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Komets at Toledo
Faceoff: 7 p.m. Friday
Radio: WOWO, 1190-AM
Hockey players love the mantra, "Will beats skill,'' but what they actually mean is that team chemistry, being the players who want to win the most, can overcome almost any disadvantage.
But how does a team build that chemistry, that will to pull together so they can beat adversity? As much as they know it works, no one really knows how to make it in the first place.
The Fort Wayne Komets have always been known as a team with great chemistry, and it's a big reason why they have won four championships in five years. Not even they have a formula for creating that bond within a team.
"There isn't a correct answer, but it's learning how to come together when you are down 4-1 or up 4-1, on and off the ice,'' veteran forward Brett Smith said. "It's all a mindset. Guys have to learn to buy in, learn to win in situations and battle for each other through thick and thin.''
Sure, locker room togetherness is built on a lot of cliches, but cliches often have some truth involved.
"Chemistry comes from having good like-minded teammates, guys who want to win and realize you have to work hard to do it,'' veteran defenseman Brent Henley said. "I don't think there's a formula to it other than getting guys who think the same.''
Komets coach Al Sims says the way to do that is by researching players during the summer when he and General Manager David Franke are recruiting for the next season's roster. They've been known to call every coach a player has had from juniors through all of his professional career.
"You try to get people with character who have been leaders on other teams, making sure there are no checkered pasts, where he's been a bad guy somewhere and is selfish,'' Sims said. "Our guys don't like guys like that. You want to get as many good people in here as you can and hopefully they all meld together, but you have a much better chance with good people. The guys we retained are all good people.''
And what happens to players with bad attitudes who might slip through?
"Guys who don't buy into team systems stand out as individuals and a lot of times don't end up on the team, or you see those guys are playing on three or four teams a year,'' Smith said. "Guys like that travel around.''
The Komets believe the biggest factor is attracting players who are willing to follow the leaders the team already has in Colin Chaulk, Kaleigh Schrock, Henley and Smith. That's one reason they were so aggressive last summer going after players like Tyler Butler, Eric Giosa and Brandon Marino who had been leaders and captains with other teams.
Then the returning players help the new players learn their way around town; the wives and girlfriends pitch in to answer questions and help cook for team gatherings. Along with team events like bowling and barbecues, there are dozens of lunches after practices so everyone can get to know each other away from the ice.
"I think it's important for the guys to get to know me away from the rink and realize I'm not always this way,'' Sims said. ``I'm just a normal person like them.''
Often, there are adult beverages involved.
"There are always two or three guys who do something inappropriate and you can talk about that most of the season,'' Chaulk said with a grin. "No one really knows. The quiet guy looks like he goes to church three times a week, and he might have a flask of whiskey in his jacket.''
A long road trip early in the season doesn't hurt, either, because everyone is stuck on the bus for a long time. Often teams will mix up roommate assignments on road trips to help introduce everyone.
More than any off-the-ice activity, the biggest thing, the Komets all say, is playing together on the ice. The players may not always hang out together after practice, but on the ice they all must react as if they are family.
"Especially with new guys, you have to give them encouragement right away and let them know you like them and support them,'' Schrock said. "Then they'll be on our side, too. It's a lot of communication really.''
Chemistry can't be forced, and it must be rebuilt every season no matter how many players are returning. There are always new players to be hooked into the team dynamic.
"You have to do your part,'' forward Chris Auger said. "Everyone is responsible for themselves, and you have to hold yourself accountable first, and then you can hold your teammates accountable on and off the ice. It's always a team thing.
"The biggest thing we're trying to accomplish this year that we had last year is that it's a team environment wherever you go. Not everyone has to like each other, but you're going to have that person's back and that's where it starts.''
That's how the trust starts, which eventually builds into chemistry.