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Toledo at Komets
Face-off: 7:30 p.m. Saturday
Radio: WOWO, 1190-AM
Many people figure Gary Graham must be so far over his head he'll need a decompression chamber once he comes up.
His playing experience is limited at best, it's only a handful of years since he was coaching high school hockey and this is his first pro coaching job at a Class AA or higher level. He's only a few years older than some of his players, for goodness' sake!
Even the guy who gave him his first coaching stint was shocked when Graham got the job, yes or no?
"Yes and no,'' former Komets star Doug Rigler said. "The only part on 'yes' was I didn't know if he would get the opportunity this soon. I thought it still might be held against him that he hadn't had that much head coaching experience. The 'no' part of it is I knew he was ready and well-prepared to do the job. I never had any doubt that he was ready and would outwork anyone in it. I just didn't know if he would get that chance yet.''
Which is where the critics say he got the job because he's a "yes'' man for Komets management, or that he was the easiest pick with the least amount of work.
They don't know Graham, at least not yet.
"People don't realize how hard he has worked and how many dues he has paid,'' Rigler said. "They think it was handed to him because he worked here for a while. They don't know all the hours and the dedication he put in.''
The Komets didn't make the playoffs last year, so they asked Graham to come in and help them start over. It's an overwhelming task with 8,000 of the Fort Wayne-native's closest friends looking on to judge every move he makes and every word he says, and with many saying how they'd do things differently. There's 61 years of expectations bearing down on Graham.
The thing is, it's probably not even the hardest coaching job he's taken on. This one might not even make the top four.
Graham, now 34, got his first head coaching job at age 21, leading his brother-in-law's house league pee-wee team of 12-year-olds at McMillen Park Ice Arena to a championship. Fort Wayne High School Hockey Association president Bill Miller noticed how the former North Side defenseman was doing and called the next year.
"He knew as the season went along I was catching the bug,'' Graham said. "During that offseason he calls me one day out of the blue. He goes, 'What do you think about coaching high school hockey?' and I said, 'Don't you have anybody more qualified than that?'''
Nobody wanted the job because the Snider team was in complete disarray, the black sheep of Fort Wayne after getting kicked out of the state tournament the year before. Miller just wanted Graham to meet with team parents who said they didn't care as much about wins as much as they did about discipline.
After winning two games the previous season, the Panthers built a winning record, tied for third in the league and played well enough to play in the Class 2A state championship game. The next year the Panthers won the city title, losing two games all season.
"Once I got into high school coaching, that's when the passion started,'' Graham said. "It was all about spending money on video equipment, buying DVDs and going to coaching clinics so I could learn. That's when it got nuts for me, and it's really never changed since then. That was the defining moment because every year I wanted more. I wanted to move to a higher level, teach more advanced things and learn at a more rapid pace.''
Rigler, his former North Side coach, helped by using Graham as his assistant on Team Indiana. Rigler let him design drills, run practices, dissect video and do whatever he could handle.
Graham left Snider to work with the junior Indiana Ice in 2006-07, finishing one win away from a national tournament. He came back to coach North Side the next year. The Redskins had been a last-place team the previous season but lost only one game the entire season before falling to Homestead in the city championship. Because North Side had more than 15 penalties in the semifinal, Graham and two of his best players were suspended for the title game.
"I'm still mad about that one,'' Graham said. "If there's one loss in my career ... When I talk to the guy who reffed that game, I always tell him I'm still ticked off about that city championship.''
That summer he asked Komets captain Guy Dupuis if he could arrange a meeting with Fort Wayne coach Al Sims. Graham volunteered to be the Komets' assistant coach, along with coaching a AAA Midget Major team in Indianapolis. Twice a week after the Komets' morning practice, he'd drive to Indianapolis for evening practices, then drive back down on the weekends for the bus trips to road games. He worked more than 100 games that year.
That was the second year of the Komets' International Hockey League three-peat. He stayed for three more years, helping the Komets win two more titles.
Then he earned his first pro coaching chance with Pensacola of the Southern Professional Hockey League. Despite advancing to the playoff finals, the Ice Flyers wanted to start over, which Graham did immediately by not inviting captain Dan Buccella to return. A month into the season, Graham released star goaltender Steve Christie.
Then his best eight players got called up to the ECHL during the NHL lockout. Graham kept the Ice Flyers competing for first place, even convincing Buccella to return. When everyone came back, Pensacola tore through the playoffs to win the title.
Less than two months later, he was back in Fort Wayne to start another rebuilding job.
"I look at this opportunity as there are a bunch of guys coming in from all different organizations, and we have to make them all jell together and become a family quick,'' he said. "I'm completely comfortable with it. I've done it a million times.''