success. The team won the Turner Cup as IHL champions in 1963, 1965, 1973.
By the 1990s, however, the team’s viability was severely in doubt.
In the summer of 1990, then-owner David Welker moved the franchise to Albany, N.Y., and it appeared professional hockey in Fort Wayne was dead. But that same summer, the Fort Wayne-groomed Franke brothers, with Stephen putting up the bulk of the money, purchased the defunct Flint Spirits franchise. They moved that team to Fort Wayne, bought the Komets moniker from Welker and kept this town in hockey and in the IHL.
"I grew up with the Komets and we grew up with hockey and you get kind of a passion for it and like it," said Stephen Franke, who now lives in Chillicothe, Mo., and is the chief executive officer of Midwest Quality Gloves.
He remains the owner of the Komets today, with his brother Michael as team president and David as general manager. They run the team’s operations locally.
The Frankes were rewarded for saving the Komets when they won the 1993 Turner Cup, the team’s last championship in the IHL.
In 1999, after bleeding money for several seasons in the IHL, which had become overrun by big-market teams and high-priced players, the Komets moved to the lower-level UHL. Two years later, the IHL folded.
The Komets had reached 12 playoff finals during their 47 seasons in the IHL, and they qualified for the postseason a league-best 40 times during that span. In the IHL, the Komets won 33-of-69 playoff series (not including three series ties they had in a round-robin format).
Fort Wayne has enjoyed even more success in the UHL. It has made the playoffs in 5-of-6 seasons, winning the Colonial Cup in 2003 with a 4-1 series victory over the Quad City Mallards.
In 2004, after winning their second-straight regular-season championship, the Komets were swept in the Western Conference Finals by the Muskegon Fury, who went on to win the playoff championship.
In 2005, the Komets reached the Colonial Cup Finals for a second time, but they were ousted by the Fury again, this time 4-1.
After the Komets bowed out of the 2006 playoffs with a first-round loss to Rockford, a new era was ushered in when coach Greg Puhalski left after six seasons to coach the UHL’s Chicago Hounds and Pat Bingham was hired to take his place.
Promising a style that will be both physical and high-scoring, Bingham has brought a new level of excitement to the Fort Wayne fans.
While many things have changed through the years, one thing has remained a constant – Memorial Coliseum has always been the Komets’ home.
Recent renovations have made it one of the premier venues in all of hockey, and the franchise-record crowd of 10,593 that saw the Komets win the Colonial Cup in 2003 is a testament to atmosphere the Fort Wayne faithful can create for a hockey game.
Who would have thought back in 1952 that Fort Wayne would have become this kind of hockey town?