FORT WAYNE — Without Ken Ullyot, there would be no Fort Wayne Komets. In his early days with the hockey team, he saved it from folding because of debt, and later on he saved the entire International Hockey League.
He went on to become arguably the greatest coach and general manger in franchise history, and he also owned the team, which is now in its 62nd season.
On Thursday, Ullyot died at 92.
“Ken was a great guy,” Komets majority owner Stephen Franke said. “I grew up in his era, and he was the foundation of my love for Komet hockey.
“Ken told me when we bought the franchise: ‘Savor the wins and when you wake up the next morning, you’ll still be excited. Forget about the losses before you go to bed.’ It has been good advice for 24 years.”
Ullyot, who first joined the Komets in 1958, won 264 games in three stints behind the bench until 1970. He ranks third in franchise victories behind Al Sims (437) and Greg Puhalski (271). He coached the Komets to the IHL’s 1963 Turner Cup. He won the 1965 Cup as general manager and the 1973 Cup as owner.
In 1997, The Hockey News selected Ullyot as the IHL’s greatest general manager, and the Western Conference trophy in the now-defunct IHL was named after him.
Komets broadcaster Bob Chase, who is in his 61st season, said Ullyot changed the way the Komets recruited players and that his methods spread throughout the original IHL, in which the Komets played until 1999.
“He was a fresh breath of air when it came to having access to talented players. He knew a lot of other coaches in junior hockey, especially in Western Canada, and it helped other teams in this league who didn’t have channels to getting good hockey players like that,” Chase said.
But Ullyot’s biggest contributions may have been off the ice.
“When he got here, he realized the Fort Wayne franchise was in very, very bad condition. They owed everybody everything that hoped to make for several years,” said Chase, adding that after one early game with Ullyot, federal officers came to seize all the Komets’ money made that night
“He didn’t realize how bad the financial condition was. And when he brought in someone he knew in Colin Lister (to be the business manager), it gave him someone he could trust.”
Eventually, Ullyot saved the entire IHL, which was once considered the best league outside of the National Hockey League. The Komets now play in the ECHL.
“Once he got this franchise on its feet – he brought in good players who excited the people, like John Ferguson – and they started to pay the bills, Ken realized other teams who had financial difficulties might fold up,” Chase said. “He put a lot of his personal money in several teams in this league to keep them afloat. They were down to five teams at one point and he was paying part of the salary for two teams. Had it not been for that foresightedness, they would have not been able to keep the IHL going.”
The Komets retired jersey No. 58 in honor of Ullyot.
“If not for Ken Ullyot, this franchise would never be where it is today with the on-ice success and players making their homes in Fort Wayne after retirement,” Komets general manager David Franke said. “Ken was the best coach the Komets had in their 62-year history. He not only kept the Komets going but also helped save the IHL on many occasions. The Franke family has been proud to keep the tradition going that Ken started back in 1958.”
Ullyot was saddened by the demise of the original IHL, caused by exorbitant travel costs because it expanded throughout North America in the 1980s and ’90s.
“It’s hard for me to understand how any minor-league sport can fly from one coast to the other,” said Ullyot, who had predicted the league’s downfall.
Funeral arrangements have not yet been made.